UK’s first commercial-scale aquaponic urban farm could be blueprint for city farming

Urban populations around the world are dramatically growing and putting more strain on food resources. Does the UK's first commercial scale aquaponic farm hold the answer?

An old, disused warehouse in the east of London is undergoing a transformation to turn it into a high-tech, state of the art urban farm that will be able to produce up to 24,000kg of fish and salads a year.

The farm, which hopes to be in operation and harvesting its first crop as soon as September, is the latest in the growing wave of urban – or vertical – farming to be created around the world. However, the creators say that this will be the UK’s ‘first commercial scale aquaponic urban farm’.

By taking over an unused building that has sat empty for 18 months, Kate Hofman, the CEO of GrowUp Urban Farms, said she hopes that the model will be easy to replicate across the UK, as the demand for sustainable food production increases.

“I think the really interesting thing with going with a warehouse and an indoor build model is that there are warehouses all over the country that you can use to roll the model out in,” Hofman told Factor.

We often think that people who live in cities are cut off from food production.

“I think there are other cities, like Manchester, Bristol, where there is a growing urban population, people are more interested in where there food is coming from.”

Hofman, who founded the company with partners in 2013, said that the farms could also move outside of the UK.

At present the farm is being built in the former industrial unit, after local authority officials granted planning permission for its installation in April.

It will produce up to 20,000kg of salads and herbs as well as 4,000kg of fish each year ; the exact amounts depend on the exact type of crop and fish that are decided to be produced.

Plans for the farm show that the products, once processed and packaged onsite, will be delivered around London by an electric vehicle.

The farming production team is aiming to reuse as much of its resources as possible, with water being re-circulated around the two production areas.

Transforming the old

The urban farm isn’t the first that is being created in London, nor is it the first to be repurposing old structures for farming – across the city an underground farm is being built in an disused tube tunnel.

diagram

Image courtesy of dRMM.

However, GroUp’s farm is important as it is using one of many empty urban properties. Official statistics show that there has been a two percent increase, from 7% to 9%, of vacancies in English commercial properties across England from 1998 to 2005.

Utilising these empty spaces could help to provide more food that is created in cities using fewer resources. Hofman said that taking an old building and turning it into an urban farm has benefits over creating a brand new building to grow crops.

“Interestingly what we found is that by taking over an existing building we were much more able to customise the growing environment than if we had built a new greenhouse,” Hofman said.

“Those were the two models that we looked at, building a greenhouse and going indoors, and actually I think there’s a lot of value of doing both kinds of growing.”

She said that an enclosed building, rather than a greenhouse, would allow those producing the crops to control the light source, temperature and more.

“For us, what we found is that to optimise the yield that we could get from the space was to really carefully control the environmental conditions. That is a lot easier to do inside a controlled growing environment rather than a greenhouse.”

Aquaponic farming

The farm will be producing the fish and salads using a technique called aquaponic farming. This sees water being pumped around the farm and recycled where possible.

LEDs, which will be provided from Philips Horticulture, will be used to provide lighting to the stacked towers of crops. Hofman said that they have been working with Phillips to to “find the exact optimum spectrum for us to use for the specific crops” that are due to be grown.

“This farming system takes the waste water from a recirculating fish farm, and pumps it through hydroponic growing beds where salad plants absorb the waste nutrients from the water, clean the water for the fish, and the whole system continually recirculates,” planning documents about the farm said.

“Aquaponics is a recognized and proven food production technology in operation all over the world and in the UK.

phillipsled

Image and featured image courtesy of Phillips

“Aquaponic systems are increasingly designed to be “closed-loop” requiring fewer inputs and minimizing their environmental impact.”

There is also the potential for reusing other resources in the farming system. Hofman said that the production process may also be able to “take the excess heat from the lights and use that to heat the water for the fish”.

The new farm will also create equivalent to 7.5 full time jobs, with three of these being created for young people with “a history of poor educational attainment”. As well as this there will be an educational centre on site that will allow visitors to see how the farm works, and understand how food is produced.

Inner city food production

The location of the farm lies just 10 miles from the center of London, which was picked by the company so that they are easily able to get the products to and from local businesses.

Hofman said GrowUp is going to be working with small restaurants to try and reduce the amount of crops that are imported.

“There are a couple of reasons why you would want to grow food in cities.

We found is that by taking over an existing building we were much more able to customise the growing environment

“We don’t think it makes sense to grow all food in cities but we do think that it makes sense to grow products that are perishable and are high value, like salads and herbs. It means you can get them to consumer’s quicker, which means that the quality is better and they last longer, which means they’re less likely to be wasted.

“There’s an efficiency side of things as well. We often think that people who live in cities are cut off from food production.

“So they don’t necessarily understand how food is grown, and if you give people a bit more of an insight into how food is grown then they’re more likely to make better decisions about what they eat and what they buy.”

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