“You’ll never plough a field by turning it over in your mind” — an old Irish saying that Dixie, my grandfather, would shout when he’d catch me daydreaming instead of working in his little market garden. As a young boy I would think up ways to improve his methods and, in turn, make my work easier. Some of my early field tests worked, others destroyed his beloved crops — I was a curious kid, what can I say?
Although it’s good to plan what you wish to accomplish in your mind, you still have to go out and begin taking the steps toward putting your plan into action. Dixie’s garden is long gone, a three storey supermarket car park now occupies the space, but my daydreams are still very much alive and growing.
Urban agriculture can be defined as growing fruits, herbs, and vegetables and raising animals in cities — a process that is accompanied by many other complementary activities such as processing and distributing food, collecting and reusing food waste and rainwater, and educating, organising, and employing local residents. Urban agriculture is integrated into individual communities and neighbourhoods, as well as in the ways that cities function and are managed, including municipal policies, plans, and budgets. The urban agriculture practice of growing and distributing food in a town or city has traditionally been soil-based vegetable growing in market gardens and allotments spread out over the city, worked by part-time growers subsidising their incomes by selling their produce locally.
Currently, reasons for practicing urban farming are similar — earning income through food production — but the ever-increasing demand for land sees these precious little patches of soil all but disappearing. In their place, apartment blocks and high-rise office buildings are constructed. In turn, these small, intensive farming activities are pushed further away from the cities that consume their produce.
With an increased public consciousness when it comes to food – how it’s produced; the associated food miles; and the use of genetically modified seeds, pesticides, fungicides, and petroleum-based fertilisers – both producers and consumers alike are now seeking transparent, local, organic food production models.
According to the United Nations Population Division, by 2050 around 70% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas. Feeding these people will mean increasing our food production through a combination of higher crop yields and an expansion of the area under cultivation — but the additional land available for cultivation is unevenly distributed, much of it suitable for growing only a small variety of crops.
It is now that my daydreams are really being put to the plough.
Through the use of controlled-environment aquaponics (the simultaneous farming of fish and the cultivation of plants in a symbiotic environment) housed on rooftops inside climate-controlled greenhouses, we can produce high-value crops at maximum productivity in an efficient and environmentally friendly way. Aquaponics, the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics, works within a closed loop system, where we feed fish that produce ammonia through their waste products, and we use this nitrate cycle of waste as an organic food source for the growing plants — and thus, the plants provide a natural filter for the water the fish live in, creating a balanced organic cycle.
These greenhouses can avail of natural daylight and supplemented by horticultural light-emitting diodes. The atmosphere is controlled for temperature and humidity, as well as automation of the fish nutrients, pH and EC levels of the water. Relay-controlled pumps recirculate the nutrient rich water between fish tanks and grow beds with a 90% reduction in water consumption compared to soil-based operations. Wi-Fi capability allows constant monitoring from a smart device, with alarm parameters set to ensure instant notifications, and all functions are instrumented which simplifies data collection for crop management.
Someday, we will probably be able to plough fields by just simply thinking about it (with a little help from artificial neurotransmitters). For the moment, I’m happy to check on the garden sensors, feed the fish, irrigate the plants and mostly stay at home daydreaming about mushrooms, all with a few texts from my phone.
Dixie would be amused, and to quote him, “The apple will fall when it’s ripe.”
That time is now.
Andrew Douglas is the creator of Urban Farm, an agricultural startup based in Dublin’s City Centre, and a contributor to Field Test: Radical Adventures In Future Farming, a new exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin.