While New Zealand is renowned the world over for its farming systems, with world class food and fibre being exported daily, it’s a little known…
While New Zealand is renowned the world over for its farming systems, with world class food and fibre being exported daily, it’s a little known fact that Urban farming is starting to take off as well.
Urban farming is pretty much what it says on the can. Growing or producing food in a heavily populated area. One doesn’t have to be a business owner growing a product to sell to be an urban farmer. Anyone with a bit of area and a Kiwi can-do attitude can be an urban farmer.
Now more than ever, consumers are wanting to know where their food comes from, the story behind its provenance, and the story of the people producing it. Food security (especially in the future) and climate change are other big factors in our communities today. This poses significant opportunities (and equal challenges) for traditional farmers and growers who farm on large scales; but it also poses some opportunities for urbanites.
While the term urban farming and community garden tend to be used interchangeably in NZ, the essence is still the same; producing food in your own backyard. NZ is home to a number of urban farming groups like the Urban Farmers Alliance ( a national group), Farm Next Door (Taranaki region) to name a few.
While each have their own set of values and purpose, they all have the same key messages. Building local and national food security, using regenerative farming practices and the bringing together of communities. Climate change resilience is a key motivator for all, which is why many urban farms work on regenerative and organic principles.
In partnership with Massey University, Farm Next Door was awarded a $100,000 grant to fund research into the benefits and barriers to ‘hyperlocal community agriculture’. Many involved in urban farming in NZ say that urban farming could provide part of the solution for the vulnerabilities that exist within NZ’s current food system, including the reduction of productive land to residential areas. The idea of urban farms being dotted throughout the country complete with roadside honesty boxes is the goal for many, making food available to entire communities for affordable prices.
For many urban farmers, the regenerative approach is key to the whole system. Working with regenerative agriculture principles within an urban context. While there is still a lot of debate on a national level about the details of regenerative farming, with a lot of people calling for more research to be done on the claimed efficiencies of the system, in a general sense, the principles are simple, and mimic natural ecosystems. Working with the environment. Sun, water, soil, biodiversity and social make up the five key principles of regenerative agriculture. Soil in particular plays a large role in carbon holding and nutrient cycling, a growing topic of importance in traditional agriculture in NZ.
So it makes sense that those interested in urban farming would follow the regenerative route. After all the values align almost perfectly.
Community and people-centered model
This model increases food resilience by introducing more diversity into the system. Many stress that urban farms aren’t a replacement for larger scale producers, quite the opposite. By expanding and strengthening the local ‘food ecosystem’ will only support the nation's export markets and add to their marketing story.
Telling their story aside, urban farms are also a unique way of educating locals about food production and passing on growing knowledge to the next generation. Increasingly people are becoming aware of the big separation we have between paddock and plate. This issue is why there are numerous initiatives in the traditional agriculture industry to get people out on farms. Open Farms NZ is one such initiative which invites farms from across the country, be them dairy, horticulture, beef or so on, to open up their farm gates for a day for locals to visit, learn and get back to their grass roots. Urban farming, in a way, is doing that, but on a smaller scale.
NZ is working on putting its own data together around the influence of urban farms on employment rates, but it’s thought that the data from the US (which suggests that urban farms focusing on local and regional markets employ four times as many FTE staff than farms not engaged in local markets), could hold somewhat true, if not to quite the same extent.
Kiwi’s are renowned for supporting independent and local brands which further supports the urban farming model.
A key component of many of the urban farming groups is collaborative learning and education. Unlike many industries, each urban farm isn’t necessarily viewed as a competitor, rather an ally to work with. The more the merrier - so they say.
With a variety of educational resources on carbon, soil, regenerative practices, organic practices, composting, data collection and more, wanna-be urban farmers have a plethora of tools available.
Organic Market Garden - Auckland
OMG is a collaboration between a number of local businesses which was first set up to show the huge potential of underutilised inner-city spaces to the benefit of the local community.
Locals can purchase a three-month subscription for fresh produce or volunteer in the garden. While being a productive garden that feeds the community, OMG is also about educating people and ‘creating a regenerative food system for Auckland’. Working off a community supported agriculture (CSA) model, they thrive off being part of the community and are working at getting market gardens all across Auckland city.
Freeman Farms - Taranaki
Situated in urban Taranaki, the Freeman family grows over 25 types of fruit and vegetables plus honey and eggs. The farm is part of Farm Next Door and Urban Farmers Alliance and makes a decent living off of the farm.
Kaicycle - Wellington
First established in 2015 Kaicycle is an urban farming and community composting project. It was first started to provide produce to a local smoothie business but has grown to selling to local restaurants. They are also trialing a CSA model.
