Rising population, energy costs and urbanisation are changing our relationship with food, making farming more costly and distancing consumers from farmers. Urban agriculture has emerged a movement in recent years which promises to reduce food miles and engage customers again with food. Simultaneous to this the convergence of natural and scientific agricultural systems opening new opportunities to make farming more resource and space than ever.
FARM:shop began life as an art project experiment to see ‘How much food we can grow in a shop’ and now exists as a self sustaining business, urban food hub, cafe and arts venue.
Over three floors and outdoor space FARM:shop contains mini ‘aquaponic’ fish farm, chicken coops, high tech indoor allotments and polytunnel alongside space for growing is there places for people including café, desk space hire, meeting rooms and event space.
The space changes as our understanding grows and we experiment with different techniques of growing food. Using our research and learning from the project we have developed spin-off projects to scale our impact and bring urban agriculture onto the streets and rooftops. Visit www.farmshop.org for more information.
Below is a description of FARM:shop by Kieran Long, senior curator of contemporary architecture, design and digital at the Victoria & Albert Museum, for the Evening Standard:
Walking into number 20 Dalston Lane, a traffic-dominated main road with a few shops in various stages of decline, the atmosphere is more laboratory than barnyard, taking its cue from the Far Eastern precedents. The unnatural light encouraging the growth of a range of veg has the whiteness of an operating theatre, and the beds for the plants look more like experimental cultivation tanks than anything you’d see in a garden centre.
The main ground-floor room, where beds of salad plants bud, is most notable for two huge fish tanks at the front of the room, containing a multitude of tilapia fish. The fish are part of the produce of Farm: Shop but also play their part in an aquaponic system that naturally enriches the water with nutrients to feed all the plants in the room. No new water is fed into the system. The protein- and nitrate-rich water coming out of the tilapia tanks is filtered and then used to feed a series of plant beds, circulated around further tanks and finally pumped, now clean, back into the fish tanks. It’s quite astonishing, a closed system, on full view to the many curious members of the public who pop in to have a look. It’s a manipulated but natural ecology in a front room in Hackney.
From there it just gets weirder. In the back garden is a polytunnel, a greenhouse with an ETFE-clad roof (the material used at the Eden Project) where rocket, pea shoots, mangetout, camomile, radishes and more sprout liberally. Large tadpoles wriggle in a small pond in the corner (“When they grow into frogs they’ll eat the slugs in the polytunnel,” says Merritt, matter-of-factly. “We just hope they don’t all spawn again next year, because there’ll be about 200 of them”).
Upstairs, in a small former bedroom lined with what looks like high-tech BacoFoil and hung with hot lights, an extremely knowledgeable man called Kid (who has a stud through the bridge of his nose) explains the workings of a flood-and-drain Intelligent Watering System. This feeds a population of loofah plants in pots on the floor, which the Farm: Shop founders reckon could be a good earner.
Climbing out of the master bedroom window, you reach the pièce de résistance, the triangular, prism-shaped chicken coop with four quizzical fowl pecking at lettuce leaves on the floor. As the traffic rushes by in the street below, Smyth hands me a freshly laid egg from the coop. The precious four eggs a day produced are in hot demand from locals.
Farm: Shop is a thrilling experiment, bringing together volunteers and enthusiasts and inviting the public to observe the growing process, buy fresh produce and eat in the café. The shop will not turn a profit on the amount of salad it is able to grow in-house (if you’ll forgive the pun).