Growing Underground

Where does our food come from?

What can we do to reduce the air/road miles on it?

What does what we eat now mean for our planet in the future? And future generations? And how can we change that?

Down a small alleyway in Clapham, just a stone throw from Clapham North Station and well-known London haunt Infernos is a business asking these questions and actually doing something about them. Just 15 minutes from my house I was lucky enough to be invited to join a public tour to find out a little more.

Growing Underground does exactly what it says on the tin. Launched in 2015 it is exploring a new way of farming in our capital and while a relatively small operation at present the idea is that with greater research, investment and in all honestly demand due to need over the next few years, and for future generations, it will develop into something considered much more normal.

We were lucky enough to be shown round by one of the farms founders, Richard Ballard, who alongside friend Steven Dring despite having no formal background in farming, and initially both having full time jobs in addition to the project, decided to see if they could set up what could be the future of farming under one of the busiest residential neighbourhoods in London.

So, after a quick briefing we descended a winding 33 metre staircase to the farm. Here, in tunnels previously used as air raid shelters during the war, after changing into some very fetching wellies and white coats to ensure we didn’t contaminate the area with nasties brought in from the real world we were greeted with a light pink glow of the growing area; although not yet in ‘the farm’ we were getting close to the action.

Here Rich took the time to explain a little further how by using the latest hydroponic systems and LED technology means their crops are able to be grown year-round in the perfect, controlled pesticide-free environment. How unlike on regular farms their greens are unaffected by the weather and seasonal changes, and how thanks to their prime central location they are even able to reduce the food miles between the farm and fork for retailers and consumers.

He also discussed the plans for growth the company has, explaining the capacity for expansion they have within the tunnels and their hopes for the future and showed us where the crop is hand packed before it heads out to the consumer…normal people, not just fancy restaurants.

Then it was time to enter the farm itself. Through big metal doors this tunnel, its environment carefully controlled, grows all sorts of delicious micro herbs and leaves. Under the pink glowing shelves we were able to see the potential future of farming as well as taste some of the daily harvest. One of the bonuses of micro herbs is that the crops are quick to grow meaning they can harvest quickly and all that we tried definitely packed a punch. Rich was happy to share his knowledge and discuss the farm with the wide range of people on the tour: farmers, foodies and even people who seemed through my amateur eyes wanted to find out as much info as they could so they could set up a farm themselves.

His passion and knowledge really showed through and I don’t think I was alone in leaving inspired to find out more as well as excited to try the box of herbs we were each sent home with (which, FYI, was delicious and available much more readily to joe public than you might think in supermarkets across the country …)

While it’s not always the founders who do the tours these days the farm is open weekly should you wish to take your own journey underground and find out a little more. It’s a working operation and is more laid back and less tourist trap than other food and drink tours I’ve been on which in my opinion makes it all the more exciting. If you’re interested in food and how it, and us, might change in the future I would thoroughly recommend and if it’s the stairs down that are putting you off don’t let it, there’s a lift to take you back up!

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