Growing Underground cultivate micro herbs and salad leaves in its 65,000sq urban farm located 33m below the streets of London. It is now pushing for new investors in a bid to expand its operations and revolutionise Britain’s agriculture.
Using LEDs, hydroponics, data analytics and 100 per cent renewable energy, the 65,000sqm farm has been delivering fresh produce to hundreds of restaurants and supermarkets since 2015.
Now, it is looking to open a new site, at an undisclosed location in the city suburbs, to grow produce next to distribution centres that supply supermarkets across the UK.
The farm’s corresponding push for investors comes at a time when the pandemic has exposed systemic problems and vulnerabilities in global supply chains.
It also chimes with David Attenborough’s recent warning about the critical importance of moving away from exhaustive farming practices to innovative solutions, in his new film A Life on Our Planet.
Growing Underground’s CEO Richard Ballard told the Standard: “Any business starting today has got to think about its impact on the environment and society, and that is one of the key drivers for us.”
Mr Ballad said: “Technology around LED lights has really evolved so it has become possible to grow an enormous amount of produce in a small space.
“We also recirculate water with a hydroponic system so we reduce our impact on resources. We don’t use pesticides and in terms of transportation we grow very close to the point of consumption, so we reduce food miles and food waste.
“We use recycled products for our substrates and the carpets that hold the seeds, so we are working within a circular economy concept,” he added.
The farm also uses only renewable energy from the provider Good Energy, and Mr Ballad said they plan to become entirely carbon neutral by 2021.
But what distinguishes Growing Underground from other CEA operations is that they chose a redundant underground space, which does not require them to use up resources on air movement and temperatures like a greenhouse would.
“Being underground we get a consistent temperature all year round so we don’t need a lot of electricity and power for controlling the environment,” he said.
The farm is run on operation shifts seven days a week, with at least seven people working a day, harvesting greens like Thai basil, coriander, pea shoots, rocket and mustard leaf. The produce is also grown to be very high in nutrition.
Besides selling the produce and (before the pandemic struck) running tours of the underground farm, Growing Underground has also amassed a huge amount of valuable data over the last five years.
The environment is measured with data points around the farm, which is used to find “the perfect temperature, perfect yield, pH of the water, oxygenation of the water and the spectrum of the lights” for growing a product.
For example, in the last five years, Growing Underground has reduced the number of days for cultivating coriander by 50 per cent as well as increasing its yields by 25-30 per cent.
"The data has meant we can tailor environment recipes for the products, giving us a very efficient method.”
Mr Ballad also said the that technology and innovation behind CAE is making agriculture a more attractive industry for young people in developed economies, citing research that found the average age of farmers across the world is 60-years-old.
He said: “This is a new trained way of agriculture — looking at data, looking at the science of growing and intensifying yields and getting the most of a small space as opposed to traipsing across fields and pulling things out.”
Now, after five years of building and growing under Clapham North, Mr Ballard said it is the “right place and the right time to take agriculture to the next level”.
Growing Underground is taking a “two-pronged” approach, Mr Ballard said.
“We already have our first London site and Clapham is big enough to supply a huge amount to the capital’s food service market through places like New Covent Garden Market,” he added.
“But we want to get out there to the wider market as well and we feel that building a second site that supplies into the retail markets and the wider food service is where we want to be.”
This new second site, which is still in the final stages of negotiations, will be on the outskirts of London in order to easily supply the rest of the country.
The company is also looking at other sites where they can build fully automated production lines with seeds in at one end and products out the other.
Mr Ballard said: “We have a few potential sites in our sights and we are just in negotiations at the moment.”
“The plan is to use space close to a current distributor of produce so we are building a proximity farm that feeds directly to that customer.
“And we only need a small space within the current infrastructure of a building to grow produce.”
Upscaling will also mean that the farm can start producing a wider range of crops, that are too costly to grow in CEA at the moment, he said.
For Mr Ballard, Growing Underground is not just about making a profitable and sustainable method of agriculture but it's about building a business that tunes into a changing world.
“We are facing massive problems with the global food production system and we have seen empty fresh product shelves in supermarkets,” he said.
“We’ve had Brexit, the pandemic and many more once-in-a-lifetime extreme weather events than we used to see. In the UK, there have been more storms and extreme weather affecting crops as well as hotter summers.
“And all related to this is climate change. Statistics from the UN saying we have got 40 harvests left due to soil degradation and intensive farming practices.
“So this is a really good time to be looking at alternative sustainable agriculture methods to take us into the middle of this century.
“This probably going to be one of the most disruptive things that has happened in Agriculture since the Agricultural Revolution itself,” he said.