Richard Ballard and Steven Dring have been growing vegetables and micro-herbs that can survive a bomb blast.
That’s because these two urban farmer-founders have been using a Second World War air-raid shelter as their first controlled environment agriculture site for their London-based agtech startup Growing Underground.
The pair first rented this space from Transport for London back in March 2015. For the last few months, they have been offering “Founder Tours” of their hydroponics-grown produce to a curious mix of scientists, reporters, agri-tourists, investors, politicians, environmentalists, film scouts and celebrity chefs eager to graze on sprigs of wasabi or pea-shoots..
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Dring wastes little time in setting the scene: “Five-inch steel plate on the roof, designed to take a direct hit from a 500-pound German bomb,” he explains tersely. “The walls are 6 feet thick in places. Double helix staircases. Lift shaft down the center. Goes down 130 feet. By the time you get downstairs, you’ve got 70,000 square feet of space.”
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What was all this space doing disused in the heart of South London?
It’s one of many historical quirks relating to the world’s first underground passenger railway, known to Londoners as the Tube. The interior looks like vaulted Tube tunnels. Which is because this was one of eight bomb shelters, designed to hold up to 8,000 people each, that were built to be converted, in peacetime, to a second and faster Northern Line. The aim was to reduce crowds and commuter times. Yet in post-war Britain, these eight shelters were never linked up (a perhaps irritating fact for today’s rush hour commuters on the Northern Line.) Instead, it was used for static purposes throughout the Cold War, including government document storage, before falling into disuse.
The elevator trundles downwards. By farm level, you still hear the sounds of the Northern Line; its trains rumbling along two storeys above.
Test Tube For the Future of Farming
Dring then throws on a white doctor’s coat over his tweed jacket. He dons a blue hairnet and a pair of wellington boots before washing his hands. It is as though he were about to step into an operating theater. Working down here is about science and the future of farming far more than historical posterity when it comes down to it, he says as we step inside the farm.
The tunnels glow pink, with layers of hydroponic vegetable beds growing under the Finnish firm Valoya’s wide spectrum LED growing lights. Scientists from the University of Cambridge, led by Dr Ruchi Choudhary, have set up sensors to track and analyse growth rates under variable conditions.
“We have been monitoring environmental conditions for the past three years, to identify optimal growing conditions, while minimising resource use,” says Melanie Jans-Singh, a member of the research team.
The data generated are bound for the Alan Turing Institute for data crunching.
The founders expect the findings from these data will help the Growing Underground team to simulate conditions in a widening variety of underground conditions with a broadening range of herbs and vegetables.
“We know the environmental recipe for about 100 products. We’ve grown micro-herbs, baby leaf salads, pea shoots. We’re starting trials on whole head lettuce,” says Dring. According to company estimates, circa 700kg of fresh produce is delivered per week currently. This is projected to rise to over 4200kg at full capacity across a mix of products.
To meet and ultimately surpass these targets, the founders say plans are now afoot to expand into the remaining space at their Clapham site in South London. (Much of it is still empty and sublet occasionally for movie sets.) But they are planning to expand to at least three other underground sites nationally. “There are tens of millions of square meters of underground space that we have been offered in the UK, and out of that we have identified the relevant sites,” he says.
What about logistics? Aside from being closer to market, Dring, who has a background in logistics, has already brokered partnerships with major UK retailers, including Marks and Spencer, Waitrose, Ocado, farm-to-consumer eGrocer Farm Drop, Planet Organic, and specific high-end restaurants who they supply via New Covent Garden, a fresh produce hub. “We are projected to penetrate that to a level that would require us to have four farms in the UK.”
Soil degradation, population growth, further automation and climate change will all play into the hands of underground farming globally, the founders claim, offering year-round and locally sourced fresh produce with low energy inputs.
In the UK context, one groundbreaking study by PWC from 2014 estimated that up to 95% of UK supermarket Asda’s fresh produce supply chain is at risk from climate change. Already, hotter, less predictable seasons have disrupted supplies of strawberries and lettuces in the UK in recent years. Underground, seasonal temperature fluctuations are largely taken out of the equation, meaning there could be many other climate-adapting countries where subterranean farming may fill a niche in the not too distant future. “The conversations we’re having include China, the Middle East, India, South Korea, the United States. We’re at that point of making sure we are taking advantage of global opportunities,” says Dring, declining to comment more specifically on vague references to joint ventures in the offing.
Funding in an Age of Plenty
So far, Growing Underground, with its team of twenty-two, has raised £2.7 million through crowdfunding platform Crowdcube, and a slice of corporate investment from G’s Global, a large scale vegetable producer and distributor.
Recent funding rounds for similar-minded companies provide cause for hope for this team and their focus on indoor controlled environment farming. In 2017, indoor vertical farming company Plenty managed to raise $200 million of Series B funding, led by Softbank’s Vision Fund. Similarly, in December 2018, Bowery Farming, the New York-based indoor farming group, secured a $90 million Series B round, led by Google’s venture arm GV.
Plenty and Bowery grow produce in vertically-stacked warehouses. Cambridge researcher Jans-Singh says the Growing Underground case study is a slightly different proposition. “By being underground,” she writes, “the boundary temperatures of the greenhouse are more stable year-round, thus reducing the need for heating and cooling, and the farm can function without heating in winter, by simply reusing the waste heat of the lighting.”
Even so, could the breakthroughs of companies like Plenty and Bowery be misleading beacons of hope from across the Atlantic? After all, the London scene is another fundraising environment. If London’s political and media scene are anything to go by, things are looking up. Growing Underground has received warm words of support from politicians like London Mayor Sadiq Khan and his predecessor Boris Johnson. They’ve even secured high profile advice from celebrity chef Michel Roux Jr, an early convert. But as they open their Series A funding round soon, it still remains to be seen if their political and media sparkle translates into investors venturing underground with similar conviction that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Nevertheless, funding or no funding, Dring reckons his firm is in hot pursuit of his deeper-pocketed American rivals: “We’ve taken a different approach to our peers in the US. We’ve proven the profitability of the model, developed then tested the technology, optimised the farm through data capture and analysis, stressed the logistics, built a solid customer base, and now it’s time to rapidly scale”.
Image: Martin Cervenansky