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.