From film school to urban farming – lessons from Richard Ballard, Co-Founder of Growing Underground

Tuesday 23rd May

By Chiara Fiorillo

Chiara Fiorillo is a journalism student from Italy, currently studying at City, University of London. She is interested in the food industry and its technological development. Enthusiastic about journalism, Chiara is aiming to become a foreign correspondent.

Growing Underground is an urban farm located 33 metres under the streets of Clapham in disused air raid shelters from World War II. It produces fresh micro herbs bursting full of flavour, from rocket to radishes, coriander and mizuna. Using hydroponic systems and LED technology, the farm grows its crops in a pesticide-free environment.

Growing Underground is located on different levels across two tunnels below the Northern Line spanning a width of 6000 square metres. The underground farm is unaffected by the weather and the seasons, which allows crops to be grown year round and it’s location within London city reduces the need to import crops and drastically reduces the food miles for retailers and consumers.

The company aims to supply hyper-local healthy and refreshing produce to consumers within the city from within the city, responding to issues of sustainability, a growing urban population and the increased demands in food this invariably brings . Growing Underground delivers its products into Covent Garden Market, from where they are distributed over the capital to various food services, retailers and restaurants in the UK.  And true to their word, after only 4 hours of being picked and packed, the herbs are likely to have made their way into the hands of consumers via deliveries, shopping baskets or on restaurant plates. When it was born, the underground farm attracted a lot of interest from PRs and the press, which made it well-known in the City.

It’s safe to say that founders Richard Ballard and Steven Dring, have found an incredible new solution to the way Londoners – but not only – source their food. 

Richard on…

The benefits of hydroponic systems 

Other than allowing Growing Underground to grow their produce in a controlled environment situated mere metres from the market and their consumers, the hydroponic system also uses 70% less water than traditional open-field farming, which has the added benefit of reducing waste.

The tunnels provide good ventilation, which makes the environment much more efficient and the hydroponic system also increases the growth rate of most plants, making it at least 20% faster than with normal soil gardening. The company also uses renewable energy and is currently working towards carbon neutral certification. Its aim to positively impact the environment is at the heart of all its operations and it also recycles the waste produced, which is sent to an incinerator.

London is a huge City, therefore it is difficult to think that a start-up business may feed the whole urban area. However, Growing Underground is aiming to complement traditional agriculture, keeping in mind that the level of competition is high, in particular by businesses using very advanced technologies.

Growing Underground Tour 1-DSC00678-hi

Organic food: is this what Growing Underground aims for?

Growing Underground isn’t currently able to label its food as being organic because the certification scheme requires produce to be grown in soil and above ground. Getting good quality organic hydroponic nutrients is also difficult at the moment but as urban farming builds in popularity and hydroponic systems become more widely used this will all change. So Growing Underground and startups doing similar things have an important educational role to play.

Growing Underground Tour 1-DSC00712-hi


Believe in your business and build relationships to make it stronger

There are so many barriers to entry for startups and Growing Underground has had to face its fair share of difficulties since its inception in 2014. A major stumbling block for many businesses in London is that business rates are prohibitively high. In the early days Growing Underground had to ask the Council for cost reductions to help it survive.

It also experienced some crop-wastage, caused by dry temperatures within the tunnels. Despite this being a painful time in the life of the business, Richard has taken this as part of the learning process and truly believes in the mantra that you learn most from your mistakes. The team are currently working with the Cambridge University Engineering Department in order to build more sensors around the tunnel to monitor the environment and make sure the same problems don’t occur again.

Building relationships with other organisations is such a great way to tap into new skills and opportunities and Growing Underground consider themselves really lucky to have been approached by the press and other business owners, which has contributed to its expansion.


Tips to Early Stage startup founders – research, talk and learn!

Taking on a project as ambitious as Growing Underground, especially after having graduated from film school rather than agricultural college, Richard understands the importance of researching, reading and talking to people. There are so many incredible resources out there, from guides on how to run a business, to everyday information about the local area in which you’ll be launching.

A founder should be hungry to learn as much as possible and understanding the ins and outs of your venture will help it to stand out from the crowd. Don’t be afraid to talk to people – in Growing Underground’s case it was essential to speak to the Clapham community, from local councillors to other business owners in order to get a clear picture of the area and evaluate whether it was possible to build a successful urban farm there. Turns out they were spot on and the company is going from strength to strength with plans to extend into the rest of the tunnel and add new products to its variety.

Richard shared his insights with us when he came to talk at Food Tech Wednesdays in March 2017. YFood Tech Wednesdays is our free monthly meetup held every last Wednesday of the month. We get founders, startups, future-preneurs and larger brands coming together over their interest and passion for Food Tech and we’re always welcoming fresh and familiar faces. Be sure to join us next month for another exciting instalment!

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