Public Works: Urban Farming in Your Own Backyard
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Public Works: Urban Farming in Your Own Backyard

Fresh fish, fruits, and vegetables grown right in the city, thanks to Switzerland's UrbanFarmers.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

A rendering of an UrbanFarmers rooftop greenhouse. Image courtesy of UrbanFarmers.

A rendering of an UrbanFarmers rooftop greenhouse. Image courtesy of UrbanFarmers.

Enjoying access to fresh, organic produce is often a luxury of the affluent and suburban. Despite the rising popularity of community gardens and farmers’ markets, scores of inner-city neighbourhoods across North America lack easy access to anything beyond fast food chains and corner stores. Add to that the high cost (both financial and ecological) of tending, harvesting, and shipping agricultural products from rural farms to city-dwelling consumers, and getting decent food onto city tables seems like no easy task. In Europe, though, where daily access to fresh food is a matter of doctrine, the practice of urban farming is being embraced by foodies, businesses, and environmentalists alike.

In 2011, a Swiss duo—eco-technology expert Andreas Graber and food and health industry entrepreneur Roman Gaus—formed UrbanFarmers, a company dedicated to helping city-dwellers raise their own fresh fruits, fish, and vegetables practically within their own homes, and all without the use of chemical pesticides, antibiotics, or high levels of water and energy consumption. UrbanFarmers is in the business of aquaponics—a practice that combines fish-farming with hydroponic plant growth. How does it work? Well, the plants extract nutrients from the water, filtering it for the fish in the process. Meanwhile, waste produced by the fish is converted by water-dwelling bacteria into nitrate fertilizer for the plants. This symbiotic arrangement replaces the need for artificial fertilizers, electric filtration, and water replacement. UrbanFarmers estimates that aquaponics uses 90 per cent less water than traditional fish-farming techniques. And the company’s aquaponics systems can be contained in greenhouses atop roofs and in backyards in any typical city—they are being marketed to supermarkets, hotels, restaurants, small grocery stores, and plain old regular citizens.

UrbanFarmers has already received grants and technology development partnerships from the likes of World Wildlife Fund and ZHAW University of Applied Sciences.  And the pilot projects have demonstrated the potential for aquaponics farms of any scale. The first, “The Box” in Zürich, is a showcase of small-scale urban farming suited to a backyard. The 18–square metre greenhouse facility is currently being tended by Grade 5 students at Zürich International School—proof that you don’t have to be a technical mastermind to make an aquaponics farm work. There’s also an UrbanFarmers-made Box farm being independently run in Berlin, and a massive aquaponics facility, nicknamed “The Times Square of Urban Agriculture,” due to launch in March in The Hague.

Last year, UrbanFarmers expanded into Basel, Switzerland, with UF001 LokDepot, a 250–square metre rooftop greenhouse capable of producing five tons of vegetables and 850 kilograms of fish each year. UF001 is UrbanFarmers’s first commercial farm, and sells its yield to some of the city’s leading restaurants.

Graber and Gaus aren’t merely selling the technology and equipment for aquaponics: they’re selling the practice as a whole. Their company provides its customers with all the training, maintenance, and technical know-how they need to operate an aquaponic system. Their blog even offers you the chance to sign up for recipes you can make with ingredients grown by aquaponics. The blog’s in German, but all the same, die fotos sind schön. Uh, like, the photos are nice.

Here in Toronto, we seem poised to become urban farming fanatics. Hobbyists and high-school science teachers have glommed onto aquaponics in small numbers, but a commercial aquaponics enterprise focused on vegetable production is slated to open up at Downsview Park later this year. The City has committed to the practice of green roofs (covering a building’s top in living vegetation of all kinds), and with young green thumbs already venturing into rooftop produce, how long can it be before fruits and vegetables (and maybe even fish) are on top of apartments and office towers all across town?