On an autumn afternoon in a sunny Thornbury backyard 24-year-old Lucille Kelly and 26-year-old Pippa Arnold are at work. Kelly is harvesting salad mix, beans and brassicas while Arnold is walking around watering the garden beds. 

They are the soon-to-be CEOs of Strettle St Market Garden. Under the Federal Government employment program New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (NEIS) the pair are undertaking a five-week business course, launching the market garden they started as a summer project into a registered business.

Last August the pair, along with seven of their friends, began meeting for fortnightly dinners. Kelly told The Citizen they were all feeling “frustrated” with Australia’s highly industrialised food system but “upset with themselves for not doing anything about it”. 

Strettle St Market Garden in Thornbury (image: Jess Malcolm)

A report by the Eat-Lancet Commission released in January said global food production was the single largest driver of environmental degradation. With population levels predicted to reach ten billion people by 2050, scientists are pushing for a radical and immediate transformation of the global food system. 

For Kelly and Arnold, their mission began when they secured a plot of land from some friends who were willing to sacrifice part of their backyard for the project. They created a well-researched master plan guided by permaculture principles and then began to plant.

“Through our Instagram we got a really good response”, Arnold said. Over the summer they successfully sold weekly fruit and vegetable boxes to members of their community. 

Kelly said at the start she saw the venture as “an opportunity to practise [their] growing skills and try out a few different techniques”. But more than that, they wanted to offer an alternative to shopping at mainstream supermarkets. 

Scientists have also warned against modern industrial agriculture destroying global biodiversity, outlined in a UN report published a few weeks before 22 May, the UN International Day for Biological Diversity. It said that a drastic loss of biodiversity would impact human life severely if it was not prevented immediately.

The UN report recommended rooftop gardens, urban farming and agriculture, and investment in native vegetation cover in urban and peri-urban areas as some key measures to protect biodiversity. 

Strettle St Market Garden is just one of many examples of urban and community gardens which are becoming more popular, a sign that Australians are taking environmental matters into their own hands.

Skyfarm, a new project on a 2000-square-metre carpark rooftop in Docklands, is urban farming on a larger scale. Set to be open in 2020, it will consist of a demonstration farm, sustainability education centre, design hub, and cafe. 

The project’s co-director Brendan Condon says there will be “rapid growing food insecurity with climate change in coming decades, through extreme weather patterns that are happening with broadacre agriculture out in regional areas … Cities really need to grow food in city limits”, he said. 

Team at Biofilta harvesting crops in their carpark (Image: supplied by Biofilta)

Condon and his team at Biofilta, the urban farming company behind the project, ran a pop-up test farm in two unused car spaces at their office in Port Melbourne. In just six months they grew over 300 kilograms of fruit and vegetables, which is the recommended yearly intake of fresh produce for two healthy adults, according to the World Health Organisation.

Condon said Skyfarm will educate people, especially young students, on the importance of biodiversity in urban environments through “installations like micro bat habitats, bee hotels, and insectariums”.

Artist’s impression of Skyfarm (image: supplied by Biofilta)

Brooklyn Grange, a world-leading rooftop farm located in New York City, was the inspiration for Skyfarm, according to Condon. Consisting of two rooftops it collectively produces 22 thousand kilograms of organic produce annually. This summer it will open its third rooftop in Sunset Park.

Leading expert from the University of Melbourne’s Green Infrastructure Research Group (GIRG) Professor John Rayner said that “green roofs can help cities adapt to climate change but they need to be part of a comprehensive green infrastructure strategy”.

The City of Melbourne, like many cities globally, is also investing heavily in such initiatives. It has developed a metropolitan forest strategy alongside a ‘Greening our Rooftops’ program to help achieve the environmental benefits of urban greening.

It is also collaborating with Biofilta in a University of Melbourne study now underway investigating urban agriculture’s role in resilient food systems. According to their website they aim “to create a dataset which will allow urban agriculture to be looked at in the context of its role in cities and food supply resilience both now and into a climate change affected future”.

While large-scale projects are important, market gardeners Kelly and Arnold want Strettle St “to be a model for what people or groups of friends could do” and “motivate people who are living in the city who think they can’t do anything to realise that with a bit of initiative and commitment, they actually can”.

Originally written for The Citizen as part of coursework for my Master of Journalism


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