Seven years ago, Jon Walsh watched as earthquakes shook his home country of New Zealand and his current home in Japan. Like many, his mind turned to disaster-preparedness; however, his train of thought took a different track: food security. He planted a garden and found the 6 x 1-meter space produced more than his family could eat. Inspired, Jon decided to add urban farming workshops and garden creation to the existing menu of services offered by Business Grow, his company that specializes in writing, editing and marketing services. Japan Today talked with Jon to learn more about urban farming and what his vision is for the future of it in Tokyo and beyond.
How would you describe your work as an urban farmer?
My objective is to make urban farming sexy – something that people don’t necessarily think they should do, but something they want to start because it is attractive and they understand the benefits of it. My underlying goal is to encourage the younger generation to get into urban farming because, let’s face it, they are the future.
I focus on showing people how to grow healthy food – minus chemicals – in the city, and recycling where possible. I don’t just grow food; I provide urban farming training for individuals, families, students, companies, universities, such as Lakeland College, and organizations like Social Innovation Japan. The trainings are also supported by consulting services and an expanding range of resources that includes articles, how-to guides, lesson materials and self-learning packs. These all help people learn and pass on key food growing skills.
How does urban farming fit with the concept of sustainability?
I see urban farming as crucial in the overall picture of global sustainability. If done correctly (i.e. without chemicals), it only produces good: good food, strengthened communities, better personal and environmental health, and self-sufficiency. Plus, if there’s a natural disaster, that homegrown food could save our lives.
Urban farming seems new to many people not because these skills were "lost," but because they were never taught them in the first place. This is a big deal because food means life. Taking control of our food supply allows us to take control of our health, because so much of the food currently consumed is produced in factories and laced with chemicals.
You have many different projects underway – rooftop gardens at hotels and offices, school gardens and food-focused CSR programs, which donate some of the harvest to food banks. Where do you see the greatest potential?
Hotel and office gardens. Landing the Grand Hyatt Tokyo organic garden project was a huge milestone. As a first garden installation project, it was a significant confidence booster and triggered a lot of interest.
Office gardens have a different dynamic from school or home gardens and present a unique challenge. My plan this year is to encourage and show office staff in large office buildings how to set up rooftop gardens. Over time, each company would have their own corporate garden where staff would visit during lunch breaks and after work to tend and grow food.
The space would become a fragrant, colorful garden. Staff from different offices would swap gardening tips and tools, share food and create bonds. At the end of the evening, workers would go home with vegetables they grew, solid evidence of the success of a true urban farming project.
What effect do you think your work could have on farming as a livelihood in the city?
I strongly hope my work inspires people to start growing food in ways that can make it a viable livelihood. Space is, of course, a key factor as it determines yield. I am hoping that, particularly here in Japan, the falling population will free up more land in towns and cities that could be turned into community gardens. Coupled with some of the stunningly creative ideas for vertical and indoor farming out there, this would also enable these places to become more self-sustaining.
What is your vision for the future of food and Business Grow?
I would love to run this type of business in my home city of Auckland. In many suburbs, almost every house has a lawn but not every house has a garden. That means every street, as well as offices, hotels, hospitals and shops with safe rooftops and surrounding spare space would be an opportunity to grow a business like this.
I also want to see fresh, free, healthy food growing on every street that anyone walking by can pick. I want to see schools teaching comprehensive food growing programs, and companies receiving subsidies and tax deductions if they run their staff through urban farming programs. I would like people to realize that growing food is one of the most positive and impacting things we can do to improve our world, and it starts with the food we decide to put on our plates.
The bottom line is that our food should be nurturing, strengthening and healing us. Every step in the process of sharing the importance of producing and sharing real food is important, because small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.
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