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.
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.