As Sydney’s dining and shopping scene grows in diversity and sophistication, there’s one very special urban food address that’s intentionally going back to grass roots.
It’s not a rustic restaurant, although it’s aligned with one, and it’s not an organic fruit and veg store, although it sells locally grown, chemical-free produce every Saturday. It’s Sydney’s only working farm, Pocket City Farms, a non-profit plot located on a neglected bowling green in Camperdown that grows and sells its own produce to feed fascinated locals seeking an alternative from supermarket-bought food.
“In cities, we are often disconnected to the origins of food and the effort that goes into growing food,” says the 33-year-old Pocket City Farms general manager, Emma Bowen. “So we wanted to put farming in a place where people can suddenly reconnect with how food is grown again and know where their food comes from.
“Our primary aim is to bring farming into the city and to create food as locally as possible… People can come past and see us growing the food and then come in on a Saturday to our market and buy the food. It’s a real instant connection.”
The new farm, which officially opened around six weeks ago (but took three years to get off the ground), is located near Sydney University, nestled in a side street off the Great Western Highway, and bordered by an art gallery, city park and small Portuguese museum.
The Camperdown Commons plot contains a 1200-square metre market garden growing vegetables, greens and herbs. There’s also a food forest, chicken coop and a 180-square metre area on the public footpath, currently under development, “with fruit trees and other edible paths that people can pick from for free as they’re walking past”.
Volunteers also help out on the land in exchange for practical lessons about the realities of urban farming. Marrickville local, Kirsty Davies, has been volunteering at the farm for a number of months to pursue her passion for ethically grown food and interest in sustainable living.
“Nowadays, food is just big business,” says Davies. “We are so used to going to the supermarkets to get food, not knowing how it was grown. But this farm is visible to the public and it raises awareness about where food comes from.
“The nutritional value in food from the big supermarkets is [often] pretty low. To see the food being grown locally makes you think about where it comes from. It would be great if we could have so much food growing around us that we wouldn’t need to be so reliant on big supermarkets.”
Initially funded by a council grant and $35,000 worth of crowd-funding, the working farm is not to be confused with a community garden. In fact, says Bowen, the target is to evolve the project into a hearty business operating other offshoot ‘pocket farms’ scattered throughout Sydney’s unused spaces.
“We don’t want to be a non-profit that’s always searching for grants,” states Bowen, a former publishing employee. “We want a sustainable business model that can hopefully fund future farms.”
So how does a working farm based in one of Australia’s busiest cities turn a buck? I’m told diverse income streams are key. Food grown is sold to the public at a farm store and to Acre Restaurant, a separate but on-site collaborating business. Yoga classes and gardening-related workshops are also offered on the grounds for a fee, and any funds made from sales of goods or services are then reinvested back into the non-profit.
Organic market farmer and one of the five people behind the initiative, Michael Zagoridis, explains that the group also seeks to purposely educate city dwellers about the ‘business of farming’.
“A lot of people often don’t understand the focus, effort and time it takes to grow good quality food, says Zagoridis, 34, a former graphic designer. “Farmers have to work really hard to get a decent crop out of the land and produce it in a way that is sustainable, both for the soil and financially.
“It’s also important for people in Sydney to know you can have a livelihood out of growing food in the city.
“That’s our aim: to illustrate that in Camperdown. And hopefully, when other plots come along and other farms become available, we will be able to give more people urban farming jobs in the city.”
The City of Sydney also has plans to open a new farm, Sydney City Farm in Sydney Park, St Peters. A City of Sydney spokesperson tells SBS it will be a place for food production, farmers markets, community participation, education, innovation and collaboration. The council is currently in negotiation with a contractor for the farm and construction work is expected to start later this year.
Sydney also has a farm complete with farm animals - the council-run Calmsley Hill City Farm, located in Sydney’s western region of Fairfield, is a popular attraction for families and tourists. It was set up by Fairfield council in 1984.