Episode 13: Frontier Farms

Innovative techniques used in the farming sector

Adam's Weekly Blog

Frontier Farms

Frontier Farms

I am standing on a busy corner in South London. Cars are hooting at...
I am standing on a busy corner in South London. Cars are hooting at each other, people’s heads are down as they make their way to work or home and barely anyone notices a padlocked gate to a building set slightly back from the road.

But it is here that a revolution in farming is starting that could help bring agriculture from the leafy countryside right into the heart of our noisy cities.

There is no obvious bell to ring so I shout and a friendly face pops out from a portable office. The face belongs to Steven Dring, who together with Richard Ballard, has built a farm 33 metres below street level in the dark and damp tunnels of an old municipal bomb shelter.

Their company is called Growing Underground.

We pull open the metal doors to the stairwell and take the long walk down the spiral staircase. It looks like a disused railway station but Steve tells us it was a shelter for VIPs during World War Two.

The locals got annoyed that they couldn’t use it and persuaded the authorities to open it to everyone.

At the end of one of the tunnels they have constructed a tent in which they can control the lighting, heating and water supply. To the background sound of the rumbling underground trains which seem to be all around us, they are growing salads for use by restaurants.

One of their backers and customers is Michelle Roux Junior, the Michelin-starred chef and owner of the restaurant La Gavroche, which can be found in another, distinctly more upmarket part of town.

We have lots of filming to do so Steve leaves us to it and heads top-side to sell more salad. He says there is a phone, linked to the surface by a cable, so we can call him if we need to find our way out.

We wandered around with the square LED battery light we use for filming and occasionally turned it on under my face to add to the ghoulish feel of the place. It wasn’t long before we got lost. Every tunnel looked the same. Endless damp tubes seemingly leading to nowhere.

Getting lost was funny, and then it was worrying. If I get lost in central London I just have to jump on a bus to get home but down here, with no obvious way out, it was clear I should never have gone far from the phone connection to the surface.

The crew were more confident of finding our way back and did eventually get us back to the tunnel that was being used to grow salad.

I picked up the phone to say we needed a guide to find our way back to the exit stairs only to find that it wasn’t working. Well at least we wouldn’t starve. We had a tunnel full of salad to keep us going until someone noticed we were missing.

This underground farm is a curious world within a world. A world of opposites: a labyrinth of dark, damp, unlit brick tunnels, where you will find a brightly lit tent, the smell of fresh herbs and the sound of water being pumped round.

But this underground farm isn’t meant to be a novelty. Food miles account for a huge amount of wasted energy in the food industry. Transporting food from farm to fork involves a lot of transportation, packaging, pollution and waste. Bringing food production nearer to where it is consumed can help dramatically cut the waste and pollution.

The company that I am visiting claim that its food can be in a kitchen within four hours of being picked and packed. By using the latest hydroponic systems and LED technology their crops can be grown year-round in the perfect, pesticide-free environment.

Because they have total control over their environment they can create a consistency that helps quality control.

They say their hydroponic system, which uses nutrient-rich water, rather than soil to grow the plans, uses 70% less water than traditional open-field farming. Plus, because all the nutrients are kept within the closed-loop system they apparently run no risk of contributing to agricultural run-off.

Bringing food production closer to where the market is serves as an appealing notion. Whether it can be a significant contribution to world agriculture, is another matter. But who knows, maybe one day the cities will be home to hundreds of underground farms where city inhabitants need only reach below their feet to pluck a carrot and a nice sprig of rosemary.
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