Hackney, as with most things apparently, is setting the trend, boasting Hackney City Farm, the Eastern Curve Garden and Dalston Roof Parks. On Dalston Lane, minutes from the Eastern Curve Garden is FARM:shop which was set up by an eco-social design practice called Something and Son. With the aid of Hackney’s Art in Empty Spaces programme they managed to acquire a disused three-storey building very cheaply and through the help of a team of volunteers and locals the place has been developed into a mini-farm.
It is a closed loop, aquaponic system: all the water goes round and round passing between the fish and the plants.
Building a farm in London
In the corridor, five plastic tubes of water hang from the wall which are connected to a bicycle pump. A volunteer, Kristen – they don’t use surnames here – is giving us a tour of the premises. She explains, “This is an experiment. The pump oxygenates the water – all plants need oxygen to grow and we are growing different types of algae here, which are just tiny plants. They haven’t really grown very well in the winter because it has been super cold and this corridor is not the lightest of places but you can see as the days are getting longer the one nearest the door is starting to go green.”
A few of the rooms are rented out as offices and to create a more community atmosphere these people are allowed to use the front room on the ground floor for work. When we walk into this room there are four people working away on laptops at a table in the middle of the room. But this is not your usual workspace, for surrounding them are two large fish tanks and lettuce growing on shelves.
Kristen explains, “It is a closed loop, aquaponic system: all the water goes round and round passing between the fish and the plants. The fish waste provides nutrients in the water that the plants absorb. Through this process the water is cleaned before going back into the fish tank and starting the process all over again. All we have to do is top up the water that evaporates or goes into the plant. We don’t add any nutrients, we just feed the fish. All the lettuce you see growing here gets made into the sandwiches you can eat in our café.” The fish, Nile Tilapia, have been introduced in stages which means, when they eventually harvest the older ones, there will be enough younger fish remaining to keep the aquaponic system going.
On the landing at the top of the first flight of stairs are several racks of Nasturtium – a type of edible flower – that is being grown under purple lights.
Kristen says, “We are experimenting with new LED lights that use less energy to see if they are more productive than other types of lighting.” Kristen is hoping to make a menu of edible-flower food and drink to tie in with the upcoming Chelsea Flower fringe that is happening all over London.
All the lettuce you see growing here gets made into the sandwiches you can eat in our café.
Outside the windows of the main meeting room is a rooftop on which sits a Chicken coop that houses three hens. They can produce up to one egg a day and again these are used by the café.
In the garden there is a large polytunnel in which all sorts is grown including rocket, tomatoes and peppers. On a wall outside the tunnel oyster mushrooms emerge from a small bag stuffed with straw.
In order to bring in more money Farm:shop is also providing the space for workshops and a pop-up restaurant as well as hosting parties in the polytunnel. The idea is to expand to other premises and open up more farm-shops around town. They have recently set up a pilot project at The Centre for Better Health on Stean street in Haggerston. As urban farms pop up in major cities all over the world, with luck the FARM: Shop business will grow as swiftly and successfully as its produce.