Richard Thomas / Worm Lover
Last time I wrote about a new revolution underway in food production: rooftop farming.
This movement is certainly gaining momentum in the United States. More than 350 roofs in Chicago are wholly or partially covered with vegetation, including a 1860m2 at the Chicago Botanic Garden, with capacity to provide 10,000 servings of fresh vegetables annually.
There is the capacity – and the intention – to expand this rooftop farm to cover 3 acres under cultivation, which would mean that it overtook Brooklyn Grange in New York, currently the largest rooftop farm in the US at 2.5 acres over two roofs in New York City.
As well as the volume and variety of food grown, this type of farming serves a social purpose, with several of the farmers being under-employed ex-offenders; and an environmental benefit, reducing the heat island effect of large city buildings.
In Australia, rooftop farming is very much in its infancy. But it’s begun. Earlier this year, Australia’s first rooftop worm farm was launched on the top of Curtin House, at 252 Swanston St, in the centre of Melbourne.
Made possible by the dedication and commitment of ‘Worm Lover’ Richard Thomas, and the vision and financial backing of the building’s owners, the Mesa Verde restaurant on the 7th floor of 252 Swanston St now has half a dozen specially-made (in New Zealand) ‘Hungry Bins’, with thousands of worms, processing dozens of kilos per week of organic vegetable waste and coffee grounds from the kitchen.
And turning it all into the highest quality worm castings and worm wee, which is then used to fertilise the 30m2 of raised wicking beds that now occupy about an eighth of the building’s roof. Those beds also include many meters of trellising, to permit the growing of beans, peas, cucumbers and other climbing crops.
“Just about anything will grow in this stuff, that’s the beauty of it”, says Richard.
And with the beauty of a closed-loop, zero-waste system, the 30 different varieties of herbs and veggies then go back to the kitchen to appear on customer’s plates.
The project was two years from concept design to implementation and required an investment well in excess of $150,000, which included the fitting of 10 tons of reinforced steel columns in order to reinforce the weight-bearing load of the roof by 30-40 tons, to cope with the extra weight of the wicking beds and the soil.
Funds permitting, the aim is to triple the growing area of the rooftop over the next few years. Rooftop farming in Australia, where, unlike America, buildings were not designed to bear the extra weight load of snow falls, is a complex matter that will require significant investment.
“These guys are visionaries”, Richard says of the owners of Curtin House. “They bought this building when Swanston St was a desert, when the building was derelict, and they saw the potential. They’ve pumped millions into it over the years – it’s the first vertical laneway, the first rooftop cinema. They’re pioneers, which is why they’ve invested in this project, despite the cost and the challenges.”
“In ten years’ time, when everyone’s doing this, they’ll be able to say they were the first. There’s also the food for the restaurant, the amenity for the staff, and the publicity, it’s already attracting a lot of attention in the building”, Richard told us.
It certainly is an impressive sight – one to add on your list of places to see and things to do when you’re next in Melbourne.