One minute, you’re a businessman with a computer-science degree, running a successful family business, next thing, lockdown comes and you find yourself the owner-operator of a 6,400sq ft urban ‘farm’, three stories above Cork city’s iconic Coal Quay?
Quite the transition, but for Brian McCarthy, 34, it was most probably down to his bloodline.
When Brian was four, his father, Kevin McCarthy, moved the family back into his suburban childhood home, in Bishopstown, which was just another housing-estate semi-D in a suburb flush with them and little else. The McCarthy homestead, in Westgate, however, was different.
From a farm just outside Bandon that was blessed with a large, secluded back garden, Kevin’s father and Brian’s grandfather, Denis McCarthy, had filled it in the 1960s with greenhouses, growing all manner of fruits, vegetables, and flowers, the latter of such quality and quantity that Kevin, on finishing his Leaving Cert, in 1972, added a cold room and began a flower retail business, Cork Flower Supplies.
It soon outgrew its domestic base and supply, and as Kevin began importing from the Netherlands, he relocated to the city centre, eventually settling on the Coal Quay, on Cork’s Cornmarket St — only moving in 2006, to a larger premises on the outskirts of the city.
Having worked there since childhood, after graduation Brian followed Kevin into the family business. First task: Converting it to a digital operation.
“It’s been a good education in business; you learn to be very robust,” Brian says. “I’ve seen, and learned, a lot in the last 12 years. Flowers are even more perishable than fruit and veg — there is a very finite window — so I am used to that side of things.” Then came lockdown, which impacted, with dramatic immediacy, the €8.5bn-per-annum, global cut-flower industry.
“A lot of international growers lost their shirts,” says Brian. “We had to close the wholesale business at the end of March. We had Mother’s Day on Sunday, brought in the staff on Monday to get the Covid pandemic form sorted, and that Friday strict lockdown started.”
Brian and his neighbour, Thayane Carlos, turned to growing. Living in apartments in Brian’s family’s former business headquarters, on Cornmarket St, the roof was an ideal space.
They made it up as they went along. They scavenged wood, hauled pallets up three flights of stairs, and built mobile, raised beds. Because of the ban on delivery of anything other than essential goods, Brian registered Cork Rooftop Farm as a food business and took delivery of 20m³ of soil.
“It was very much seat-of-the-pants stuff and we had no idea it was going to capture people’s attention at all,” Brian says. “We started on Instagram, almost for our own sake, for a chronological history, and if people were interested, well and good, but that wasn’t our goal.
“It wasn’t even a goal to have it as a business: The goal was to grow fruit and veg for our own consumption,” he says. “My father had an old barn, that he converted, down on the Old Head of Kinsale, for a holiday home when we were younger and would have always grown down there. That was always a strong memory of summer for me: BBQ and eating our fresh veg. Lockdown gave me a chance to recreate that.”
But there was another reason for the project, one deeper than battling lockdown boredom.
“Mum [Eileen] was diagnosed with cancer in May 2019 and, at the start of lockdown, she was admitted into Marymount Hospice,” Brian says. “My two brothers flew home, from Vancouver and San Francisco, and went into isolation. She was in a lot of pain and the goal was to get her home for Easter Sunday, just as they got out of isolation in time to get us all together.
“We knew she was very sick, and my head was a bit wrecked,” Brian says. “We’d closed the business, Mum was dying, the Covid stuff, I was very much using [the farm] as something to keep my sanity — like lots of people, the whole country turned to growing. Once my two brothers got out of isolation, they were helping on the roof and my dad helped. We all used it to help deal with what was going on.
“She did get home on Easter Sunday and we had a great 10 days down in Garrettstown and those were the last days we had with her, because she went back into Marymount after that,” Brian says. “We could visit, but only for five minutes, talking from the balcony below, because she was so ill. It was shite, really; quite horrible. She passed away on May 14. Even the whole funeral situation was kind of bizarre.
“She was 64; a very healthy, active woman,” Brian says. “My Dad and her were very keen walkers; their holiday routine was to do the Camino, 35km, 40km a day of walking. But cancer doesn’t make distinctions: It will take anybody. But it would have been 10 times tougher without the farm.”
Brian’s brothers had to fly back to their homes in the weeks after the funeral, but, even though the flower business had reopened, he and his father, Kevin, took a back seat and continued working primarily on the farm.
“Our staff were amazing and kept things on the road,” Brian says. “I very much turned to the rooftop farm as a form of therapy, 100%. I found it very therapeutic, seeing the results, eating the results, and the overwhelming reaction from people who found what we were doing inspiring.”
Brian’s mother’s death triggered some deep thinking.
