What inspired the GU concept?
“The Growing Underground concept was inspired by, if you zoom out, really big world problems. Whether it was growing populations, intensification of agriculture or the effects of agricultural run-off, it was all these really big world problems. For us it was a case of how can you zoom in and do something ourselves to be part of that change.”
Can you tell us a bit about vertical farming, what it is and the trend in vertical farming?
“The trend that we’re seeing in vertical farming came about by a book written by Dickson Despommier called The Vertical Farm which was encouraging people to grow using a small footprint of land in a city and then growing vertically using agricultural technology, hydroponics and LED lighting. We took that concept one step further when the footprint of land in central London was very expensive and took that technology and put it underground. We knew that hydroponics and LED lighting would work within an office block; therefore we challenged that one step further and said can we do that without any natural light and do it within a tunnel. So 2 – 3 years of testing and we get to where we are today which is a fresh produce business.”
And how is it being seen globally?
“You’ve seen vertical farms pop up around the world. Singapore playing a major part in the UA (Urban Agriculture) you’re looking at this on a massive scale just because of the fact that they import 90% of their fresh produce. And then you see it in cities like New York where they’re building greenhouses on top of stores so customers can see where their fresh produce is being grown and that produce then makes its way into the store below. So there’s a social education piece as well as the fresh produce being grown above you. So we’re seeing Urban Agriculture and also vertical farming, kind of a few different phrases that are popping up at the moment. They’re all coming together and coalescing rank growing within cities. So I see it being a major part of food production in the future.”
What types of technological innovation has Growing Underground created?
“The journey we’ve been on and the technology we’ve embraced only really came about because of the breakthroughs in LED technology and those enhancements of LEDs and the spectrum that they now produce which has probably only developed in the last five years and has allowed us to grow in a completely underground space. So that, and then controlling the environment completely. Giving the plants the nutrients they want, all of the time, exactly as they desire them. Giving them the heat, giving them the CO2 etc; controlling that environment constantly along with the light, and the heat, and the feed regimes.”
How has the change in LED lighting technology made GU possible?
“The innovations in the journey that we’ve been on at Growing Underground have been made mainly possible by the advancement in LED technology. The LEDs 5 years ago wouldn’t have allowed us to grow in an underground space and allowed us to repurpose what was a redundant building effectively.”
And how important is time in such a key space?
“Time is a key factor at Growing Underground, inevitably, all the way through from the germination process, all the way through from germination in the farm, and then the farm into the harvest area. And all of that forms part of us getting the product to our customer as soon as possible so making sure that we have all of the efficiencies we’re monitoring the products all the way through the business as it moves all the way through to our customer base. So time plays a massive part in that.”
Tell us about how you’re producing the salad?
“The results of growing in a completely controlled environment goes back to being able to give the plants exactly what they want in terms of nutrients and light and humidity, and heat, and for us that gives us the optimum environment for growing produce. Which means we’ve seen a reduction in terms of growing time for some products - up to 25% from where we started two years ago. So just little tweaks in the growing environment and, also changes in our processes we’ve seen ourselves, become much more efficient from where we started. And that was improvements of traditional farming in the first place.”
And can you tell us a little bit about the journey from farm to fork?
“The journey that the product goes through all the way from the seeds being sown on to what is a recycled agricultural matting that’s taken from old off cuts of carpet that were shredded and put back together and made into a substrate which acts as our social and we sow our seeds onto that, that grows into germination into dark humid environments to recreate a seed being under the soil. We take it from there, we move it into the farm with the LED lights and they sit under a 12-14 hour regime just to create day and night in the farm. Just to allow the plants to photosynthesise and then straight from the farm into harvest and at that point within 4 – 12 hours it’s with our customers and our food service distribution customers. It’s on people’s plates within 4 hours of that, so we can cut a product and it being on our customer’s plates and our customer’s customer’s plates with sort of 4-8 hours.”