33 meters below ground level, Richard Ballard is growing his vegetables by hydroponic and vertical cultivation and with renewable energy. Visiting a British pioneer of urban farms of the future.
London, from our correspondent (text and photos)
Latest travels and health status declared: check. Jewelry removed: check. Hairnet and rubber boots slipped on: check. Visiting the Growing Underground farm requires several rigorous steps.
As opposed to than an outing in nature, we are about to enter a lift with industrial charm. 33 meters below ground level, we find ourselves in tunnels belonging to TFL, the London transport company, rented to Richard Ballard and his partner Steven Dring so that they could set up their underground farm, in fact, rather a food production company, Growing Underground. 528m2 of vertical production for 60 tons of microgreens per annum—a production that could increase to 400 tons, assures the founder. Chives, snow pea sprouts, coriander, fennel, purple radishes, mustard…
The cycle of these microgreens is quick. The dissemination period, during which the seeds are kept in water then sowed on humidified recycled carpets on cellophane wrapped shelves to retain humidity, lasts six days. The plants are then placed in the farm where they grow by hydroponics (cultivation in water) thanks to the light from the LEDs for five to twelve days. The microgreens will then be harvested and distributed within a few hours to local wholesalers. A 0 kilometer circuit, or just about, that enables you to limit the carbon footprint and have a few days longer for shelf life, thereby reducing food waste.
“We wanted to supply super-local food for the city inside the city, explains Richard Ballard. We visited empty apartments to set up our vertical farms but real estate prices were too high.” The advantage of these tunnels is that it would be hard to find another use for them, “apart from storage maybe.”
Battery operated renewable energy
The pair moved below ground in 2012. A cinema student back then, Richard Ballard was finishing a thesis on the future of cities and the means to create enough food and energy to meet the needs of a population with exponential growth—9.8 billion people in 2050 estimated the United Nations in 2017. “I started to look for ideas around hidden London. I wanted to know the story of what happened underground and the future of cities on the surface, how we would organize ourselves in a lasting and efficient manner, and with what technologies.” For four years, the founders tested and experimented growing methods. In 2016, once the necessary permits were obtained, they were ready to enter the market.
Richard Ballard is an avid reader of futurologists like Jeremy Rifkin, whose shared 3.0 energy concept—renewable, produced by individuals and easily transferable—particularly inspired him. “The problem with renewable energy is that it is intermittent, he explains. Storage with batteries resolves this: When there is energy, the battery accumulates it, when there isn’t it uses it.” In an industry where the cost of energy is a key parameter, “the exponential development of technologies” is a key challenge, analyzes Richard Ballard.
At Growing Underground, production is supplied at 100% with renewable energy, via the supplier Good Energy, that guarantees the energy source as solar, hydraulic or wind turbine. Waste is recycled in energy. “We send the substrate on which we grow our crops to a cogeneration power station that turns them into electricity.” Finally, the hydroponics system uses 70% less water than traditional open-field farming, assures Richard Ballard.
“We are working hard towards carbon neutral certification. Everything we buy for the farm, each product, each service, includes a carbon cost. We have a consultant counting and we are compensating.” Today, the carbon footprint of Growing Underground is not neutral yet. “Our priority is to reach the equilibrium,” says Ballard.
He is relying on technology breakthroughs and particularly on the automation of certain tasks. For the moment, sowing, moving the trays, harvesting and cleaning are done manually. “All that will be automated” eventually, hopes the company head.
He also gathers a lot of data (C02, temperature, air speed, humidity) and works in collaboration with Cambridge university that analyzes it, particularly with machine learning tools. All this data, dissected to ascertain the best production conditions, will be “valuable information for the industry,” he assures. It will enable the determination of the ideal “light recipe” for plant growth: “Each LED manufacturer gives a different light spectrum for each culture, we are still in the early stages. In future, we will certainly have the appropriate light recipe for each seed to give its maximum.”
Birth of an industry
Growing Underground has just completed a second funding round and raised to date £1.8 million (€2.04 million) for a projected turnover of £400,000 (€453,920) in 2018. Although the company hasn’t reached a financial balance, it is the objective within the next few months.
In order to do so, it will need to convince more points of sale. “We are talking to them but it takes time,” admits Richard Ballard. Growing Underground supplies nearly one hundred supermarkets at the moment, mainly high end trading names like M&S, Whole Foods, Farmdrop or Ocado, on top of the New Covent Garden wholesale market. But it has the resources to intensify production: only 50% of the fully equipped floor space is being used. “When we reach 100%, we will be profitable,” assures Ballard.
Urban agriculture is still an experimental industry. Confident, Ballard is planning on investing soon in R&D. “In 2050, we will need 70% more food, we will have to invent new ways of producing.”
Other actors took up this niche in London, like GrowUp Urban Farms, a vertical farm using open aquaponics that opened in 2013 but has just closed its unit in the East End, or Green Lab, a food tech workshop we visited. They all maintain good relationships, says Ballard. In fact, Richard Ballard and Andrew Gregson, founder of Green Lab, are having talks at the moment. “We would like to set up a structure to bring together the London producers in order to have a stronger case.” After the Guild of Makers, urban farmers of the future’s turn?
Read also the visit of the first organic urban farm in Paris, la Caverne