A bomb shelter was built 33 metres beneath Clapham High Street during the Blitz in 1941. Constructed during Britain’s wartime campaign to ‘Grow Your Own’ and to ‘Dig for Victory’, it now serves as an armoury in the fight for sustainable food produce by housing a hydroponic farm.
Old friends and business partners Richard Ballard and Steven Dring founded Growing Underground when they perceived a desperate need for change in a carbon-hungry society. Steven speaks to Tonik about their story so far.
Steven says, “We’re looking at massive population growth. We want to make decent, fresh produce and get it to people as soon as possible.”
London’s population is predicted to grow by 24.4% – some 2 million people – over the next decade. The world will be feeding an additional 2 billion people by 2050. Conventional agriculture poses a rising threat to the environment.
The tunnel is filled with beds in which a base of substrate is flooded by an ebb and flow system to provide moisture and nutrients throughout the day, designed by horticultural director Chris Nelson. The beds are full of micro herbs including pea shoots, radishes, celery, parsley, rocket and coriander.
Any Scout or Brownie compelled to plant a shoot in a sheet of kitchen roll housed in a jam-jar will be familiar with this concept – though Growing Underground’s system is decidedly more sophisticated. Energy efficient LED lights glow for 18 hours a day, their residual heat maintaining a temperature between 16°C and 20°C and creating an optimum environment 365 days a year. Any additional power needed is provided from renewable sources. And with no pesticides there is virtually no pollution.
This method of growing uses 70% less water than traditional open-field farming, while year-round production reduces food miles both for retailers and consumers.
This closeness between grower and consumer is something that is a constant source of inspiration for Steven who worries about ‘this disconnect between growers and consumers’. He recalls meeting children shocked to learn that the chicken they ate didn’t ‘come’ from the supermarket. Growing Underground works with neighbouring schools to educate children on food production, which Steven describes as itself ‘a legitimate form of growing’.
Growing Underground’s produce is so fresh that it can be cut, boxed, and transported to New Covent Garden Market within just 4 hours. The speed from harvest to table won the support of Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux Jr. who serves as a member of the board. Growing Underground has about 20 different products being trialled at the moment – in the future they hope to grow soft fruits, baby cucumbers and aubergines.
Steven Dring cites Dickson Despommier, the author of ‘Vertical Farm’ – a book calling for the adoption of large scale hydroponic farms – as an inspiration. Others inspired by Despommier have reimagined disused office blocks as urban farms, including Europe’s largest – De Schilde, in The Hague – home to over 12,000 square metres of greenhouses.
Growing Underground wasn’t always a subterranean venture, it was found by coincidence. While working as a filmmaker, Richard was researching locations for a shoot and discovered the low-rent tunnels; a perfect cost-effective alternative to tower blocks. Transport for London allowed them to trial using the space as a farm before they signed a 25-year lease.
How did Steven enjoy receiving the keys to an abandoned bomb shelter with no light, electrics, or a working lift? “I promise you, it was spooky as hell.”
Steven remains modest about their success. His greatest achievement was winning a BBC Food and Farming award: “a prestigious accolade that acknowledges all of the hard work it took to get to that stage.”
He characterises his humility as determination, given that Growing Underground is still a few months away from breaking even. “That’s the difference between a startup and a business”, he elaborates, “we built a for-profit model because we felt we could have more impact doing that, and show the investment community that they can invest in sustainable startups and make a return.”
Laughing at his own double-entendre, he reiterates the importance of growth, in his own words he is ‘very much an optimist.’
Part of Steven’s optimism is invested in being part of a changing business community, the heart of which is sustainability and impact. He describes his joy at seeing other startups ‘working on impact, and on anything other than starting a business to make money, only to make more stuff.’
This is central to what Growing Underground set out to do. The underground gimmick may not last as they expand into new spaces but the maverick idea is essential. Steven asserts, “I like it; we want to maintain this slightly subversive brand”, giggling, he adds, “someone’s got to make salads sexy!”