About as far as you can get from Aotearoa’s rural heartland, a new breed of farmers are rethinking the way we grow.
At the heart of that shitshow of an Auckland city confluence where Symonds St, New North Rd, Khyber Pass and Newton Rd come together, observant passers-by will notice an unlikely thing. Amid the multiple lanes, the carparks, the apartment buildings and the takeaway joints, there’s something different. Something unexpected.
Google Maps will tell you it’s a nightclub called OMG. While that indeed would be a good name for a nightclub, Mr Google is mistaken in this instance: OMG stands for organic market garden. We’re talking bees, rather than beats.
“It’s basically biological farming that not only grows really good food for us, but for the soil and all the pollinators as well,” explains gardener Levi Brinsdon-Hall, who runs the show.
“What we do is grow food at a greater scale and a greater density, with diversity as well. It’s basically biological farming that not only grows really good food for us – healthy, nutritious food – but also grows really good food for the soil and really good food for all the pollinators.”
OMG is part of For the Love of Bees, an Auckland Council-funded project that its instigator, artist Sarah Smuts-Kennedy, designed as a social sculpture to invite Aucklanders to imagine their city is the safest space in the world for bees. “We use bees as the magnet for ecosystem thinking, because people are much more open to thinking about bees than they are, say, soil biology,” she explains.
“The primary concern for bees is lack of habitat and the quality of that habitat, so there’s the growing of more foraging habitat and then there’s insuring that that habitat is basically free of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides.”
The group took on the sloping 600 square metre space on Symonds St at the end of last year. “Two months before Christmas, it was an empty site,” says Smuts-Kennedy. It had been used for different community activities in the past, but she saw the potential to do much more.
Brinsdon-Hall came on board and since December has spent more than 700 hours transforming the site into the thriving garden it is today, with over 1000 hours of help from volunteers. The garden is enabled by City Rail Link, the government/Auckland Council project, and poster placement company/arts supporter Phantom Billstickers, with some funding from Waitematā Local Board.
“In a very short space of time we’ve transformed what was a meadow full of rocks and rubble and grass. There were, like, 10 different species that existed on this plot, and now there are over 100,” Brinsdon-Hall says. “We call this regenerative farming practice – the idea of taking a site of soil and bringing its life force back to it.
“We want to inspire the shift for all these vacant lots and for all the communities that are already out there doing these projects – community gardens, farming, growing vegetables, making productive ecological habitats for the benefit of life,” he adds.
“We want to prove that it’s a possible thing to do – take a small bit of land and turn it very rapidly into a productive piece of land. We believe that this is a really good model that solves a lot of problems we’re currently facing.
“One of the main problems is that this is a very densely developed area – we’ve got apartments everywhere, and people go home to cook in their apartments but there’s nowhere to get fresh produce around here.”
To that end, members of the public can buy produce direct from the garden on Tuesday mornings, and hopefully they’ll soon be selling at the weekend too. Depending on the season, the garden grows everything from eggplants, tomatoes, turnips and chillies to daikon radish, pak choi and kohlrabi, plus lettuce greens galore. Brinsdon-Hall is close to selling enough to cover his wage, and by summer, they are confident the site will be fully self-sustainable in terms of at least one, possibly two living wages.
OMG also works closely with chefs who use the garden’s produce in their restaurants – the likes of Sid Sahrawat across the road at The French Cafe, Fraser McCarthy from Lillius around the corner, Samir Allen from Gemmayze Street over on K Rd, and a host of chef-run pop-ups.
“Chefs go crazy for it – they basically just take everything, they love it,” says Brinsdon-Hall.
“Their enthusiasm has been there for a long time – they go to great lengths to find fresh, local produce that actually has flavour to it, and a good story is really important as well. I see them as being a gateway to culture: food is culture, and you’re reaching a different audience through those restaurants.”
Smuts-Kennedy describes OMG as “climate change-ready infrastructure” on account of 10 values it adheres to, including carbon sequestration, biodiversity, air filtration, water retention, turning food scraps into a carbon resource through composting (the garden takes all The French Cafe’s waste), and heat sinks. She says it’s cooler in the garden than across the road, and envisages having an OMG every one kilometre throughout the city. “Then you’re starting to change the climate of the city.”
The aim is for OMG to be a teaching hub. “One of the things that would enable this to roll out across the city is human capital, literally the knowledge of how to do it,” says Smuts-Kennedy. “How many people in Auckland at the moment know how to run a farm like this? Who is going to help us get the funding to train 25 people in the next year so that we can have 25 farms and then create a system where those 25 people are training 10 people each over the next 12 months?” she asks.
“The average age of a farmer in the world at the moment is 65 years and the access to land is out of reach of most of our young people who want to be farmers,” she says. “We could actually provide a pathway to employment in the cities where we live, because we want them to be growing us safe food today, tomorrow and in 20 years’ time.
“I’m looking at this as a system that will give us security for 200 years. We could build our soil systems so that in 200 years’ time they’re better than they were before our forests were chopped down.
