Paddock to plate to paddock
Pulling up at The Farmer’s Place, at the gateway to Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, the first thing that hits you is the rich interwoven texture of smells. Set on a 80-hectare working farm, this café and farmers’ market presents a blend of aromas combining food preparation and freshly brewed coffee alongside hay and livestock.
These smells are easy to recognise, but there’s more: a gentle waft of something harder to place – like molasses or fermenting apples or Christmas cake. This injection into the aromatic blend is courtesy of the Closed Loop on-site rapid composting unit, which turns food waste into fertiliser within 24 hours.
Rather than being hidden away in a waste compound, the unit sits proudly on the deck, alongside restaurant diners, as it epitomises the sustainable principles and philosophy that is the central, integrated theme of the venue.
The unit uses microbes, heat and gentle agitation to process food waste. The combination of biological and physical processes reduces the quantity of material by 80 to 90 percent over a 24-hour period within an aerobic environment. The composter at The Farmer’s Place has a daily capacity of 60 kilograms of food waste, and the Closed Loop range includes units that can process between 20 and 1000 kilograms per day.
Virtually all types of food waste can go into the Closed Loop units, including those that challenge traditional composting systems such as meat, citrus and onion. They’ll even process bones from chicken frames and seafood. The only exclusions are bulk oils, larger bones or other solid material like oyster shells.
The system operates in a continuous fashion, with food waste added as it is generated. Harvesting the output takes place weekly. Much like a sourdough or yoghurt culture, only around two-thirds of the material is harvested, with the remainder being left in place as a ‘starter culture’ to process the next load of food waste.
This same technology is used by some of the world’s best restaurants and hospitality institutions, including Noma in Copenhagen, D.O.M in São Paulo, the Grand Hyatt in Melbourne and Urbane restaurant in Brisbane.
The output from the composter is a rich concentration of the inputs. It contains very high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, which are the key elements of fertilisers. The output at The Farmer’s Place is mixed with soil and used to fertilise the vegetable gardens, providing nourishment to grow more produce for the café – a true paddock to plate to paddock operation.
“Virtually all types of food waste can go into the Closed Loop units, including those that challenge traditional composting systems such as meat, citrus and onion. They’ll even process bones from chicken frames and seafood. The only exclusions are bulk oils, larger bones or other solid material like oyster shells.
“Australians throw out an estimated 14 million tonnes of food per year at a huge environmental and financial cost,” says Rob Pascoe, owner of The Farmer’s Place and Closed Loop’s managing director. “At the same time, we spend millions on chemical-based fertilisers to nourish our nutrient depleted soil.
“Australian soils are more nutrient-poor than any other continent. It just doesn’t make sense to landfill food waste – it is a valuable resource that we could use productively. Widespread use of organic compost could address soil improvement needs as well as minimising our reliance on artificial fertilisers.”
The 50 kilograms of food waste that goes into the Closed Loop composter each day amounts to 18 tonnes per year, which would otherwise go to landfill. In a landfill, food waste is mixed in with other waste streams and there it rots, generating methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide and with a lifespan three to four times longer. Instead, around 2.5 tonnes of valuable fertiliser is produced, which is returned to the soil.
“By demonstrating the complete food cycle here at The Farmer’s Place, we enable visitors to reconnect with their food and where it comes from,” says Pascoe. “The philosophy of sustainable food production, use and disposal guides all of our operations from the menu design based on seasonal ingredients grown on-site or sourced from local suppliers, to the on-site composting of all food waste generated in the restaurant – it is extremely important for us to minimise our impact on the environment at all points of the food cycle.”
Pascoe is keen for all who visit to be able to identify sustainability in action – from seeing responsible waste, water and energy practices to being able to engage with the whole food cycle. He believes that food sustainability and security is a major concern for Australia and aims to raise awareness of this vital issue through The Farmer’s Place activities.
“It is essential that we are mindful of how we produce, package, transport, use and dispose of our food,” he adds.
Supporting local food production and using seasonal produce addresses many of these issues. Local production greatly reduces the food miles associated with what we eat and supports local communities, many of whom are doing it tough. Choosing seasonal food means an abundant and more readily available supply, which can reduce associated transport and food costs. Both result in a more sustainable food cycle and can provide significant triple bottom line benefits – the basis of sustainable food for the future.
Apart from a menu that changes with the seasons, the on-site farmers’ market is stocked with fresh produce, grains, meats, dairy products and condiments from local suppliers. Local produce is celebrated at The Farmer’s Place through events such as the Grower’s Dinner, where local farmers donate produce they have grown themselves, which is then shared with other local farmers in a feast cooked up by The Farmer’s Place chef and his team.
Waste or resources being wasted?
The Farmer’s Place is the latest sustainability project for Closed Loop’s founder, Rob Pascoe.
“I wanted to create a place where we could practically demonstrate our central philosophies,” he says. “Through Closed Loop we help introduce systems to clients that change the way they approach waste management. Where others see waste, we see resources being wasted. We work out ways to recover those resources in an efficient manner that, more often than not, also provides economic benefit.
“At The Farmer’s Place, I get to take it all a step or two further. Here we have an integrated working farm, café and marketplace with zero waste to landfill. It was built from recycled materials and is self-sufficient in terms of energy and water.”
The main structure of The Farmer’s Place is a rustic space made of recycled shipping containers and reclaimed timber. The corrugated iron roof was rescued from a primary school demolition and the timber floorboards were salvaged from the old Dimmeys store in Melbourne. Adorning the interior are light fittings fashioned from craypots, jars and colanders, while outside the fences are made from rope once used in the mussel beds of the Bellarine Peninsula.