Two entrepreneurs, Richard Ballard and Steven Dring, have teamed up with Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux Jr to create a working farm in an extensive tunnel network beneath London’s Northern Line.
The subterranean farm, which will start trading later this year, will produce a range of micro-herbs, shoots, miniature vegetables, and other delicacies that will be sold to restaurants, supermarkets and wholesalers. The tunnels will provide 2.5 acres of growing space.
The tunnels sit beneath the Northern Line near Clapham North tube station.
A crowdfunding campaign started January 30, giving investors of all sizes the chance to buy a stake in the project from as little as £10. First deliveries of produce to customers are expected to begin in the late summer.
Specially designed structures to house the three-layer growing platforms are currently being constructed in Yorkshire. Growing trials have been conducted over the last 18 months in the tunnels and are still underway.
The farm will be carbon neutral. Special low energy LED bulbs and an integrated hydroponics system are used. One hundred feet of earth above the tunnels keep temperatures steady at around 16 degrees centigrade (60.8 degrees F) all year round and energy consumption at a minimum. Any energy needs will be extracted from green suppliers and the proximity of the tunnels to New Covent Garden market and London’s many restaurants will keep food miles to a minimum.
“When I first met these guys I thought they were absolutely crazy,” says Michel Roux Jr., “but when I visited the tunnels and sampled the delicious produce they are already growing down there I was blown away. The market for this produce is huge.”
Richard Ballard and Steven Dring hatched the idea two years ago after lengthy debates about how to achieve a carbon-free economy and how to deal with the pressures of urban population growth. Since then they have been working out how to bring their vision to reality. Chris Nelson, an expert horticulturalist used to growing crops in some of the harshest conditions on the planet, is a core member of the team.
Richard Ballard says: “Steve and I are thrilled to be close to getting Growing Underground underway. We’ve been experimenting for months. Now that we’ve secured the site we’re kicking off a crowd-funding campaign. We have a detailed business plan and we’ve already had lots of interest from private investors. We’re confident that investors of all sizes will see a significant return on their investment. Integrating farming into the urban environment makes a huge amount of sense and we’re delighted that we’re going to make it a reality.”
He adds: “There is no ‘could’, ‘might’ or ‘maybe’ about our underground farm. We will be up and running and will be supplying produce later this year."
“When we showed Michel our farm for the first time, he thought the rumble he could hear was my stomach,” says Steven Dring. “It was actually a Northern Line train about to go overhead.”
The tunnels were originally used to house people sheltering from air raids in World War II. All fittings and reminders of its past were removed decades ago, although a nearby tunnel network, which retains bunk beds, has been listed by English Heritage.
Full-scale work on the farm will commence in March and the first ‘Growing Underground’ produce will hit restaurants and shops by late summer this year. Initial crops will include a range of exotic herbs and shoots, including Pea Shoots, Rocket, Red Amaranth, Mizuna, Broccoli, Garlic Chives, Red Vein Sorrel, Mustard Leaf, Radish, Coriander, and Thai Basil. Edible flowers and miniature vegetables will also be grown. Stage two crops will include heritage tomato varieties, and mushrooms.
Special filters keep the air in the tunnels free of pests, eliminating the need for pesticides.