The agricultural revolution has started in Clapham
After two years in the planning, entrepreneurs Steven Dring and Richard Ballard teamed up with Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux Jr last year to launch Growing Underground - London’s first and only subterranean farm.
Located 33 metres beneath the streets of Clapham, the farm is set in an extensive underground tunnel network that was previously used as a Second World War bomb shelter. Large enough to fit 8,000 people, it’s been fitted with state of the art lighting, hydroponics, a specially designed ventilation system and a sophisticated irrigation system, that enables the farm to harvest an array of fresh herbs, salad and vegetables such as pea shoots, rocket, red lion mustard, pak choi and miniature broccoli. In fact twenty individual herbs are being cultivated and supplied to markets, wholesalers and the public, via doorstep delivery service Farmdrop.co.uk.
What about the quality of the produce?
With a partner Steven explains, “our crops are grown year-round in the perfect, pesticide-free environment that these forgotten tunnels provide. Thanks to the controlled environment, each tiny leaf tastes as amazing as the last. The constant temperature and absence of pests contribute to the exceptional quality of our produce.”
In addition to fantastic quality of their food, the duo is not short on quantity either. The depth of the tunnel means that the temperature remains at a steady 16C, allowing crops to grow 52 weeks a year without any need to worry about the seasons, frost or drought.
Labour of Love
For Steven and Richard, Growing Underground is more than a business. It’s a passion that offers a viable solution to the pressure of urban population growth in a way that has zero effect on the environment. In order to achieve this, Steven and Richard only work with green suppliers, and prioritise sustainable growing practices. Steven explains, “our hydroponics system uses 70% less water than traditional open-field farming, and all the nutrients are kept within the closed-loop system, removing any risk of agricultural run-off.” He adds “As we’re limiting food miles by keeping our produce local, our leaves can be in your kitchen within 4 hours of being picked and packed.”
And this is exactly what attracted Michel Roux Jr, Michelin-starred chef and co-director of Growing Underground to get involved. A long-time Clapham resident, Roux heard about the ambitious project and needed little convincing to visit. He says "there's a growing demand for sustainably, locally grown produce in London. And although I thought Steven and Richard were absolutely crazy, when I visited the tunnels and sampled the produce they are already growing down there, I was blown away.” He continues “I’ve enjoyed working with the team on the development of the offering and I am confident that these amazing herbs will be extremely popular with Londoners. They’ll certainly be a fixture on the menu at Le Gavroche and I am developing a recipe with Growing Underground herbs at its centre.”
And Roux hasn’t been the only one to see the potential in the project.
Former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who supported the original idea for the farm through the LSDC's London Leaders business start-up programme, said about the project: “This is a fine example of the dynamic start-ups that are helping London lead the world in green business innovation. I wish Growing Underground every success.”
The London Leaders programme was established by the London Sustainable Development Commission in 2008. The programme aimed to bring together some of the most exciting and innovative new leaders in sustainable business, helping them to demonstrate sustainability in action in the City.
Where do the two West Country entrepreneurs plan to take the business next? “Eventually we'd like to go beyond underground to grow vertically – use the tiny footprint of a high rise and convert it into a farm," says Dring. "Urban farming will be the farming of the future." In terms of what else is happening out there, although there have been stories of rival projects, such as mushrooms growing in rail tunnels below Oxford Street, “they are just concepts at the moment”, says Dring. "We are way past the concept stage. But if other people are going to do this then fine – we want this to spread.
The final word goes to Richard Ballad: “We’re hoping Londoners will support us by buying our produce. This is about sustainably feeding the city from within the city and contributing to our community through food, jobs and education’.
Where can you buy some?
If you’re looking to get your hands on Growing Undergound herbs, you can order them from farmdrop.co.uk or visit Ted’s Veg at Borough Market, the London Farmers Market, County Supplies London, West Green Foods, 4DegreesC, or P&I wholesalers.