On a disused building site among apartment buildings and busy roads just of Auckland’s Symonds Street, OMG Organic Market Garden, established by For the Love of Bees, is producing more vegetables than the team thought possible using their regenerative organic growing methods, and feeding 45 families weekly in the process. Ahead of their talk on October 27 as part of the first Auckland Climate Festival, OMG head farmer Levi Brinsdon-Hall tells Jeremy Hansen about what industrialised food production gets wrong, and how the OMG model could spread across the city.
Jeremy Hansen: Levi, you’re in charge of OMG, the really successful regenerative market garden on a very unlikely plot – a disused building site in Auckland’s Eden Terrace. How did you get involved?
Levi Brinsdon-Hall: I became involved in OMG through For The Love of Bees, which teaches and practices ecosystem health and reparation through the lens of a honey bee. For The Love of Bees was founded by artist Sarah Smuts-Kennedy and my earlier work with them involved teaching schools and community groups about ecosystem function and climate change. Back then, the main thing I was farming was mass plantings of tens of thousands of biodiverse flower species in public land to provide food for pollinators and habitats for bees. If our bees are safe, we're not spraying fungicides, pesticides, and insecticides or using synthetic fertilizers, then we have a healthy environment and healthy pollinators.
A lot of people will be familiar with those projects, which are still ongoing. But how did OMG grow out of that work?
We got approached by the City Rail Link company about using a piece of land that they had, which is the current site of OMG, at the very top of Symonds Street. I think there was a core team of about five of us and we were like, okay, what do we want to do? We want to go straight to the heart of it: food. Food production and distribution is up to half of climate change emissions, but we can minimise that just through using the power of plants. If we change our agricultural systems, it’s a massive way to affect positive change very fast.
So you had a concept, but did you know how to implement it?
Ultimately, it was implemented through love, passion, community action and a whole lot of expert farming mentorship under the umbrella of For The Love of Bees. Before OMG I had gardens where I had grown a lot of vegetables, but really the purpose of OMG was to farm vegetables, not simply grow them. We wanted to break the industrial myth that we need large-scale agriculture to be producing food in rural areas, disconnected from urban communities. We wanted to prove that a massive majority of the food a city eats can come from within the city. So we started down a deep, long journey of learning how to grow and distribute healthy local food for people.
It’s still quite a step from a concept to successfully growing vegetables and selling them.
Yeah and just like a lot of businesses i think, when we began we were not confident with the practice of it, but we had a lot of ideas and a immensely optimistic, positive attitude and so we just threw ourselves at this challenge of developing a model of food production and distribution from the bottom up that serves the community and the ecology first. The site isn't big – it's only 500 square meters in total and currently we've got 310 square meters in vegetable production. Those 310 square meters now produce 35 vegetable boxes a week that go to our CSA supporters. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture – those people support the functioning of this farm by paying upfront for a season’s worth of weekly vege boxes. So we get paid about the time the vegetables are planted by people who are ultimately paying to support a transformative urban project and support the wages of young farmers, the weekly vegetables are a bonus. We’re feeding about 45 families with food from the site.
What are you growing for them?
A lot of small-scale intensive farms might grow 10 different crops, whereas we grow 52, all year round. A core part of our message is diversity. So what's in your vegetable box? A highly diverse range of different types of vegetables, from root vegetables to leaves. When people consume diverse foods, they're feeding diverse gut microorganisms, and it's making them healthier. Our salad mixes alone often have upwards of 12 different species of plants, which is pretty cool. You'd be hard-pressed to find salad mix out there at the moment that would have greater than three or four varieties.
How have we ended up in a situation where the food industry is so specialised, and diversity is disappearing?
Our food systems currently match the global economic systems, which means they’re orientated towards scale and specialisation. And what we’re doing at OMG is practicing our vision of an alternate food system that exists within an urban context. It's designed to support the immediate community that's surrounding it. So if you want to get food from OMG, you have to live within a walking distance of the farm. Those people, they come in to collect their food. We don't use any packaging, so they bring their own bags. So immediately we've done away with distribution and packaging, two environmental and business costs.
This plot of land you worked has also turned out to be incredibly productive.
Definitely. I have personally spent 7000 hours farming that land, it is incredible what you can learn when you do that. As you learn to grow plants, you become more in tune with your land, your soil health gets better. And all these things mean that the system gets refined and productivity skyrockets, which is really cool. Very importantly for us, we don't till, dig over, or mechanically aerate the soil in any way. The idea that humans need to come through and put oxygen into the soil is a fundamental flaw of our agricultural system. The earthworms, plant roots and the trillions of micro-organisms that live in it are the best at doing this! The soil is very much a living organism that you're working with. We spray beneficial microbes everywhere, we make our own living compost and we've got a fertility program, which is beneficial microorganisms that are foliar-fed through the plant leaves. All this can actually be applied to a whole lot more farming. Every decision that we make is actually based upon what we know about the latest cutting-edge soil science which comes from our main mentor and biological agronomist Daniel Schuurman.
What’s different about the way you plant?
When we plant things, it's about having multiple species in close proximity together. Sometimes there will be five to 12 plant species per square meter, which is amazing. And that's enabling us to rebuild soil health at a faster rate, because more diverse microorganisms are getting fed by more diverse plants. It also means there’s less space for weeds to grow. So we'll grow something like broccoli and underneath that we will have coriander, turnip, radish and spring onions which we will harvest first making space for the broccoli to emerge through a canopy of faster crops. What we are achieving in terms of vegetable production per square meter is very, very high.
You work full-time at the garden with a group of volunteers. What are the next steps in that model for you? Is this a scalable thing that you'll establish in other city plots, or share with other community groups that might want to start their own thing?
The whole reason that we started this was to create a new model and our shared vision is that urban farms are proliferated everywhere throughout the city. We have an absolute abundance of empty lawn space and rooftops waiting to be converted into productive, regenerative space that functions as bold and lasting climate change infrastructure. One of our main limiting factors is access to land, everything else we believe is easy.
Last question. We’re in a climate crisis. How does the work you’re doing make you feel about the future?
I am an optimist at heart and I actually don't have time to deal with anyone that's a pessimist. What we need right now is to be practicing the future that we want to see without any excuses. Plants and their relationship with the soil and the global climate is incredible. They are the original solar panel and the sole organism on the planet that can turn sunlight into energy. Their power is truly immense and I do this work because I believe that they are our solution.
Levi Brinsdon-Hall spoke to Jeremy Hansen about his work at OMG in special Good Citizen Zoom session at 5.30pm on Wednesday 27 October, 2021. The event was part of the first Auckland Climate Festival, which Britomart is proud to sponsor. You can watch Levi's conversation with Jeremy at this link (the chat starts at timestamp 01.37).
Photographs by Joe Hockley.