Growing Deeper Under­ground

Deep below the suburban streets of London, beneath the feet of hurried commuters, lies some­thing unex­pected – a farm, in a converted World War Two air raid bunker.

Some 33m below the streets of Clapham, the world’s first subter­ranean farm was the brain­child of co-founders Richard Ballard and Steven Dring. It was their attempt to address the issues affecting modern agri­cul­ture: Sustain­able produc­tion amid increasing food demand. But why in a bunker? Mr Ballard became inter­ested in the hidden parts of London when he was scouting for filming loca­tions for his film degree. “In my final thesis I wrote about feeding the growing popu­la­tion. The UN reported that there would be an extra 3bn people in the world by 2050 and 70-80% would be living in cities,” he explains. “I became fasci­nated in how we were going to feed all these people with agri­cul­ture being respon­sible for 30% of CO2 emis­sions.”

The pair devel­oped an idea for Growing Under­ground in 2012 and by 2014 they were completing research and design. Then they started a crowd funder, raising £650,000, with investors including Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux and major salad producer G’s Fresh.

The bunker is around 65,000 square feet; around 6,000m long and comprises two long tunnels. “It has sort of a mezza­nine, which on the top level has the farm and the bottom equip­ment and util­i­ties,” says Mr Ballard.

Growing year round in the perfect, pesti­cide-free envi­ron­ment that these forgotten tunnels provide.

Fresh From under­ground

But how do you grow crops under­ground? The latest hydro­ponic systems and LED tech­nology mean the crops can be grown within a closed loop, so there’s no nutrient run-off, no pesti­cides, and with 70% less water use than tradi­tional open-field farming. Using LED lights and dehu­mid­i­fiers creates a stable envi­ron­ment for the plants, at a constant temper­a­ture of 20-23°C – and of course the plants are unaf­fected by the vagaries of the English weather.

The farm currently grows pea shoots, sunflower shoots, water­cress, rocket, mustard leaf, mizuna, radishes, garlic chive, fennel and coriander. And producing salad right beneath the streets of London cuts down food miles.

The firm now supplies New Covent Garden Market about half a mile down the road, as well as major retailers including Ocado, Marks & Spencer, Wait­rose, Tesco and Whole Foods. “We send out around 2,000 punnets a day, but we can send up to 15,000 at full capacity,” says Mr Ballard.