Farming beneath London’s city streets

An air raid shelter in London is been used to produce salad crops. The laboratory of Growing Underground in Clapham may seem like a cannabis factory to first time spectators.

Richard Ballard is one of co-founders of Growing Underground, which is an urban farm, grown 33m underneath the streets of Clapham. It was previously a World War Two air raid shelter.

The concept of an underground farm is built on the fact that the controlled environment works very well for micro greens, baby leaf and for some full grown herbs.

According to Richard Ballard, the crops are produced close to the point of consumption so that it can be instantly transported to London’s central hub which in return distributes over the capital, to various retailers, restaurants and hotels.

The underground farm uses 77% less water than most of the conventional agricultural methods and the produce is grown without soil. It uses nutrients and water which is carried to the bench and to the plant with the help of a spigot, which then fills the bench. The roots then look down for water and nutrient.

“The crops that we grow have a lot of nutrient in the seed, and because we grow those in a very short turnaround time, anything from 5-12 days, they’re using a lot of that nutrient from the seed,” commented Ballard on the crop production.

Furthermore, the farm uses artificial light, LEDs, instead of natural sunlight and the question remains if this method is energy efficient. According to Ballard, the LEDs produces heat which is perfect for the growth of certain crops. Moreover, the farm is powered entirely by renewable energy and Ballard adds that the team is working towards carbon neutrality.

In the near future, soft fruits like strawberries and cucumbers can also be grown under a controlled environment. However, Ballard is not optimistic about producing root vegetables and potatoes using the same method, since they can be grown more efficiently outside.

The business of vertical farming is currently employing 25 people and the project is harvested with the help of knives at the moment. Ballard hints the project will use automated system in the near future.

The concept of farming in controlled environments is adopted increasingly in warehouses or on top of the buildings in the cities, an optimistic growth in the industry is therefore expected in the future.