It runs an ‘ebike-powered food waste collection and composting service’ which services 125 households and businesses. That compost then goes onto the farm to help build soil quality creating a nutrient cycle.
This urban farm functions in conjunction with a local youth programme. Over 25 young people so far have been supported into more positive outcomes (with education, employment and housing) through Cultivate with the aim of helping 12 young people every year. The farm supplies local hospitality businesses.
The above are just a sampling of the urban farms dotted around the country, with interest growing all the time. With NZ’s recent Climate Change Commission report out, it’s likely that more and more urbanites will follow the path of veteran urban farmers in a bid to do their part. Plus, growing food is good for the mind, body and soul.
Vertical farming in NZ - growing up, not out.
Vertical farming, along with urban farming, has become a popular reply to the question of land loss to urban development and population growth.
Vertical farms have popped up in a number of major urban centers. In high rises, derelict buildings and abandoned warehouses, this form of growing crops is reportedly helping to reduce carbon emissions and maximising unused spaces in cities. While similar to urban farms, vertical farms take it one step further. It’s a win win for many cities around the world, like China, that have a high monopoly on space and land use.
Under the system, layer after layer of crops are grown in trays, with mostly everything used being recycled for the next round of growing. The practice often incorporates controlled-environment agriculture to maximise crop yields. The aim of vertical farming in general is to conserve land area, control climatic conditions and maximise unused space. Some overseas believe its a great way of navigating the adverse effects of weather.
But in NZ, with their large focus on outdoor, pastoral farming, is there a need for it? Some say yes, others say no. NZ has some unique features to it, including high levels of sunshine hours and generally good growing conditions.
While it could be a great way for inner-city dwellers to get their green thumb, industry bodies like Horticulture NZ say it wouldn’t work. The problem is more that of current land-use vs land-use suitability. Not to mention the investment needed for start-up costs and urban development issues. Of the few vertical farms around, it's suggested that all have been started up with investors or government funding, with it taking many years for the business to stand on its own legs.
Over the last 20 years, the amount of land available to grow fruit and vegetables in NZ has decreased, while the demand has gone up, and this gap is forecast to get larger. This change in supply and demand prompted many to suggest that vertical farming could offer a solution.
Vertical farming requires the replacement of natural, solar energy to be replaced with artificial lighting, most commonly LED lights, which are cool to the touch and are easier to control or hydroponic lamps. This alone led to the conclusion that the cost of lighting and temperature control would be too expensive, making it an unviable economic option. The limited number of crops able to be grown vertically (mainly leafy greens and herbs) wouldn’t fill the gap that's required by the industry - that is, things like potatoes, rice and corn that are staples for millions.
While it perhaps wouldn’t fit the bill for supporting export demands, there is still the possibility, if economically viable, it could help fill local demand.
There aren’t many vertical farms around in NZ, but the ones that are around are trying to provide proof of concept.
NZ’s very first vertical farm had humble beginnings housed in a former nightclub. The company started its journey in 2018 growing tiny crops mainly for restaurants with some sold through large supermarket chains. Microgreens are intense flavoured first shoots and leaves and are a popular garnish for meals and cocktails.
It’s thought that microgreens can contain up to 100 times more nutrients than fully-grown plants.
The company got investment to install special LED grow lights which conserve around 45% in electricity over hydroponic lamps. The lights are customistables and can be adjusted to optimise the growth of specific varieties of microgreens. They don’t produce heat so vertical layers can be done with no fear of heat damaging plants.
In 2020 the business kicked off a first-of-its-kind system by launching an in-store growing stand complete with automated LED lighting and watering technology in a supermarket. The system allows customers to see the growing of the produce in real time and purchase.
The idea behind the system was to ensure people were taking home produce that was fresh as possible. The business hopes more supermarkets will get on board with the system.
The supporters of vertical farming say that, like urban farms, the idea is not to replace existing horticultural systems, but create new opportunities in the form of retails and tourist experiences, add value, enhance education and provide hyperlocal plant production for affordable prices.
In major cities like Auckland, it can take hours to get out to farms to pick your own produce from the paddock. As the nation's housing crisis seems to keep increasing, much of the country's most productive horticultural and agricultural land is being snapped up and subdivided for residential and lifestyle block builds.
Aside from bringing food production closer to home, the social aspect of vertical farming, and urban farming for that matter, is that it offers opportunities to develop new careers in agriculture. Vertical farming in particular requires a complex knit of disciplines like computers, agronomy, economics, biosecurity, design, marketing - the works.
So, is there a future for vertical farming in NZ? Depends who you talk to. With the success of businesses like Microgreens, there's a very strong argument for yes. However the economics of it, as they currently stand, might delay others in getting onboard the vertical train.