The lift door clunks shut and we head deep underground into a WW2 air raid shelter below Clapham, London.
One hundred and twenty feet down, we reach the ‘growing floor’: a pink glow lights our path emanating from thousands of LED grow lamps. The LED lights sit above an impressive variety of herbs set on racking four high from floor to ceiling and stretching back as far as the eye can see.
We meet Richard Ballard and Steven Dring who started ‘Growing Underground’ in 2014. They had been friends from school in Bristol and it was over a few pints in a London pub that the idea for the business first came up. Steven says, “Granted, sustainability and city farming isn’t your usual pub chat, but at the time Rich was reading ‘The Third Industrial Revolution’ by Jeremy Rifkin and ‘The Vertical Farm’ by Dr Dickson Despommier.” Rich was convinced there was a sustainable business to be built here in London. At the time he was studying a film degree aged forty-one.
Rich chuckles and says, “Maybe it was a bit of a mid-life crisis but it’s worked out pretty well.” On scouting for a film that he was putting together, he came across the tunnels. Now they had an idea and a potential location. Back in the pub, Steve decided it was time to check out and see if the business ideas were viable. His background was in writing business models, building cost models and legal frameworks. He quickly found that one of the only growth sectors in the last recession was the green sector, so knew there must be a business case here
Two years later, after lots of research, business planning and cost forecasting, the two had the basis to build a business. Steven says, “I remember chatting to an investor saying we’re a start-up. She replied, ‘Darling you’re not a start-up, you’re an idea’.” But the two managed to raise £650,000 on their first round of crowdfunding, enough to move into premises and take the research onto a commercial scale.
Hydroponics is nothing new, but growing micro herbs underground in the country’s capital with a sustainable focus was pretty unique. Steven says, “We went from one small 1m x 1m UV light in a tunnel as an experiment to large scale commercial farming very fast.” On the first day of crowdfunding, the story was picked up by the BBC, ITV, CNN, CBS and other news channels. The pair got a call from a friend who said, “Boys, you are in the ‘Times of Mumbai’ today!” Steven said, “In a short space of time we knew then this could really take off.”
“We went from one small 1m x 1m UV light in a tunnel as an experiment to large scale commercial farming very fast.”
The London tunnels are a surprisingly perfect home for the plants. Unlike traditional farming, they are unaffected by the weather, have no use for pesticides, and require seventy per cent less water. The plants get exactly the right nutrients, light and watering they need consistently all year round. All the inputs into the farm are sustainable and the company sources renewable energy to power the lights. They also currently only supply to London-based suppliers creating very few food miles. Rich says, “As soon as you cut the product you are losing flavour. The fact we are in London and only supply to London businesses means we can get our product into suppliers around forty-eight hours faster than any of the competitors and sometimes onto diners’ plates that same day.”
The herbs are grown in trays without soil and are fed with nutrient-laden water, 90% of which is cleaned and recycled. They’ve grown forty different products successfully over the years but are currently concentrating on ten micro herbs such as pea shoots and mustard leaf and some lesser known varieties like mizuna and red amaranth. Steven says, “We are currently experimenting with more micros and baby leaf salads as well as other produce such as strawberries and tomatoes. We have plenty of space to fill down here.”
Not only are the pair dedicated to growing the most flavour-packed greens around, they also want to bring the grower and consumer closer together, engaging with schools and education programmes. Steven says, “There is also the sustainable side of the business making sure we are carbon neutral and finally we want to create a great return for our investors.” Growing Underground has taken an unloved space in the city and turned it into a future-proof business model. They currently feed London but have the ability to move into cities all over the world, growing year-round food for an increasing population on a sustainable basis whatever the weather above ground.