Paul Smyth, co-founder of the FARM: shop, shows a friend some hydroponic basil
FARM: shop - East London's radical experiment in food growing and community building
14th January, 2011
FARM: shop in Dalston is a revolutionary new take on urban food self-sufficiency: a cafe and community hub with its own rooftop chicken coop, pigs and floating garden
FARM: shop is a place where people can interact with farming
Just along from the new Dalston Junction train station, opposite East London standard issue billboards and a fried-chicken shack, stands the pleasing facade of a freshly revived shopfront. Yet this isn't the usual tedium of homogenized gentrification - FARM:shop is many things, but foremost it is a radical experiment in how we feed ourselves and how we use space.
As soon as you enter the building it's clear that every corner has been thoroughly investigated for its growing potential; there are plants everywhere, sprouting from unlikely angles, twisting in the lights, floating on rafts. 'The idea here is to grow the maximum amount of food as efficiently as possible, keeping the labour to minimum', says Paul Smyth, one of the co-founders.
There's much more than just plants to be seen: within a complex aquaponic system tilapia fish live in two large tanks, their effluence helping to fertilize floating rafts of lettuce, chard, chives and other greenery; then freshwater prawns trawl the waste at the end of the cycle, filtering the water before it goes round again. All this surrounds a busy café serving food grown on site or brought from its big sister, Church Farm in Ardeley, Hertfordshire (a crucial link for the project, of which more later).
In a hot room upstairs there are chillies and tomatoes, the excess heat from which is piped to other parts of the building. Meanwhile, chickens live in a coop on the flat roof, two pigs roam between raised beds and a polytunnel in the yard, mushrooms are coming in the basement and kefir bacteria for fermenting fine drinks swarm in jars in the entrance corridor. There is much to interest the visitor, and it's no surprise that people walk round asking questions. In this spirit, another co-founder Sam Henderson wants it to be 'a place where people can interact with farming'.
FARM:shop was set up by design collective Something & Son. Although coming from different backgrounds - Sam is primarily a farmer, Paul is an engineer and designer, third member Andy Merritt an artist - the three founders are unified by their love of creative solutions. They have always wanted to engage people with sustainability in way that is enjoyable, relevant and on-your-doorstep, and they're confident that having a farm in a shop is a world first.
Paul explains: 'Having done our own projects before, we all had a frustration with seeing urban farming visualized rather than done. We decided to try and do it. There are lots of reasons for growing food: it brings communities together, it's fun, there are wellbeing benefits. 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.' FARM:shop is a serious attempt to stimulate debate and explore those new ideas in the community.
But what about the bright lights, the aquaponics, the hydroponics - aren't they counterintuitive to a project which puts sustainability at its heart? 'There are two ways of doing urban farming: the first is to borrow from the industrial methods that have been developed over the last few decades, the other is to mimic the growing systems that you find in nature', answers Paul. Many approaches are being tried out here, Sam elaborates on one of them: 'aquaponics is a living system, we are literally sitting on the bottom of a pond when we're surrounded by it'.
However, he does admit that hydroponics freak him out somewhat, but notes that 'the majority of our modern farming might as well be hydroponic anyway, as it treats the soil just like a bit of rockwool [used for hydroponic bedding], killing most of the organisms that naturally occur in it.'
A shop for all
So FARM:shop is an open experiment. They will be publishing data on their energy input to yield ratio, and are looking forward to answering the many questions that arise. Paul: 'if you get it wrong there's a catastrophe, like there is in nature; if you get it right this can be a really clever and sustainable way of growing food.' At the same time they will be growing more traditionally outdoors, constantly comparing the different systems and varying their approach.
The opportunity for all this grew out of Hackney Council's project to get disused shopfronts working again. Something & Son saw the chance and luckily their bid was accepted. Through collaboration, cooperation and a canny sense of what's appealing to a wide variety of people, they've managed to keep costs remarkably low. 'Everything in the shop has been done for less than £3,000, we've reused, recycled, made use of shared networks and our partners such as Aquaponics UK, and had local help from volunteers.' For instance, a former tilapia farmer from Bangladesh has offered his expertise in tending the fish. Something & Son stress the importance of involving and being sensitive to the local community at every stage.
FARM:shop will have multiple uses: along with the café there is a meeting room upstairs and desk space for hire on the top floor. All this helps to fortify it as a business venture, and pollinates it with different sorts of people. '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.' That way the food supply chain is shortened, minimized and simplified.
All this leads to a bigger project - FARM:London. 'There are two aims,' says Paul, '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. 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. 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?'
FARM:london would provide training and support, send out volunteers, take people to visit farms, ploughing the money from FARM:shop back into development projects. Sam expands on the ethos: 'We need to be farming differently, and just urban agriculture alone isn't even close to the answer. We need to mimic nature. Therefore things have to be a lot more complicated. We need 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. We need to try and think of farms as places for people rather than just as mines for food.'
FARM:shop is a business, an experiment, a new idea. When zooming out and seeing the green patches on a larger map, all this represents part of a collective desire to have growing things around us, to green the grey of the city and make it seem like a more viable place for life. Paul believes that 'there is a massive problem with a dystopian view of sustainability, whereas the reality is that most things vital for sustainability are good for people too. 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.'
FARM:shop will be fully operational from the end of February and are currently open for tours every Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 1pm. Please visit www.farmlondon.weebly.com for more details
David Hawkins is a freelance journalist
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