A 15-minute tube ride from Bank and I arrive at Clapham Common to view another example of London repurposing its much sought after urban property. I’m visiting a farm 40 meters below street level which is just 6 miles from the London Stock Exchange.
The entrance to Growing Underground’s subterranean farm is an unassuming ex Transport for London office just off Clapham High Street. After meeting the co-founder Steven Dring, our guide for the visit, we descend in a 70 year old lift into the tunnels below in what still feels very much like a TfL service entrance. The tunnels were originally built in the 1930s as an express northern line route from Clapham into the city, but at the out break of WWII they were utilised instead as air raid shelters for some 8,000 people in the Clapham and Balham areas.
Post war these redundant tunnels were used as document storage and when the lease came up for renewal Steven and his business partner Richard Ballard saw an opportunity and approached TfL with their plan for an urban farm. Following a successful crowd funding campaign [which raised £x0,000] a 25 year lease was signed in 2013.
As we exit the lift we are guided into a boot room to change into white coats, hair nets and white wellies to access the hygienic side of the farm production. What is clear from the outset is that the Growing Underground team are only scratching the surface of the potential for the space. Currently 550m2 are fitted out and operating, but the total lease is for 20,000m2 and there are more disused tunnels down there!
We walk through the tunnels and follow the farming process step by step. The first stage, germination, takes place in a dark warm room, where the seeds are hand sown on to a recycled carpet substrate. After three days the seeds have sprouted enough to move into the growing room. This area has the feel of a laboratory with rows and rows of growing shelves under UV light. The seeds are watered via a hydroponic system which has a blend of nutrients added to it, in the tanks which sit below the main growing area. The water circulation process is highly efficient with enough water to feed the plants and any run off collected in the closed loop system. As the growing environment is tightly controlled and managed there is also no need for pesticides.
Their main products are currently micro herbs including pea shoots, wasabi mustard, watercress, rocket, garlic chives and coriander. Just 12 days after planting the herbs are harvested and packed.
The farm is now supplying regularly to supermarkets such as M&S, direct through small vendors and to the restaurant hospitality sectors. Due to the farms location produce which is cut at 4pm will be on the shelves and dinner plates of diners the following lunch time, drastically reducing the transport miles of traditionally grown herbs.
This innovative and sustainable venture shows that there are uses for disused urban spaces beyond the obvious. With current technology, such as the hydroponic system and lighting, there are alternative ways of approaching traditional businesses such as farming, which can bring real advantages to the consumer and the environment such as reduced water usage, no pesticides and a small carbon foot print as all produce is delivered within the M25.
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