British startup Growing Underground is making use of an abandoned air raid tunnel to conduct a bold experiment in subterranean farming, raising sustainable produce that reaches tables as soon as four hours after harvest.
The project, which uses Microsoft productivity technology to aid collaboration and communication, has drummed up a huge amount of interest. The two-star Michelin chef Michel Roux Jr has backed the project from the beginning, and is now a director of the company. “When I first met these guys I thought they were absolutely crazy, 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,” he said in an interview with The Independent.
Meanwhile, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has voiced his approval. “This is a fine example of the dynamic startups that are helping London lead the world in green business innovation. I want even more entrepreneurs to help create these brilliant concepts that are delivering thousands of jobs and boosting London.”
Richard Ballard and Steven Dring are the two brainchilds behind Growing Underground. “It’s incredible to take a place that was built for a time of destruction, and turn it into a place of creation,” said Ballard in an interview with the Microsoft News Centre.
Dring and Ballard were first inspired three years ago. “We bought some cheap hydroponic equipment and lights from Finland,” Dring said. “And then we started growing lettuce in a tunnel.”
Any attempt to build a modern-day facility so enormous, temperature-controlled, sealed-off and subterranean would be scuttled by expense and zoning ordinances. But when these tunnels were built, the requirements of creating a safe wartime shelter unwittingly provided Growing Underground with exactly what they would need some eighty years later.
“Now we’re growing in such a controlled environment, with a constant temperature and light regime that is very hard to replicate outdoors,” said Dring, who has augmented the tunnel’s construction benefits with state-of-the-art lighting and irrigation. “Because we’re so hyper-local to our consumers, they’re enjoying the products at a much fresher stage than if it went through a logistics cycle.”
You can’t get much more local than this – Growing Underground literally picks their produce and then brings them up to street level, sometimes going from farm to table in only four hours. And in the time since the duo got things up and running this past June, they’ve noticed that their method can actually tweak the taste of their crops.
“Playing around with the lights, you can dictate different shapes – a more elongated or bushy plant – and you can affect the sugars and starches within the plant,” said Ballard, adding that the process could herald a return to earlier incarnations of vegetable varieties abandoned by large-scale agriculture. “Now we’re starting to grow heritage crops. The supermarkets have largely decided not to grow these, because they don’t travel so well.”
“We had some mustard that had exactly the same feed regime and temperature,” said Dring. “But we had different LED lights from 2 different suppliers. And it gave different flavors of the product! Both mustards tasted amazing, but one tasted like proper English mustard, much more intense.”
Dring and Ballard share World Food Day’s goal to find better, more intelligent ways to feed people everywhere, and hope to see their methods used elsewhere.
“People can do this around the world, in all sorts of environments,” said Steven Dring. “In deserts and coal mines, places where they need food desperately like Africa and India and China in the future, you see how this could impact things on a global basis.”
Microsoft productivity technology has been part of the recipe at Growing Underground since the start. “We use a program from an environmental software company called Priva,” Ballard said. “It’s run on a Microsoft operating system and it controls everything for us, from the LEDs to the ventilation system to the humidity. Every element that we need to control that environment.”
“We use our Surface Pro 3s and OneNote to share information,” said his partner, adding that Growing Underground employs everything from Excel for spreadsheets to PowerPoint for investor presentations. “We wouldn’t be able to function without Microsoft Office. For a start-up like ours, it’s the essence of how we communicate.”
Both men agree that if efforts like theirs are going to make an impact on the future, communication is key.
“We need to engage with architects, designers and planners; there needs to be a whole conversation about food and sustainability,” said Dring. “Whether it’s the scarcity of fresh water in the future, or energy distribution, or how we’re going to run out of fossil fuels at some point. Let’s start having a conversation now about what we’re going to do to fix these things. People need to be educated about food and growing, the importance of growing locally, and encouraging the space to do so in towns and cities through architecture.”
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