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Urban Ag Dispatch from London: Farming a Building in Hackney

(My friend Craille lives in Hackney, a neighbourhood in London. She's an accomplished and smart writer working on a big, cool writing project on geographic promiscuity and the pathological need to travel, The Modern Nomad. On her way to her office, she passes by an urban farm/ing shop and has sent me photos from time to time. This past weekend, she attended a workshop on urban agriculture this past weekend and is guest blogging for me about it. I LOVE having foreign correspondents on!)

By Craille Maguire Gillies

photo: Craille Maguire Gillies

On a recent sweltering Sunday in London, one of few in the UK this year, I visited KXFS, or King’s Cross Filling Station, on the edge of Regent’s Canal. KXFS is a one-time petrol station that has been converted to a restaurant (Shrimpy’s) and a pizza bar.

The weekend I visited, a stage, seating and a large screen had been set up to host a small festival devoted to all things science. I was there to hear a talk about urban agriculture by artist Andrew Merritt, one third of the London’s creative studio Something & Son. They’ve worked with the Victoria & Albert Museum, the British Council, and the London Architecture Festival. They’re also the folks behind FARM:shop, a retail store and urban farm housing in a former women’s refuge in East London. Through the windows you can see hydroponic greens and basil and when I’ve wandered by I’ve always been curious about what goes on inside. A bearded, T-shirt-clad Merritt came to super/collider’s festival at KXFS to fill us in.

Image from tagline adopted by FARM:shop, which opened in 2011, is “growing as much as we can in a shop in Hackney, London.” Specifically, they renovated a four-storey building, including the basement. “We wanted to farm the whole building,” Merritt told us. That means chickens on the roof where London’s foxes can’t catch them, a wall of hydroponic basil, tanks with 40 tilapia, a freshwater fish (great because they reproduce in tight spaces and are highly immune to disease), and mushrooms. A ground-floor café and co-working desk space bring in extra cash.

The goal has been to not only experiment with how much space you need to create a sustainable urban farm (Merritt estimates 2,000-square-metre), but also to involve the community in the venture and raise consciousness around food in the city. Though they try to be as efficient as possible, the true goal, says Merritt, is “to show the realities of where your food is coming from.” Something & Son describes itself as an eco-social design studio, and many of its projects, such as a new affordable bathouse/spa in the suburb of Barking, are as much social projects as art projects.

There’s another goal at FARM:shop. It opened thanks to an arts grant (which can be a great way to fund social and eco projects, says Merritt); now it employs two people. That means that Something & Son is thinking not only about the best way to, say, kill aphids (parasitic wasps seem to do the trick), but also to make community projects like FARM:shop or the Barking Bathhouse sustainable businesses. “We need to balance the commercial side [of urban agriculture], which New York City does really well with the local growing side, which London does really well,” Merritt said as smoke from the pizza oven curled upward.

The roof over the former filling station protected us from a brief bout of thunder and lighting. A barge floated down Regent’s Canal as Merritt spoke, and we were surrounded by concrete and cranes and buildings. Slowly, as funding comes along, Something & Son is rolling out satellite projects around the city and it plans to bring FARM:shops to in-between spaces throughout the UK. Looking up at the brick buildings on the other side of the canal, just sitting empty, it was easy to imagine how, when it comes to urban ag in London, the sky’s the limit.

Andrew Merritt talks urban ag at the Super/Collider festival Aug 17-19, 2012Photo: Craille Maguire Gillies Andrew Merritt, FARM:shop talks urban farming at the Super/Collider festival London, Aug 17-19, 2012. Photo: Craille Maguire Gillies


The Importance of Urban Agriculture on Global News Toronto this morning

Here I am talking about the global movement of urban agriculture and why growing food in cities matters on this morning's news in Toronto. (Watch directly on the Global Toronto site, or in the little screen below. The direct link to the site has a clearer picture.)


Urban Honey from The Fairmont Royal York Hotel, Toronto

Toronto downtown, view from my roomI'm back in Toronto at the moment. I'll be on Global TV morning news around 7:30 a.m. EST, then I've got some meetings around town. I also hope to visit a couple of urban agriculture projects that I wrote about in the book.

One of the first interviews I did for my book, in fact, was my friend David Garcelon, executive chef at the Fairmont Royal York and pioneer rooftop beekeeper. David's honeybee hives were the first in the Fairmont chain, which now has hives at several of its properties. (And David is now the Director of Culinary at the Waldorf Astoria in NYC. And yes, there are bees on the rooftop there now too.) Here's my post about David's bees from the Foodgirl blog archives from 2010.

The bees at the Fairmont Royal York are on the 14th storey rooftop and they forage on the rooftop herb garden and well beyond.

Upon check-in, I received a lovely little gift of a jar of the Sept 2011 Royal York honey. It's very dark, like buckwheat honey. I haven't tasted it yet, but will when I get it back home safe and sound.

Harvested Sept 2011 from the hives on the rooftop of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, Toronto, Ontario



Todmorden, UK, an Edible City and the Rise of "Vegetable Tourism"

I read an article about Todmorden, a city near Manchester in the UK, in 2009, when the city announced that it would strive to become self-sufficient in vegetables. It launched an ambitious project, which was called the Incredible Edible Todmorden.

I didn't have time to visit this city as I was writing Food and the City, but I still want to visit someday soon. I'm not the only one apparently. Todmorden is now a Vegetable Tourism destination. They have had incredible success with their open-concept to just plant food everywhere, in both public and private spaces.

The TED talk by Pam Warhurst, café owner and chair of the Incredible Edible Tormorden project, has just been released. I want to shake this woman's hand. And I love some of the great sound bites from the talk -- from the creation of Vegetable Tourism, to "We have sprouting cemetaries -- the soil is extremely good," to the fact that "we done it all without a flippin strategy document!" Ha. Bravo Todmorden.

Watch the Pam Warhurst: How we can eat our landscapes.


Urban Ag book talk and signing in Kingston, Ontario Mon Aug 13 @ 7 p.m.

The good people at the Kingston Frontenac Public Library have organized a book talk and signing event for me. Here's the poster. Please tell all your urban gardening friends, urban planners, food security activists and other interested parties. See you in Kingston in less than a week!