“Within three years we could have this totally handled, but it’s going to take a vision and it needs to be a cohesive vision. We know that there are 100 community gardens in Auckland – how could they as quickly as possible become climate change-ready infrastructure, and then what are the other sites that could be accessed to have one every one kilometre?”
OMG has to become self-sustaining, which hinges on the amount of food it can produce – and what kind. Smuts-Kennedy is adamant it can’t become “a lettuce farm”. “All the models for working on an acre now that are profitable are around producing lettuce,” she says. “And we could do that – we’d love to be profitable and we need to be profitable, but we’re going to make a stand and look at what other carbohydrates and proteins we can grow, because you cannot feed the world on lettuce.”
She wants to step back from OMG and replace herself as project manager in the near future. “I will continue to work at a high level as the vision holder and also continue to come and say ‘we’re not a lettuce farm’, to keep us on track. My job really at the moment is about growing the engine.”
But there’s also the rather pressing problem of OMG’s lease ending in October. “Then we are going to be month-to-month praying. We’d like to find another site. Do a callout – who in the community has the skillset to help us find other pieces of land and would like to become part of our community? Who wants to join in this adventure? For The Love of Bees is nobody, it’s just whoever shows up. And whoever shows up the most is For The Love of Bees.”
Near the busy intersection on the border of Wellington’s CBD and the suburb of Mt Victoria, across the road from the imposing Embassy Theatre, at the bottom of the curiously named Majoribanks Street (apparently correctly pronounced Marsh’banks, but only posh people said it thus when I was growing up in Wellington), the eagle-eyed will spot a small red sign reading Shoots Microgreens.
Descend the stairs to beneath street level and you’ll enter a low-ceilinged, purple-lit room filled with rack upon rack of trays of little shoots reaching up towards the lights above. Once a nightclub/music venue named Sandwiches, it’s now Shoots, a hydroponic urban farm that supplies eateries around the capital.
Twenty-something different varieties of microgreens and herbs grow here: lemon balm, radish, nasturtium, dill, coriander, pak choi, rainbow beets, shiso and five different types of basil to name just a few.
“We take our cues from chefs in terms of what they’re after,” says Shoots founder Matthew Keltie, “but some plants just aren’t going to grow in that situation, while others do really well. So we’re trying to balance our experience of what grows in the system well and what chefs are interested in.”
Keltie, an agronomist who has worked for Pāmu (aka farming SEO Landcorp) for some years, has had recent success with the oyster plant – which tastes like, yep, you guessed it, an oyster.
“It’s an extremely hard plant to grow and I’be talked to a few people who ended up giving up,” he says. “I’m pretty stoked – in the last 12 to 18 months the most exciting thing for me in the garden has been understanding how that plant survives and flourishes, and it’s only happened in the last few weeks.”
Shoots had its inception a couple of years ago in Keltie’s garage, where he and his business partner began experimenting with hydroponics. “We discovered that a garage in the middle of winter in Wellington wasn’t the ideal place for it, but we learnt enough to understand that there was something here we could explore.”
They moved into the Majoribanks St space about a year ago, and have been supplying local restaurants since. “Some days it’s one step forward and about five back, but other days we have things work and it goes extremely well,” says Keltie.
“It has been a learning process, some days we’ve really struggled. For every solution you find you create two more problems. All the inputs overlap each other so you can’t change one thing without it having an influence on another.
“But we’re at the stage where we’re able to produce really consistent plants of high quality, taste and colour and texture.”
It’s true: the taste is intense, each leaf a flavour bomb exploding in your mouth. That’s all down to understanding the philosophy of hydroponics, says Keltie. “Hydroponics is designed to give the plants what they need for however long they need, but it’s also about tailoring to individual plants so the light spectrum, the timing, the nutrients, is different for each variety. We’ve got them grouped at the moment but we’re getting down to the stage where each variety will have its own recipe to maximise potential.”
No wonder chefs have jumped on board, and Shoots now supplies 50+ cafes, restaurants and bars in the capital – the likes of near-neighbours Ortega Fish Shack and Capitol, as well as Shed5, Floriditas, Hanging Ditch and Havana to name just a handful. “The really exciting thing is because we don’t have any seasons, we’re able to produce some plants that people wouldn’t otherwise have access to,” says Keltie.
Orders are delivered to customers via a three-wheeled battery-assisted bike with a wooden box on the front that holds multiple trays of micro greens, “so we can get from garden to kitchen in the shortest time possible”, he explains.
“We’re growing close to market so we don’t have freight or food miles, and we’re using unused space where we can yield four times as much as what we can in a paddock,” he says. “So we tick a fair few boxes around sustainability.”
In the future, he wants to work on the energy efficiency of the lights – “we’re talking about running it off batteries and having a wind turbine on the roof” – and reusing the trays the plants are grown and delivered in, and is in talks with wholesalers about expanding that side of the business.
He’s also keen to try his hand at other cities. “I know in Wellington we can cover a fair chunk of the city on a bike, but I don’t know the practicalities of doing it in Auckland,” she says. “But picking up our recipe in terms of racks of plants and how we do things, we could apply that pretty quickly.”