Sky farming – growing on roofs – is part of the new style of urban farming
In a disused building that’s labelled FARM:shop punters pad about admiring the aquaponic micro fish farm and hi-tech indoor allotment. Some creep to the basement for the ‘mushroom reef’. Upstairs, habitués view the flood-and-drain intelligent watering system for vegetables. And there’s a café. This is a new type of urban farming: the founders of FARM:shop, in Dalston, east London, Sam Henderson, Andrew Merritt and Paul Smyth, call it ‘the world’s first urban farming hub’ and plan a network across Britain.
They’re not alone. Charlie Price, who runs Aquaponics UK and installed FARM’s system, says: ‘When we formed in 2007, it was mainly about raising awareness of aquaponics. Now we get three or four orders a month.’ Its popularity is due to an efficient method of growing your own. ‘Aquaculture is growing fish, hydroponics is growing without soil,’ says Price. Together, you get aquaponics, a symbiotic method of growing vegetables and fish by using the waste from one as fertiliser for the other.
FARM:Shop in Dalston uses a variety of growing methods
‘You can convert 1.2kg of fish food into one kilo of fish,’ explains Price. ‘The lost 0.2kg is dissolved into nitrogenous waste. For every kilo of fish you rear, you grow about 10kg of plants and vegetables. All of a sudden, you’re producing a lot from very little.’ He’s even developed a mini fish plant system suitable for domestic kitchens. ‘It’s the utopian edible system,’ he says. So far, so sci-fi. But on a practical level, does it have scope for restaurants and keen cooks? ‘We’ve grown high-value herbs, freshwater prawns, melons and fresh fish,’ says Price, who mentions Jamie Oliver as one high-profile chef who’s checked out aquaponics. ‘Also, we’ve done some lovely oriental crops – pak choi and Thai basil – so they don’t have to be flown in.’
FARM:shop's owners Paul Smyth (L) and Andrew Merritt are planning a network across Britain
And across the country, from Scotland to Colchester, word is spreading. In Stirling, Moffat CAN, a carbon-neutral initiative, supplies a buzzing ingredient list to local restaurants from its aquaponics farm, including the freshest tilapia, salad and herbs. In Essex, a Colchester commercial farmer boasts a similar edible system. Yet this is just one method used by a few people getting serious. Sky farming – growing on roofs – is part of the new style of urban farming. We once ogled the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm on Manhattan’s skyline with its surreal 550sqm of organic vegetable rows – and Britain is following in New York’s footsteps.
Head to Reading in Berkshire and a forest of green shimmers above the town’s steeples and Edwardian streets. In 2002, the charity Reading International Solidarity Centre, sited at the heart of the town centre, discovered its roof was leaking. The charity hadn’t the funds to fix it. The solution? They built a fecund roof farm and used pillars to reinforce the weight of the soil
No limit: Reading’s sky garden
The now-mature 200sqm plot offers sweetcorn, beans and tomatoes. The farm’s gardener, Mary Tindall, says it’s a foodie’s dream. ‘It’s mainly permaculture, so there are several layers of food,’ she explains. ‘Most of the garden is meddlars, mulberries, hazelnuts, Japanese raisin trees. Under that layer is oregano, Turkish rocket and lots of herbs.’ Needless to say, the chef running the café downstairs is using the produce. Back in London, Azul Thome, the co-founder of Food From The Sky in Crouch End, sells her roof produce directly to Thornton’s Budgens supermarket downstairs.
Azul Thome is the co-founder of Food From The Sky
Even the establishment is taking note. High above the hustle and bustle of Charing Cross, on the terrace of Coutts, the Queen’s bank, head chef Peter Fiori is tending a crop of strawberries. Officially opening its terrace farm tomorrow, Coutts will be showing off its strawberry plants. Not a half a dozen or so but 70 or 80 plants, producing the same amount of fruit in kilos. Given that self sufficiency in Britain is in decline – a 2008 report cited self-sufficiency in vegetables fell by ten per cent in the previous decade – and this year’s wet summer means traditional vegetables are being imported from the other side of the world, could this new way of farming mean we wouldn’t have to import so much? ‘Certainly, on a small scale, as a back-up,’ says Tindall. ‘But alongside mainstream agriculture.’ Price is certain the aquaponics system will inevitably be taken up because of the increasing global population, ‘There will be a real appreciation of what resources we have,’ he says. ‘It’s incredibly important. It’s got to be the way we do things in the future.’
Written by Chloe Scott
Reproduced from Metro
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