Late-night bar reborn as a green urban farm

As a way of increasing access to fresh food in the future, vertical farming was under discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos in May. And it’s something that’s happening right now at a former late-night bar in Killarney. This is a way of growing plants indoors in tall layered containers, maximizing the number of plants that can be grown in a limited – and sometimes unusual – space. It is considered to be a sustainable food production method, using less land and water to produce more food.

Killarney Urban Farm is Ireland’s first in-house hospitality hydroponic urban farm. It grows salad leaves and herbs in vertical towers for supply to their own hotels and restaurants in the O’Donoghue Ring Collection, which includes Killarney’s Plaza Hotel, Towers Hotel, Avenue Hotel and River Island Hotel.

“We had looked at growing our own produce – the team were always very enthusiastic – but because all the properties are in the town center, we could only grow herbs,” says managing director Gemma Ring.

After her husband Paul O’Neill encountered a vertical garden tower in the co-working space, Republic of Work, Ring discovered Jenny Twomey and Jill O’Brien’s Cork-based Green Towers Ireland and worked with them to develop a system for the Collection in Killarney.

“We met Jenny and Jill, did a tour of the Cork Rooftop Farm [which also uses this system], saw the towers there and got to taste what they grow. The flavor was amazing, very intense. We took some salad leaves home, and they lasted really well in the fridge.”

Ring and her team looked at hotel rooftop spaces initially: “we already have beehives on the rooftop of the Killarney Plaza Hotel & Spa.”

But then they started to look indoors: “We are in the town center, so the only way was up for us; we didn’t have gardens or land. Our late-night bar space was closed because of Covid, so why not use it? We got 14 towers in there and it took a bit of adjustment to work with light and ventilation to get it right but it’s settled down now. We’re delighted it’s been a success and is going well.”

Gemma Ring O’Donoghue, director, O’Donoghue Ring Hotels. Picture: Valerie O’Sullivan

Jenny Twomey of Green Towers Ireland defines vertical farming as “growing up, not out, and using less natural resources [land and water] to grow more food efficiently closer to where it is consumed”.

Nutritionally, this method of food production also ticks the right boxes. A 2013 study done at the University of Mississippi compared aeroponic and conventionally grown produce, showing that plants grown in the aeroponic system (without soil) had a similar level of nutrients and a higher yield to those grown in soil.

The Killarney Urban Farm towers are used to grow salad leaves (kale, wild rocket, mizuna, spinach) along with herbs, tomatoes, strawberries and edible flowers.

“We have four hotels and three independent units, so we use it throughout the Collection,” says Ring.

“This is tower to table. We harvest straight from the location and, within a few minutes, it’s in the restaurants. The chefs are delighted, they took it on board straight away.”

The towers use less water than traditional farming, working on a closed-loop system that enables water to be recycled. Growing food on-site reduces food miles and ensures consistent production of fresh salads and herbs throughout the year. The fact that this hyperlocal, hydroponically-grown produce goes straight to the kitchen means that it retains all its freshness and flavor.

As far as Twomey is concerned, flavor plays an important part: “The taste is amazing,” she says. “It’s been chef and kid approved, two of the most critical customers. People are blown away by the flavor.”

The towers, visible through the windows of the former bar, have caused great interest, according to Ring.

“They look unusual because of the LED lights so we often have people standing looking in and taking pictures, they’re very quirky looking.”

It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. “People thought I was a bit mad,” she notes, “but they can see it now and taste the difference.”

It’s not often that a former drinking den gets turned into a space that supports an innovative, nutritious and sustainable method of food production, but Killarney Urban Farm is leading the way.

More vertical farming

Killarney Urban Farm offers a Tour & Taste Experience which includes tastings of the fresh produce and a farm-focused meal in The Tan Yard.

Green Towers Ireland sell, install and maintain tower farms and gardens (can be seen in Cork Rooftop Farm, UCC’s Urban Farm, North Mall Campus and Boole Library).