We have to grow more food, as a planet, according to Steve Dring, one of the founders of Growing Underground. “Because of climate change, soil erosion and population growth, we need to use technology to find better ways of growing crops more sustainably while intensifying yields. We can no longer rely on conventional agriculture,” he added.
And so Dring and his “partner in crime” Steve Dring created Growing Underground by turning London’s disused World War II air-raid shelter into a salad farm.
Located 33m below street level in Clapham, this urban farm produces salad in a controlled environment — which is said to provide ideal conditions for microgreens, baby leaves and herbs. Specifically, it makes broccoli, salad rocket (arugula), coriander, fennel, pea shoots, sunflower shoots, two types of radish (pink-stemmed and purple), wasabi mustard and red mustard.
Furthermore, its central London location is convenient to distribute the vegetables to hotels, restaurants and shops — reducing the food miles for businesses and consumers. The farm also boasts using 70% less water than conventional agricultural methods.
Growing Underground currently employs 25 people who harvest the crops by hand, but as the farm expands it will move to a more automated harvesting system. It grows crops year-round in a pesticide-free environment, unaffected by the weather and seasonal changes.
Instead of using soil, seeds are planted into mats made out of old carpet offcut, while a spigot supplies nutrients and water to the roots of the plants. Artificial light and warmth is provided by LED lighting. The site is powered with renewable energy.
Currently, Growing Underground is providing produce to wholesalers, local restaurants, and Londoners through Farmdrop — with the idea to hit the retail markets in the near future. Also down the road, it plans to experiment with growing cucumbers and soft fruits, such as strawberries.
We don't think local governments should be in the business of cultivating crops, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't initiate or otherwise support such projects. For start, they could offer their unused spaces — such as former air shelters — to companies interested in making good use of them. Growing vegetables is one of those uses cases as it not only creates jobs but also makes sure (some) citizens get to eat locally produced vegetables.
These are good times for companies in (or entering) the urban farming trend. Compared to a traditional farm, an urban farm requires less space, yet it can deliver much higher yields due to controlled environments and the use of modern technologies. Also, such projects could (or should) be supported by local governments which may see them as job-boosting initiatives as well as those that embrace modern agriculture technologies (so-called "agtech"). Contacting Growing Underground for technology and expertise transfer could be the first step in that direction.