At the Farm Shop in Dalston, East London, the concept of food miles is a nonsense. That’s because all the fresh produce that is sold in the shop or eaten in the café is literally grown right on the premises, obviating the costs of packing, marketing and distribution networks. By CRISTINE BROWN-PAUL
The farm produces many different products, including lettuce and mushrooms as well as fish and prawns in a system of tanks. There are even chickens housed on a rooftop coop and pigsties in a garden where pigs roam between raised beds and a polytunnel.
The venue serves coffee and food, and hosts music nights and talks. Rooms are rented out for meetings and office space.
The Farm Shop project is the brainchild of Something & Son, an eco-design company and was created as an experiment to test the viability of producing and selling such fresh project in a heavily populated urban area.
Principal members of the Something & Son collective are Paul Smyth, an engineer and designer, Sam Henderson, a farmer, and Andy Merritt, an artist. Sharing a common love of finding creative solutions, the three founders say they want to offer people a way to engage with a concept of sustainability that is enjoyable, relevant and local.
The project also represents the successful collaboration of many partners, including Hackney Council, Aquaponics UK, Growell and Church Farm.
Co-founder Paul Smyth says: “Having done our own projects before, we all had a frustration with seeing urban farming visualised rather than done. We decided to try and do it.”
The idea originated in 2010 after Hackney Council ran a project to elicit ideas as to how disused shop fronts could get working again. Something & Son’s bid to create an urban farm in a shop was accepted and the initiative was underway.
The Farm Shop uses a range of different hydroponic, aquaponic and aeroponic methods to grow crops for retail. Within the aquaponic system, tilapia fish live in two large tanks, with their waste used to fertilise floating rafts of lettuce, chard, chives and other plants while freshwater prawns scavenge the waste at the end of the cycle, filtering the water before it recirculates.
The project also uses bubbleponics, which takes aeroponics to the next level with the delivery of highly oxygenated nutrient-enriched water directly to the inner root zone to create healthier roots.
“We use this to get the seedlings growing quicker and get them ready for the aeroponics system,” Paul says.
“Now we’ve got tilapia plus lettuce and herbs. Primarily, we grow Red Oak as well as chives.”
The three Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle – provided the maxim by which the shop was initially set up and this, together with a communal approach to labour has meant that the group has managed to keep costs relatively low.
“Everything in the shop has been done for less than £3,000 (AU$4909), “Paul says.
“We’ve reused, recycled, made use of shared networks with our partners such as Aquaponics UK, and also had local help from volunteers. For example, we had a former tilapia farmer from Bangladesh come in and offer his expertise in caring for the fish.”
Aquaponics UK is a not-for-profit social enterprise, providing support for setting up aquaponics systems in the UK. The group provides a broad range of services, from supporting domestic growers to full turnkey commercial systems, including design and build.
“In 2010, Charlie Price from Aquaponics UK came in to help us with the set-up of the aquaponics system. Of course, it has evolved over time as we make experimental changes,” Paul says.
Currently, although still open to the public seven days a week, the Farm Shop is undergoing a phase of renewal.
“One of the major challenges we have encountered at the shop is in trying to balance a number of different systems we deal with on a daily basis, all of which require different approaches,” Paul says.
“We are working on renewing and replacing systems, and streamlining the operation to make it easier and simple to run.”
Urban self-sufficiency: planting ideas
Space in the shop is at a premium and every inch is used economically and thoughtfully with plants growing everywhere. Upstairs, hydroponic chillies and tomatoes thrive, with any excess heat produced piped to other areas of the shop. In the basement, mushrooms are growing while kefir bacteria – used for fermenting drinks – is cultivated in jars in the entrance corridor.
“The idea here is to grow the maximum amount of food as efficiently as possible, keeping the labour to minimum,” Paul says.
Fellow co-founder Sam Henderson says he also wants the Farm Shop to be ‘a place where people can interact with farming’ and where new ideas and innovations can thrive as well as plants.
“We wanted it to be a place where people want to come. And by doing that, we expose it to people who may not otherwise have been interested,” he says.
Both agree on the importance of urban self-sufficiency.
“One of the most important aims behind setting up the Farm Shop was to help people understand how food is grown and to provide an inspiration for people who might like to try something like this in their own homes, though probably on a smaller scale” Paul says.
An open experiment, the Farm Shop is the flagship project of a bigger initiative: FARM: London, which is a movement that aims to turn unused or run down city areas in London into productive urban agricultural spaces.
“There are two aims. One is to do what we’ve done here and take over old buildings and spaces, helping people to grow food commercially. The other is that as we’re in a unique position where we’ve got a café, we control the type of food we buy,” Paul says.
“Instead of going through traditional wholesale routes, we want to do two things: link up with Church Farm where Sam works out in Hertfordshire, to get our meat and various other things that it’s not appropriate to grow in the city.
“Secondly, we would like to get people in their own gardens and on their balconies growing food for us. We give you a pack of seeds, you turn over half your lawn to grow greens to sell to us,” he says.
“As this is something a lot of people want to do as a hobby, and in a recession especially people tend to have more time on their hands, why not earn a bit of money from it and supplement your income?”
“This will become a hub around which we can create a network selling surplus to local businesses and restaurants, as well as having a box scheme,” Paul says.
“That way, the food supply chain is shortened, minimised and simplified.”
“We need to be farming differently, and just urban agriculture alone isn’t even close to the answer,” adds Sam.
“We need to mimic nature, and to be growing many different crops, and fitting animals in between. To support this kind of farming we need more people on the land.
“So farms need a closer relationship with the city with more money going into the land and communities, rather than marketing, advertising and distribution,” he says.
“We need to try and think of farms as places for people rather than just as mines for food.”
“There are lots of reasons for growing food: it brings communities together, it’s fun and there are wellbeing benefits,” Paul says.
“But we also feel the need to prove that it’s commercially viable in this context. If we can do it successfully here, perhaps this approach can be part of a more intricate and creative economy.”
By 2050, the world population is expected to grow to over nine billion and proponents of ‘vertical farming’ believe growing food in cities would use less land and resources than traditional outdoor methods, reduce transport costs and fossil-fuel emissions.
Paul believes that vertical farming can provide a cost-effective solution that will increase yields, helping to meet growing demand.
“Currently, we’re scouting for a suitable site in London for a large-scale rooftop garden. FARM have recently raised R&D funding towards building a prototype rooftop urban farm. This is the first step towards realising our plan to build a 3000- square metre farm on a London rooftop,” Paul says.
The farm will grow over 200 tonnes of vegetables, fish and mushrooms with no food miles and zero waste.
Food will be grown using FARM:’s unique approach, which integrates aquaponic fish farming and hydroponics, poultry and mushroom growing in a high yield environmentally friendly system.
“We plan to focus on growing soft leaf lettuces for the most part. We’ve also had lots of interest in Thai basil and other exotic plants so we’ll also look at growing these on the rooftop,” he says.
Looking ahead, Paul and his fellow founders of the Farm Shop have a clear vision.
“If you can create a positive image of what the future might look like, and be honest that it’s an experiment, be honest that you don’t know everything, then there’s huge potential,” he says.
(For more information visit: www.farmlondon.weebly.com)
About the author
Christine Brown-Paul is a Sydney-based journalist with a special interest in the environment and sustainable technology. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
PH&G August 2013 / Issue 134