As part of our Farming on the Edge series, Olivia Midgley tours the Growing Underground farm in London’s Clapham.
Descend 30 metres (100ft) below London’s bustling streets and you will catch a glimpse of the city’s forgotten past.
From deep-level air raid shelters to secret bunkers and abandoned tunnels, the capital’s subterranean spots are sometimes just as fascinating as those above ground.
Enter the lift at 1 Carpenter’s Place, a few minutes’ walk from Clapham Common tube station, and you will be transported to London’s first underground farm.
It might not be everyone’s idea of a ‘farm’ in the traditional sense, but the premise behind it is – feeding a growing population, fulfilling rising demand and doing so sustainably – right in the heart of London.
Growing Underground, is set in tunnels used during World War II as a bomb shelter for London residents.
Once a facility designed to accommodate 8,000 Londoners, it now uses a sophisticated lighting and irrigation system to grow a range of crops including pea shoots, several varieties of radish, mustard, coriander, Red Amaranth, mizuna, celery, parsley and rocket.
Since its launch in June 2015, the £1 million, one-hectare (2.4-acre) project, which received £600,000 from crowdfunding, has seen strong growth and West Country owners Steven Dring and Richard Ballard already have their sights on international expansion.
In partnership with Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux Jr, the business began by selling to local restaurants including Mr Roux’s Michelin two-star eatery Le Gavroche in London’s Mayfair.
Six months later the partners clinched deals with several food service companies and more recently announced their first venture into the retail market.
Steven says: “Our intention has always been to sell produce through the food service market because it was a lot easier than getting all the accreditation needed to sell for retail.
“We still supply Le Gavroche, but because of the delicacy of the dishes the chefs might use a few shoots on each plate, whereas the contract caterers will be doing 1,000 covers. That is the kind of business I am looking for.”
The firm’s first commercial client was County Supplies London which supplies restaurants via Covent Garden market. A consumer offering then followed, with delivery via hyper-local supplier Farmdrop.co.uk which pledges to distribute produce from farmers to London consumers in 19 hours.
“Now we supply various large food service distributors including Compass and BaxterStorey,” says Steven, who has spent several months in talks with UK supermarkets.
“By May 2017 we will be selling to all the major retailers.”
Steven says gaining Red Tractor Assurance has also helped market the products.
“Getting our farm assurance has really allowed us to move into retail,” he adds.
“We’re in the process of developing products for this market but we are ready to launch our new range of fresh mix salads, which are what I call a ready mixed dinner party salad. The base product is pea shoots and then there are two microherbs in each pack. All you have to do is gently mix it together.
“There are five in the range based on the flavours commonly associated with England, India, Japan, Asia and Italy. For example, the English mix contains broccoli, red mustard and peas and the Indian mix contains fennel and coriander.”
Film maker Richard Ballard had been making two films about sustainable food production in cities about hidden London when he came across a set of seven tunnels built alongside the Northern Line during the Second World War.
He came up with the idea for Growing Underground and enlisted the help of his old school friend Steven Dring, plus agreement from tunnel owners Transport For London, to make the idea come to life.
The duo used crowdfunding to raise a large proportion of the finance and also received backing from G’s Fresh, one of the UK’s biggest salad growers based in Ely, Cambridge.
The farm’s mission is to deliver fresh produce with zero effect on the environment and all energy is sourced from green suppliers.
Crops are grown in a sealed clean-room environment with a bespoke hydroponics, ventilation and advanced lighting system which enables the farm to minimise the amount of energy needed.
The herbs are cultivated on special growing platforms. Constant temperatures and the absence of pests contribute to the quality of the produce. There are no natural pests or predators, so it is easy to be chemical and pesticide free.
The high-tech computerised irrigation system uses 18cu.m of water which is treated on-site and recirculated, meaning the farm rarely has to top up with fresh water.
Steven says the ‘plug in and play’ system is a scalable model and can be replicated ‘very easily’.
“Obviously, we have challenges like any farmer does. On the growing side we are not always getting the yield but we have definitely made a big effort to hone our skills and we are getting more productive. It is about constant improvement.”
Growing Underground currently employs eight staff but recruitment is already underway to ensure there are enough employees as the business expands.
“I think the main challenge for us is where to go next and making the right strategic move.
“We want to build farms next to where the product is consumed but some of the retailers’ distribution models do not allow for that.
“Ultimately, we are a fresh produce brand and although we have been offered sites globally, it is a matter of finding the most suitable sites for the business.
“Plus on top of everything, we have had the usual challenges associated with getting a business off the ground.”
The concept has attracted huge interest from consumers and retailers, as well as scientists and urban planners worldwide.
The business considers itself at the forefront of technology and alongside its own research and development lab – also underground – the partners and their representatives regularly attend events to share information and take part in knowledge transfer with other growers.
In November they showcased a mini replica of their hydroponic farm at Food Matters Live at the ExCel in London. And in August Growing Underground’s co-founder Mr Ballard presented at the Shambala Festival, in Northamptonshire, thought to be the most sustainable and eco-minded festival in the UK.
Steven says the Brexit vote and subsequent devaluation of the pound has given Growing Underground a boost.
“A lot of firms who have traditionally imported products have inevitably found it more expensive since the referendum, so we have benefited from those looking to source supply in the UK,” he adds.
“I think as an industry, agriculture will not benefit from going it alone.
“However inequitable the Common Agricultural Policy was, the industry benefited from being a part of the European Union, not just in terms of subsidies but the way producer organisations were supported and in matchmaking investment and equipment.
“It was surprising that as such a beneficiary of European spending, the rural vote was unanimous in its vote for independence.
“Whichever way you look at it, it is a case of strapping ourselves in because this is going to be a rollercoaster of a ride.”