Grow Up, Urban Farming: Aquaponics Takes on London

You know when you’re deciding what to cook for a group of people and trying to appease all the different taste preferences? No gluten. No red meat. No dairy. No vegetables. Wait–what?!? Well, I’m easy when it comes to veggies. I’ve never met a vegetable that I didn’t like.

Growing up in California–the state that produces 15% of the United States’ crops–my childhood diet was based on access to a plethora of fresh vegetables and fruit. My family’s home was part of a development built on an apricot farm so the area that wasn’t covered by the homes, driveways, street, and grass remained many of the original apricot trees. I spent many summers harvesting apricots off of our trees, halving and pitting them to lay out on boards to dry or preparing them to be canned and jammed.

apricots_farlane

The neighboring towns were the proclaimed capitals of garlic, artichokes, and lettuce, a.k.a. ‘salad bowl’ (Gilroy, Castroville, and Salinas, respectively.) With many hours spent driving in our area, we learned to identify the many different crops and fruit trees just by look.

veggie collage

I’ve become a city dweller since I left my rural childhood home when I was 18. But my connection to food production has remained and transformed, from window farming to starting a transportable community garden.

Big Ag: Not So Good

There are many reports about big agriculture’s problems, and its sustainability is questionable. Groundwater pumping has caused California’s Central Valley to sink 28 feet. Yes, 28 feet. That’s the height of a two-story tract house.

On a global scale, we are seeing how climate change is affecting food production worldwide, leading to increasing instability and tensions. The Guardian’s recent article on these predictions will cause major changes to the world, from decreasing staple crops like rice and wheat to migrating crops north for optimal temperatures, leading to shifts in power, money, and access.

Urban Farming Initiatives

One lesson I’ve learned from all of this is to not rely solely on big agriculture operations to produce food. In many urban areas, small-scale farms are exploring techniques like hydroponics, aquaponics, vertical gardens, and roof gardens to grow food close to home, not to mention the many community gardens. One such operation I visited recently in London is GrowUp.

GrowUp_2

GrowUp is an “urban farming business dedicated to demonstrating a sustainable, commercial model for urban agriculture through vertical growing and aquaponics.” The two founders, Kate Hofman and Tom Webster, are food-growing enthusiasts.

“Kate comes from a line of green-fingered women and has always enjoyed growing her own food, regardless of available space. She is part of a Capital Growth growing space – a communal roof terrace on the roof of her apartment block and also grows on her balcony. Tom has a degree in environmental biology and has always been passionate about food.”

 How Does Aquaponics Work?

Aquaponics is a closed loop system that combines hydroponics–growing plants in a water solution without soil–and aquaculture–fish farming. Basically, the fish poo, the poop is converted to nutrients by microbacteria, then the nutrients are pumped up to fertilize the plants, and the plants purify the water to return it to the fish. The only energy needed is for the water and oxygen pumps, which they plan to run on PV for their rooftop installation. Pretty easy, right?

aquaponics_system

The Seedling

GrowUp’s first initiative was to share their idea with a Kickstarter-funded demonstration farm. They outfitted a repurposed shipping container with the fish tanks inside and the greenhouse on top and set up in a public park, making it accessible to the community and allowing people to learn about a different way to produce food.

I spent about half an hour listening to Tom answer questions from visitors and speak about the way everything worked. The vertical gardens are filled with leafy lettuce that they harvest every week and sell to local cafes (Elliot’s Cafe in Borough Market and The Pavilion Cafe in Victoria Park if you’re a local Londoner.) The fish are happily swimming around and are still growing, scheduled to harvest in September. I had heard about aquaponics before but seeing it thriving in person made me a believer.

GrowUp_lettuce

GrowUp_fish

Taking on London

The GrowUp Box is just the first step towards their bigger vision. “[We] both feel that there is a key role for sustainable urban food production in building the cities of the future,” says Kate. “We are working on a number of different feasibility studies for larger scale rooftop and brownfield space farms.” This will not only activate unused urban space for sustainable food production, but will also bring together teams of architects, engineers, building owners, citizens, and urban farmers around a local project with healthy, empowering benefits.

This is a grand vision that I can’t wait to see flourish in London communities, and hopefully worldwide.

What do you think of urban farming? Are you involved in any projects? Let us know about it in the comments below!

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Image sources: apricots, garlic, artichokes, red leaf lettuce from Flickr users farlane, swanksalot, minwoo, ryarwoodaquaponics diagram from GrowUp; GrowUp site photos from Katie Crepeau

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