UP THE WALL
The FARM-TO-PLATE movement is heading into CITIES, thanks to a Melbourne-based START-UP.
We are living in a city that’s not only foodie-focused, but also loves to be trendy,” explains Melbourne entrepreneur, Geert Hendrix. “The current trend is that people want to know where their food comes from, how long it took to get there, and if there’s ways to make it more sustainable. But it was tricky for city chefs to get involved as they had a smaller space to play with.”
It’s not very often a culinary trend is born in regional Australia before winding its way from the countryside into the kitchens of our major cities. But with the farm-to-table movement, it’s been the city chefs who are playing catch-up as regional restaurateurs relish their spacious grounds being transformed into small farms.
That was, until recently. In early 2018, those chowing down at trendy Melbourne eatery Higher Ground were enjoying herbs and micro-greens grown inside the property.
Higher Ground was quickly followed by Australia’s first underground urban farm, birthed in a carpark beneath Sydney’s bustling George Street. Office workers at the Mirvac building now pick their own salad leaves at lunch, and a salad bar has opened in the office
lobby. And it’s all thanks to Farmwall, the start-up created by Geert and his co-founder Serena Lee, which builds ‘vertical farms’ in cafés and restaurants, enabling them to grow-their-own despite space restrictions.
Although the company started as the brainchild of Geert, there’s also a designer and a sustainable architect on the payroll. In January, 2016, they met in the back of an Uber that Geert was driving after quitting his six-figure sales job.
“I had a bit of a burnout,” says Geert. “I’d been in sales of beer for about 10 years and was just over it. I made a decision about wanting to do something that I loved and made a sacrifice of a wage. I started telling the story of this urban farm to everyone I met in the Uber. So many of the people I met at that time are now key to the development of Farmwall.”
His initial plan was to build one urban farm with an adjoining restaurant and space for holistic wellness, including yoga and meditation. But, when priced up it came to AU$15 million. “I didn’t quite have enough savings to cover even a small percentage of that,” he laughs.
Instead, when talking to his new collaborators, he tweaked his business pitch. How could they scale it down so they could start tomorrow? “We decided that, instead of it being one big restaurant with an urban farm, we’d scale it down and put it in a lot of restaurants,” he recalls.
The team spent the next 12 months crowdfunding and, by October, 2017, they’d collected AU$30,000 – enough to create the first three farm walls and purchase a 1000-square-metre plot of land in Alphington, a few kilometres outside of Melbourne’s CBD. The barren space has since been transformed into an urban farm, with offices for Farmwall’s staff, who are also moonlighting as the start-up’s urban farmers. They germinate all the seeds onsite, growing them in natural hemp, until the produce is ready to be delivered to the Farmwall.
“It means that the Farmwall always looks full and flourishing,” says Geert. “Each restaurant can customise the content of the interchangeable trays within their vertical farm.”
Before Farmwall, Melbourne eateries
The current TREND is that people want to KNOW where their FOOD COMES FROM and how long it took to get there.
had ‘micro-greens’ delivered, but they arrived in kitchens in non-recyclable plastic containers, filled with around 70 per cent soil. Chefs were finding it messy, inconvenient and, most of all, expensive. “With Farmwall, the chefs can just pull the micro-greens out of the hemp, or cut them, and the hemp is fully compostable,” says Geert. “There’s no mess and it’s very easy to deal with.”
The start-up is run on a subscription model that is quoted relative to size and content. There’s also an app which allows chefs to easily pick and choose the produce they want. Next, there are plans to introduce an onsite aquaponics farming system.
“I’ve always been very interested in building eco-systems, ever since I was a young boy,” says Geert. “Then, when it came to Farmwall, every time I googled aquaponics, it was Dr Wilson Lennard’s name which popped up. When I got in contact, he was so impressed with what we were talking about, he wanted to be involved. He’s now a founding member.”
As well as the expansion into aquaponics, Farmwall are also looking at their future expansion. “One day, we even see the Farmwall sitting in a supermarket, with customers cutting away what they want and purchasing the freshest produce possible,” he says. “But for now, we’re happy helping inner-city restaurants and offices join thefarm-to-table movement.”