A Second World War air-raid tunnel below the streets of Clapham in south London is the stage for this budding micro-herb business, supplying super-fresh produce to local chefs. Lisa Jenkins investigates
Just a short stroll from Clapham North tube station, there's a business that barely merits a second glance on the surface.
However, 177 echoing steps down, you will find Growing Underground, an innovative subterranean start-up that has geared up to full commercial production in the past six months.
New Covent Garden Market's wholesale distributor, County Supplies London, is the exclusive distributor for Growing Underground's range of micro herbs, which include pea shoots, radish, mustard, coriander, red amaranth, celery, parsley and rocket.
"Having a product of this high quality grown on our doorstep 365 days a year is what it's all about," said Rob Hurren, managing director of County Supplies London. "We're very proud that Growing Underground has chosen us."
Richard Ballard and Steven Dring
Although micro herbs are grown by many competitors in the UK and Europe, the location of the company dramatically increases the speed its product can be brought to the London market, and it means fewer emissions are produced during transportation.
Steven Dring, one of the founders of the business, explains: "It's all about the freshness. Local supply is important because of the flavour, not just because of the geography and the low food miles. If chefs are enjoying the flavour of the product, they will keep using it."
After dreaming up the original idea over a pint in 2012, business partners Richard Ballard and Dring approached Lambeth Council and received the keys to the disused Second World War air-raid tunnels. "They were very supportive. Lambeth is a really great borough for food production," adds Dring.
The site, 33 metres underground, was originally designed to accommodate 8,000 Londoners during wartime air raids. The temperatures below ground are a steady 16°C and this, along with the dimensions of the tunnels, makes them ideal for growing leafy crops using LED lighting.
For 18 months, the pair tested the technology and researched the market. "We embedded ourselves in New Covent Garden for about six months," says Dring. "We walked around every night and talked to the guys to understand what was being used."
The pair have now perfected a system of LED lights, hydroponic drip irrigation and bespoke ventilation in a sealed, clean-room environment. The urban farm can supply products year-round, free from the vagaries of the weather, seasons and pests.
Growing Underground is designed to be a carbon-neutral business and sources its energy from green suppliers. The founders believe that their pioneering concept helps to demonstrate a model for increasing the security of food supply and exploiting underused space in any urban environment.
The Roux connection
Chef Michel Roux Jr has recently joined Growing Underground as a business partner and is helping the founders to grow the business. There are plans to sell direct to the consumer and expand into adjacent tunnels and increase their range of crops.
Ballard is excited about the potential of this method of food production on a global scale."LED technology is in its infancy," he says. "But while leafy greens and salad crops can be grown very economically, it will take some years to reliably cultivate crops such as maize and soya. Give us five or 10 years and, rather than cut down the Amazon rainforest, we will be able to have vertical farm stacks on the outskirts of cities.
"It will be much easier to automate in a closed environment and easier to ship out."
Unit C16-20, New Covent Garden Market
020 7720 3160
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