Kaicycle urban farm more than just sustainable farming

Kaicycle, a productive urban farm in Wellington.PHOTOS: CHARMIAN SMITH
Kaicycle, a productive urban farm in Wellington.PHOTOS: CHARMIAN SMITH
Tucked away behind Wellington Hospital in Newtown is a section flush with growing vegetables and compost boxes arranged around the edges.

Charmian Smith
Charmian Smith
A tunnel house is stacked with trays of seedlings and a shed and shelter at the back is used as a workspace. This is Kaicycle’s urban farm and compost-making operation.

Rory Lenihan-Ikin and a few volunteers are clearing one of the garden beds and planting courgettes while, over in the shelter, Sheldon Levet is pricking out shinjuku seedlings. They can, he said, be eaten as a salad green, look pretty and also provide a good carbon source for the compost.

The not-for-profit project started about five years ago as two operations with complementary visions — the compost collection which aimed to divert food waste from landfill, and the farm that aimed to grow nutrient-dense food for the local community, according to group spokeswoman Kate Walmsley.

While the composting arm is now self-sufficient, collecting food scraps by e-bike from about 150 paying households and businesses, and is seeking to expand because the demand is so great, the farm side has been through ups and downs, partly because of the problem of finding staff trained in this type of farming.

Sheldon Levet (left), Kate Walmsley and Rory 
Lenihan-Ikin in Kaicycle’s tunnel house.
Sheldon Levet (left), Kate Walmsley and Rory Lenihan-Ikin in Kaicycle’s tunnel house.

At the beginning of 2020, Kaicycle adopted a new model based on OMG (organic market garden) in Auckland, which has paid staff as well as volunteers and trains people in intensive regenerative agriculture. It sells CSA (community supported agriculture) vegetable boxes to cover its costs.

At present, the Wellington City Council funds 70% of Levet and Lenihan-Ikin’s wages and provides the land, but the operation is intended to become self-sustainable, hopefully this year.

"It’s a switch from community garden into new sustainable jobs for people and providing value to the community in terms of volunteering, education, climate change mitigation, biodiversity and social benefits — people come here and enjoy the space. We are seeing a new way to look at recreation in a city: meaningful, constructive recreation in a green space," Walmsley said.

"There’s a lot of public good so it makes sense for council to support it and when a community group like us has the energy and the drive, it’s easier for council to get behind it than try to do it themselves."

A group of 10 contribute to different aspects of the operation from governance and applications to working on the 1500sq m site of which 400sq m is planted in vegetables, she says.

Although the site is not ideal — the weather is definitely "interesting", windy, shaded by the town belt and they get plenty of rain — they manage to grow most things, Levet says.

Compost is at the heart of their operation and they produce about 40 tonnes a year. Food scraps are supplemented by other urban waste such as shredded paper and arborists’ mulch, which provide the carbon component.

"The city is abundant with waste and it’s free — it’s working out how we can use it," Walmsley said.

This type of intensive organic regenerative agriculture depends on building soil health with compost, which provides not only the nutrients and minerals the plants need to thrive, but also encourages microbes critical in transferring the nutrients to plant roots.

With diverse and dense planting and regenerative principles you can get a lot of food off a square metre to sustain the overheads of running the farm, she says.

However, finding staff remains difficult.

"There’s a huge labour shortage. There aren’t people trained in this — they are either market gardeners on the hectare scale or backyard gardeners, so that’s where training comes in. How do we bridge this gap and get this identified as an industry that’s real and scalable? That’s going to be the next big challenge," Levet said.

They run high school programmes and plan to introduce the Earthworkers programme of biology-first, regenerative horticulture developed by Auckland company For the Love of Bees. Kaicycle and other urban farmers in the Wellington area and around the country are keen to share their knowledge and have created the Urban Farmers Alliance (urbanfarmersalliance.org.nz) to do so.

Now the group is investigating starting a new farm as well as developing another two compost hubs in the city.

"It’s a slow process to access land ... I don’t think we want to do all the urban farming in Wellington. We don’t want to do all the urban composting in Wellington," Levet said.

One of the difficulties they, as early adopters of this type of operation, have to deal with is council policy, which was written many years ago.

"It’s difficult being in the city and trying to do this good stuff. Council policy is the actual stuff that slows us down. We are in a grey area — we are not home composting and we are not commercial composting," Levet said.

"They aren’t stopping us but they are laying out everything that is in the way. They are not fundamentally against us but they have to be so careful with precedent. They are risk-adverse."

Walmsley added that they needed to work on that this year because what they were doing was so in line with goals we needed to be moving to, such as sequestering carbon, biodiversity, education, social benefits, producing nutritious food locally and recycling waste.

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