In addition to resolving to turn it into a sustainable commercial enterprise, Brian’s online research and self-education were pointing him in new directions, towards a truly sustainable form of growing. He began to investigate other forms of growing, including vertical, hydroponic towers and aquaponics. He installed a greenhouse to increase commercial scope and put up a chicken coop, providing both eggs and manure.
“Everywhere I turn, I see opportunities, because there is a passion in Cork City for quality produce that is absolutely infectious,” Brian says. In the doldrum days, immediately after his mother’s death, Brian had booked a course at Ridgedale Farm, in Sweden, where the renowned Richard Perkins teaches courses in regenerative agriculture and permaculture Brian recently spent an inspirational two weeks there — observing all travel and subsequent isolation protocols.
“What he said really resonated, bringing radical concepts to conventional agriculture,” Brian says. “But he wouldn’t be hippy dippy — it is commercially sustainable. He’s an incredibly interesting and inspiring character. I learned so much.
“Every time I turn the corner of a topic, I discover 10 other topics I know nothing about, each one as invigorating to learn about, as exciting, as the next. What people are doing out there is so encouraging.”
‘Urban farming’ is self-explanatory: A grittier take on conventional or traditional agriculture, it is practised in towns and cities. Increasingly,waste lots, abandoned spaces, empty buildings, and rooftops are being repurposed to grow fruit and vegetables and, in some cases, even to rear livestock.
By 2025, Toronto, in Canada, aims to be growing 25% of its fruit-and-veg requirements within city limits, while a Michigan State University study concluded that Detroit could grow 70% of its vegetables, and 40% of its fruit, on vacant lots throughout the city.
Brooklyn Grange, in New York City, is the largest rooftop farm in the world, covering 248,000sq ft and including a 5,000sq ft greenhouse. Last year, it produced 100,000lbs of fresh produce from three sites in the city, atop functioning commercial buildings.
The benefits are myriad. Done properly, urban farming can feed the local community with the most nutritious of seasonal produce, while promoting a sustainable, circular economy and food-waste management, and reducing greenhouse gas-emitting food miles to almost zero. It creates jobs, boosts the local economy, and provides education opportunities, especially for the young, and is a proven benefit to the physical, mental, and social well-being of communities.
During the Second World War, many countries, including Germany, the US, Canada, and Britain, promoted urban agriculture, in vacant lots throughout cities, on sports and recreational fields, and in domestic gardens, to feed their populations.
Andrew Douglas’ Dublin City UrbanFarm organisation has led the recent charge, creating projects as much about dispensing knowledge and inspiration as filling produce baskets, and including Belvedere College Urban Farm, Lost The Plot (an indoor allotment and horticulture incubator space), Urban Oyster (a GIY mushroom growing kit), and AquaLab (raising fish as a food source and using their waste byproducts as fertiliser for a separate, but integrated, hydroponics plant-produce growing system).
These days, Andrew is something of an intellectual Johnny Appleseed, scattering ideas as much as plant seeds, to feed minds as much as mouths, inspiring others to explore the full potential of food production in urban spaces.
“There is a hell of a lot of value in growing in the city, from a lot of aspects,” Andrew says. “It is hard to be a consistent supplier all year round, but it can be done. Much of what I am doing is about instigating and developing projects that show how it can be done, as much as supplying people with fresh produce — after all, my main bread and butter is working in film and television; I’m a horticulture boffin on the side.
“It is more difficult to do it in Dublin. Cork has always had that strong, local food emphasis — the markets, the producers, a mom-and-pop feel — but Dublin is too commercial; it doesn’t have Cork’s nice-and-friendly vibe,” Andrew says.
“Up here, it’s all about leases and rents and viable commercial entities. Having said that, MarketGnomes [a horticulture enterprise, begun in 2019] are absolutely rocking it, growing in the grounds of DCU.”
In Cork City, St Stephen’s Sustainable Food Lab, established in 2017, is a member-led community garden in a disused municipal basketball court. Founding member Eoin McCuirc sees it as a community resource.
While the bulk of Mark Riordan’s and Simon Bursell’s Hivemind enterprise (hive sponsorship, with sponsors earning yield in jars of honey) is based in Myrtleville, County Cork, Riordan provided the hives for the rooftop ‘apiary’, in St John’s Central College, in Cork City.
“The big surprise was the quality and amount of the honey yield,” says Mark.
“It was different-tasting from anything we’ve had from the country in the last few years and that’s the trend in other major conurbations, like London, New York, because the bees forage on different plants and there are no pesticides in most urban gardens and spaces — because, very often, modern agriculture is, unfortunately, the bad guy in this respect — so the bees thrive and the crop is brilliant.
"And, these city bees are the most relaxed of all the bees I work with — maybe it’s being around all the people, because bees are very sensitive to the environment around them.”