UP THE WALL

The FARM-TO-PLATE move­ment is head­ing into CITIES, thanks to a Mel­bourne-based START-UP.

Collective Hub - - TECH - WORDS AMY NELMES BIS­SETT

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.”

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