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Growing a greener future with urban farming

2nd July 2015

How can you tackle a problem like harvesting enough fresh food to supply communities in the heart of one of the most densely populated cities in the world? Discover how an ingenious mix of technology, green fingers and an eye for an opportunity have led to two brand new, revolutionary London-based producers – Growing Underground and GrowUp Urban Farms.

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Urban farming may sound like a new phenomenon, but it has been happening in cities since the dawn of farming many thousands of years ago. Involving the growing of fruits, vegetables, herbs and all manners of seasonal produce within a densely populated city, urban farming adopts many guises – several of which you’ll probably recognise. Shared allotments, city farms and food growing projects that educate the community, as well as charities and social enterprises who empower vulnerable people through the growing of food, are all types of urban farming.

With increasing populations and an international awareness of the environmental toll human agriculture has on the environment, people are seeking alternative solutions across the globe. Here, in our very own Big Smoke, innovation in urban farming is happening fast, and from the (under)ground up. West Country entrepreneurs Richard Ballard and Steven Dring don’t let little things like absence of natural light hold them back as their project Growing Underground launched earlier this week in partnership with the two-Michelin-starred chef, Michel Roux Jr.

Located in eight old World War II tunnels 100 feet under Clapham Common, Richard and Steven grow microgreens, herbs and salad leaves on their farm spanning 2.5 acres. Crops are grown in a sealed clean-room environment with a bespoke ventilation system, LED lighting and a sophisticated irrigation system that enables them to produce crops at very low energy, sourced from green suppliers.

To occupy this kind of space above ground would be almost impossible, and so it was when Steven saw the to-let sign hanging outside, that entrepreneurial alarm bells started ringing. Now in the final stages of preparation for commercial supply, phase one crops include pea shoots, varieties of radish, mustard, coriander and red amaranth. We have to say, we are delighted to be one of the first to bring these delicate treats from down the road in Clapham directly to your door or pick up point in a few weeks’ time.

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Kate Hofman and Tom Webster of GrowUp Urban Farms are another brilliant pair who are smashing through limitations – or, should we say, building on top of them – to create sustainable local food. Founded in 2013, Kate and Tom recognised an opportunity in using unused ground space in cities to take the growing upwards and incorporate an aquaponic urban agriculture. What is aquaponics? Put simply, it’s a recirculating system that combines hydroponics (growing plants in water without soil) and aquaculture (fish farming) to create an efficient closed loop system.

They needed a demonstration space for their idea, and so the GrowUp Box – an upcycled shipping container with farmed tilapia inside and a greenhouse on top – was born. Driven by a mission to change the way food is grown and distributed in cities, they’re working hard to open London’s first commercial aquaponic farm. This will operate inside a 6,000 sq ft warehouse and using vertical growing techniques will provide 20,000 kg of salads, herbs and micro greens a year as well as 4,000 kg of fish.

We’re proud to be working with teams so dedicated to making a change to how food is cultivated in urban areas, and yet we recognise that these methods of urban farming methods are not the norm. Undecided on how low you’d go for your greens, or not sure if the only way is up for the future of farming? We believe that urban farming can have a significant role, alongside our wonderful, rural farming heritage.

See Growing Underground on Farmdrop

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