Urban farming: Opportunity or Threat?

Spending time in green areas has always been part of our family routine ever since I was a child. I very well remember visiting public gardens during weekends and taking photos of every flower we spot. No wonder I grew up loving gardens, trees, plants and anything in between!

As I grew older, I learnt to appreciate gardens even more. Gardens are not just open spaces; they provide a green lung for the community and can also be a source of fresh food!

Many believe that in order to grow food, there is the need to have access to considerable amounts of fertile arable land, but, is that in fact true?

The urban initiative

One place answering this question is The Veg Box at Villa Bologna, an urban farm, located in the heart of Balzan (a charming village in the central part of Malta). This garden brings a breath of fresh air to those visiting and regularly offers a selection of fresh fruits and vegetables. The farm is also currently under conversion to become organically certified and sells food coming from other local organic growers and importers.

The Veg Box could not have materialised without the hard work and dedication of its founder, Emanuela de Giorgio; a young, female agripreneur. Being a full time farm manager requires a great deal of energy and determination, but Emanuela doesn’t look back. The philosophy behind The Veg Box is a logical one: as Emanuela herself explains, “produce grown in a simpler, less industrialised way, creates food for healthier family meals. This is the basis of all well-being and therefore through our choices we can begin to see the change that is needed for a sustainable agricultural system and future generation’s health”.

Urban Farms Infographic

Gathering like-minded individuals

This place brings people closer to nature through various activities. One such recent activity was the Spring Gathering which took place on Saturday the 14th of April. I visited the place on the day and enjoyed walking through the garden while discovering the variety of greens growing in the garden.

The event was well attended and all those present could enjoy a nice drink at the bar while meeting friends in an urban farm setting. A number of artisan stands were set up for the day. These were exhibiting cool stuff ranging from vertical gardens to local bee products.

My visit during regular opening hours

The Veg Box is open on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, during the rest of the week, Emanuela and her colleagues tend to the needs of their crops.

Was impressed at the warm welcome Emanuela and her colleagues gave to all those who walked in. Many were those who came to pick up their pre-ordered assorted boxes, while others came to see what’s in store.

The shop was bursting with fresh produce. Items were well labelled and everything was neatly organised. The product I liked most was a large bag of fresh leafy greens which cost as little as 3 Euro. It contained seven different types of plants and would make an excellent base for a salad or smoothie. The idea of creating a ready-made salad mix is definitely an enticing one,  adding value to the raw product and offering much sought-after convenience to clients.

Under the shade of an almond tree, Emanuela and myself had a good chat while Nikol enjoyed the cool breeze and received cuddles from the many ladies who visited the place. We discussed many aspects about local agriculture and collaboration opportunities. It’s always good to share ideas, discuss challenges and why not, find solutions together.

Counter arguments

For those of you who are not really aware of the local environmental situation, let me put some things in perspective: The Maltese Islands have in the past years witnessed a staggering increase in urban development. With over 29% of the islands covered by artificial surfaces, and being one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, ours is a country which definitely lacks green areas. Buildings are all around us, and even so, most of the villages beyond Valletta and the surrounding cities, are referred to as ‘rural’.

Talking about development, or rather over-development, has become the order of the day. I recently shared a video clip about high rise buildings and the greening that can happen within them. Although not strictly ‘Urban Farms’, one can still produce a sizeable amount of products within a limited space. This is not a recent discovery. In the 60s, Lee Kuan Yew, who was prime minister of Singapore, was the architect behind the city-state’s plan to become a garden city. There’s no doubt that his strategy has left the country with a great deal of wealth.

One particular comment on the video I shared struck me. A Facebook friend of mine said that this vertical greening is “simply a business exercise that continues to reinforce the idea that we can destroy natural habitats because ‘we know how to create them better’. Green spaces in built environments are a good thing, but not at the cost of destroying nature.”

So what my friend is saying here is, that by promoting urban greenery we would be encouraging the destruction of our countryside while trying to compensate with vertical farms. This is quite a common observation amongst environmentalists. However, in my opinion, this leads to a non-sequitur argument and such issues need to be kept separate.

Final thoughts

The rural environment deserves protection but at the same time, urban areas (which are there to stay) also need the introduction of urban farms and enhancement with proper and functional landscaping. By landscaping I mean; trees, shrubs, crops and any form of plant life. This might seem obvious, however, the recent local projects we are witnessing give the impression that landscaping means; adding as much concrete and marble slabs as possible and reducing plant life to some single stalk trees bearing minimum foliage.

Getting involved: There is a lot of work going on at small urban farms such as the Veg Box. It is certainly hard work to run a farm! My appeal for those who wonder if it’s possible to get involved and help out on a farm, is to approach such places and have a go at getting your hands dirty with some rich fertile soil. Being close to nature is not only healthy for the body but also for the mind!






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