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quarta-feira, 19 de Outubro de 2011

Big society urban farming project goes hi-tech


Farm shop
Farm:Shop sells eggs from four chickens that live in a coop on the roof.
Farm:Shop in east London draws in the community by hosting 'DIY-style' urban farming and education. Jonathan Knott reports.


"This is quite new for me – I'm learning as I go along," says Kidd, as he explains the 'aeroponic' method he employs to grow food in an upstairs room at Farm:Shop, a new project in Dalston, east London. A former shelter for domestic abuse victims has been renovated to create the venue, showcasing the potential of hi-tech urban farming techniques.
Kidd sprays nutrient solution over some lettuce seedlings in rock wool. "They get so much air that you get explosive root growth," he says. "In the next couple of days, these should really start taking off."
A recovering heroin addict who was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Kidd says that his volunteer work here "helps me loads. It gives me something to think about and keeps my mind occupied."
Eventually, the crops will be taken downstairs and added to the 'aquaponic' system there, where plants are suspended in water nutritionally enriched with the waste products from a neighbouring tank of 80 Tilapia fish.
"It's a closed loop," says Paul Smyth, one of Farm:Shop's co-founders, explaining how the system mimics the efficiency of nature. "You need to add very little water, you don't need to process the fish waste, and you get a free nutrient."
He first discovered aquaponics on YouTube, and stresses that neither he (an engineer), nor his colleagues Andy Merritt (an artist and sculptor) and Sam Henderson (a sociologist) have farming backgrounds. After winning a regeneration grant from Hackney council, their organisation,Something and Son, has sought to replicate the 'DIY culture' of urban farming that they discovered flourishing in the US.
"We're hopefully not too intimidating, since we're learning as well," says Smyth. And Farm:Shop has also aimed to widen its appeal by creating a welcoming and striking space. The venue, which opened in April, serves coffee and food, and hosts music nights and talks. Rooms are rented out for meetings, office space and an after-school club (The Hackney Piratesmade the homegrown pesto on the Farm:Shop cafe menu). Farm:Shop sells eggs from four chickens that live in a coop on the roof, with more produce in a polytunnel behind the shop.
"There's always a sense of amazement when people come in," says Kristen Cheng, who began volunteering at Farm:Shop and now manages the space full time. "It has a real impact visually."
"We wanted it to be a place where people want to come," says Smyth. "And by doing that, we expose it to people who may not otherwise have been interested."
Farm shopFarm:Shop serves coffee and food, and hosts music nights and talks.
Some 40 volunteers renovated the space at weekends from July last year, and around 10 currently work at Farm:Shop. About half are unemployed – though some have used the experience to then find paid work.
In a possible manifestation of the "big society", expertise has come from a range of quarters, including a specialist aquaponics company and a Hackney decorating business, but also local residents with experience of growing cannabis. "They just come in and tell us what we're doing wrong," says Smyth.
Visitors are always keen to ask questions and share their own stories, with one effect being to "flush out a lot of urban farming that is going on already".
"A taxi driver came in just to tell us how he was growing carp in his garden to sell to the Jewish market," says Smyth. "A woman from a council estate down the road came in who wanted help setting up rooftop quail farm."
A moderately sized rooftop could comfortably house 100 quails, he says, generating up to £8,000 annually. Selling food from small producers like this is part of Farm:Shop's medium-term plan – but they also want to set up larger London outposts and social franchises in other cities, providing full-time jobs. "The perfect site would be an old Woolworths," he says, and even envisages food "picked to order in an Argos-type system".
As well as sustainability, simplifying the supply chain is also about food security and better value, says Charlotte Appleton, another Farm:Shop volunteer who studied an aquaponics course in Anglesey, and is now developing her own aquaponic farm at home. "If you buy imported tomatoes, you'll find that the transportation is most of the cost. That's crazy."
Smyth sees Farm:Shop as joining an emerging movement that "pulls the rug from under systems that don't exist for most people's benefit", and says the space's value is that it acts as a natural gathering place, starting discussions rather than preaching.
Jonathan Knott  guardian.co.uk

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