Made in London: GrowUp Urban Farm’s tilapia fish and microgreens in Beckton

The Gaza Post | The News of Palestine – Beckton

When I think of city farms in London I think of tiny replicas of country farms – a few animal pens here and there, a few veg boxes, a farm cafe perhaps.

What I don’t picture is what I find at GrowUp Urban Farm in Beckton, E6, which is essentially a warehouse divided into two main rooms, one with huge blue circular tanks filled with tilapia fish swimming around inside, and the other with silver shelves stacked on top of each other and brimming with bright green micro coriander, sunflower shoots and baby kale. On a trip there last week it felt as if I’d been jolted into the future.

GrowUp, currently the largest aquaponic farm set up for commercial use, is the brainchild of co-founders Kate Hofman, a former management consultant who now runs the business, and Tom Webster, a former trained biologist who runs the tech side of things. As well as them, there are 11 employees and some university students working alongside.

For the unfamiliar, aquaponics combines aquaculture – farming fish – and hydroponics – cultivating plants in water – where the greens are fed using waste water from the fish, and this example iin Beckton s what Hofman describes as a “fully ethical and sustainable model.”

Setting it up took months of research, “personal sweat” and equity, and outside investment from Centrica’s social impact fund, angel investors, and WRAP, the waste resources and action programme

Here Hofman talks about why left management consultancy to set up the business, and why it’s important to be flexible when it comes to using technology to run a business like this one

How many products do you harvest, and what are they?
As well as our tilapia, which are fresh water fish, we grow pea shoots, baby kale, baby watercress, sunflower shoots, custom mixed salads and frilly baby leaf salad. We also do microgreens: micro radish, micro coriander, micro fennel, micro basil, micro rocket and micro mustard.

Who buys your produce?

We sell our greens directly to restaurants in London, indirectly through a distributor called First Choice, to retailers including Whole Foods and online at FarmDrop, and to a couple of catering customers. The majority of the tilapia goes to a Thai restaurant chain called Rosa’s Thai Cafes.

 

Why did you start the business? Did you always want to work in the food industry?

Tom trained as a biologist and went onto work as an engineering and sustainability consultant. After he got really interested in food production, we were introduced by a friend and I managed to convince him that it was a good idea to set up a business.

I have always been really passionate about food and about sustainability, but I used to work as a management consultant for IBM. I really liked my job but I didn’t feel like I was doing much with a purpose so I decided to take a sabbatical to do a masters in environmental technology and business at Imperial College, where I came across urban farming and aquaponics. It was like a big lightbulb moment – I loved the way that the system took the waste from one side and used it to grow something in the other.

Is this a new technique?

It had been around for quite a while but this was in 2011 and there were very few examples of commercial farms. For so long in Asia, people have been flooding rice paddies, putting fish in them and letting the fish fertilise the plants and eat the bugs and then draining the fields. So from a business perspective I was interested in how you take this technology and this concept of growing that’s been around for hundreds of years to solve some of the sustainability challenges that are going to happen in our food system.

Is growing like this the future?

This is part of the future, I think. I do not think that all food is going to be grown like this going forward, nor do I think the future of what we do is huge Skyscrapers growing food on every level. In a book called Hungry City, Carolyn Steel calculated that if you wanted to feed London using vertical skyscraper farms, you’d have to build 200 Shards to produce enough food. So then of course that throws up all sorts of questions like why? How would you find the space? How could you make enough money from producing food to compete with residential or commercial properties? So I don’t think that’s the future of food, but I do think it’s about finding the available resources and space to grow the right food for people and to do that more locally.

When did you first sell your products?
I was first interested in it in 2011, we set the business up in 2013, and we began selling produce about a year ago.

Source : Evening standard

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