October 14, 2019 Chris Riddell

FUTURE FARMING REPORT | Underground Urban Farming

is bringing farmers and consumers within minutes of each other

It’s not exactly what you’d picture the most ideal place for a mushroom farm to be. An old, disused underground carpark in Paris. It is however a radical inspiring new future of organic urban farming, that brings consumers, farmers and incredibly fresh produce together.

Set on more than 3,600 square meters of parking space, in the north of Paris under a high-rise estate of more than 300 social housing units is La Caverne. It’s the first urban bio farm in the city, and founded by Jean-Noël Gertz, a heat engineer and Théo Champagnat a self-described agronomist and nomadic cook. Their vision was simple – transform unused urban space to produce amazing vegetables”.

La Caverne - The Paris Underground Farm

La Caverne – The Paris Underground Farm

One of the co-founders, Theo recently said that the reason this idea has been so successful has been that “mushrooms need very little light and chicory grows in the dark. The CO2 generated by the mushrooms is used for plant growth. The crop waste is composted in our wormeries and the resulting compost is used to feed our plants. These are techniques largely inspired from permaculture.”

What is Permaculture?

Bill Mollison, the Tasmanian son of a fisherman who first coined the term 1978, defined “permaculture” as:

“The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”

In more simple terms, permaculture is a holistic, living-in-harmony-with-nature worldview, as well as technical approach for how to do so. The simplicity of permaculture is that it’s as applicable to growing mushrooms in an underground car park in northern Paris as it is to a rural fruit farm in Provence.

So what makes La Caverne special?

Other than the fact it is deep under apartment buildings in the centre of Paris, they are part of a trend to bring consumers and produce closer together. This has a number of benefits, including reducing the time to get from farm to plate, and this in turn has an additional and substantial environmental impact from the reduction of transport emissions.

In the 1960’s and 70’s it was normal practice to build underground parking for residents in apartment buildings. Beneath the city there are millions of square meters of car parks, and with the steady reduction in recent years of car ownership, increasing amounts of these spaces are becoming vacated. The city authorities are also keen to encourage this decline as part of their sustainability strategy. Infact there have been competitions to find new ideas from residents and industry, on how to reinvent and transform these abandoned caverns.

La Caverne - The Paris Underground Farm

La Caverne – The Paris Underground Farm

One of the winners of these competitions was Cyclopincs – La Caverne. They are still the only organic farm in Paris and are about to take possession of a second level which will give them an enormous 2.5 acres of space. That’s more than 10,000 square meters in normal speak.

Oyster, shitake and white button mushrooms are grown here. They also grow chicory too, a northern French delicacy that can grow in the dark. The mushrooms are grown on bales of organic straw which are impregnated with mycelium (bacteria which transforms organic matter into mushrooms) by a farmer not far from Paris.

The harvest is sold to nearby organic grocery stores, householders, at local farmers markets and local restaurants. It means that urban food is grown and consumed within a very short distance.

So what other spaces are being reinvented for farming?

In the United Kingdom there’s another fascinating story of reinvention by childhood friends Steven Dring and Richard Ballard. They created  Growing Underground located 33 meters underneath the streets of Clapham in City of London inside an old World War Two air raid shelter.

The team at Growing Underground are producing more than twenty different types of herb including pea shoots, rocket, red mustard, pink stem radish, garlic chives, fennel and coriander. The plants are being supplied to markets, wholesalers and supermarket chain Ocado.

Inside London's first underground farm

Inside London’s first underground farm

As well as using 77% less water than conventional agricultural methods they also grow their crops without soil. They do this by carefully using spigot devices to deliver the nutrient and water directly to the roots of the produce.

Despite being in what you might imagine is the grey gloomy city of London, the site is powered entirely by renewable energy, and they’re also working fast towards carbon neutrality.

Next for Growing Underground is cucumbers and soft fruits, to bring year-round produce to the fast-growing City of London. Potatoes and root vegetables are still a way off when it comes to controlled environments according to founders Richard and Steven.

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