Dermot O’Regan started Grow Bristol in 2013, in a shipping container behind Bristol Temple Meads train station. They use vertical indoor hydroponics to grow a variety of salad leaves, herbs, and micro-greens, for both retail and catering customers. Their goal is to produce fresh, local, sustainable food, year round, while educating and engaging with people. With this approach they aim to increase people’s wellbeing, promote enterprise, and develop employment opportunities.
Locavore spoke to Dermot about technology, social enterprise, and what the next generation of urban farms might look like.
How and when did Grow Bristol begin?
Back in 2013, me and my friend Pete – who I’d known for 20 years – were at a festival at Ashton Court in Bristol. I told him I was bored with my job. I was working at the Environment Agancy as an environment policy management professional, and I was feeling very unfulfilled. I needed a change, to do something different – but didn’t know what that was. Normally I would’ve just gone off travelling, but now I’ve got a house, so I thought “I need to do something different”. Pete was a gardener (he is again now – he left Grow Bristol in the spring of this year) and he was the same – bored, unfulfilled. So we decided we wanted to do something around social enterprise, through growing and urban farming.
Pete was looking into hydroponic and aquaponic systems, as a potential way forward. Before we knew it we’d bought an old shipping container, and various little hydroponic and aquaponic systems. We set them up in the container, and just started playing around with them. That was on a site in the corner of where the Severn Project used to be, before they relocated. We started off by growing alongside them, to learn how the system worked for growing salads commercially.
We started getting in small amounts of money, through social enterprise grants and the like. This led to us getting our own small site in 2015, at the same time as Bristol Green Capital was happening. We got quite a decent grant from them to develop the site and start properly building our systems.
So we put a business plan together, where we could be essentiallly a high-tech urban market garden, growing our produce all year round. We bought another shipping container, put it together with our first one, and within a year we’d finished building the site, we’d developed our growing systems, and gone to market with a product. That was 18 months ago.
Pete decied to leave in the spring, so I had quite a difficult six months trying to keep the business together. But then I kind of built a new team around me. I’ve got a new business partner now, who’s quite a technology guy. We’ve also had some really good interns and some great volunteers, and we’ve managed to maintain the quality of the product and the service for our customers, and I’m currently working on a scale-up plan. We want to increase to five-to-ten times the size during the next year.
What does the hydroponics system you use entail?
Hydroponics is quite a broad area, but it’s basically growing plants without soil. There are various systems you can use to provide water and nutrients to the plants. Our particular system is called ‘flood and drain’, where our crops are in a growing medium on a bench, which we can flood with water and nutrients – just enough for the medium to soak it up so the roots of the plant can access what they need. Our system allows us to stack those benches on top of each other, so it’s vertical growing. It’s indoors, in what’s called controlled environment agriculture, so we can control the temperature, the humidity, the air circulation, and also the water quality.
We initially also had aquaponics, which is linking the hydroponics to an aquaculture system. We had three large tanks of tilapia fish in the container, operating as a recirculating aquaculture system. This recirculates the water through a biological and mechanical filter to take out solids and convert ammonia from the fish into nitrates. If you plug that into your hydroponic system you have a supply of nutrients, in the form of the nitrates, for the plants. We ran that for a year, and grew on 300 or so tiilapia to full size, and sold them to restaurants and fishmongers.
When Pete left I decided to get rid of the aquaculture part, mainly because having done that experiment, we found it cost a lot more to operate than it brought in. Also, I didn’t really have the skills in managing the aquaculture system that were needed. Once we took it out we discovered it had been much more energy intensive than the hydroponics. So our energy bill, which was one of our biggest costs, was basically halved, and we used to extra space for more hydroponics.
Has the technology involved progressed significantly since you started?
That’s a good question. And yeah, one of the key bits of tech when you grow indoors is lighting. We use LEDs, and it’s said that every two years they halve in cost and double in efficiency. They need to be efficient in that they run on low energy, but also have the correct mix of light frequencies for the plants. We happened to buy ours just at the point where Phillips had introduced their new generation of LEDs. So that technology is really moving on, making it cheaper.
The other big barrier to this kind of indoor farming is labour costs. So as well as smarter more efficient energy systems, automation is the way forward. Alongside two much larger projects in London, we’ve basically run the first generation of vertical farms – a bit clunky, with not as much monitoring and automation and control as we’d like. Now everyone’s moving towards the next generation, asking what that might look like. Having a person on a cherry picker in a vertical farm, using it to find that one tray of produce, is not very efficient. So rather than, as we grow, just replicating what we’ve already done on a larger scale, we need to look at how an we reduce energy costs and labour costs.
What aspects do you think will become automated?
Well, there’s a lot of automation already in the large scale greenhouse growing industry, where the produce is grown on a single level. It’s about bringing the crop to the person not the person to the crop. At the moment we harvest by hand, with scissors, so there could be automation around how we harvest.
Also, in terms of climate control, irrigation, the specific needs of the plants, we tend to be a bit old school. I’ll personally check every crop to see whether it’s needs irrigating or anything else. With more advanced monitor and control systems, you can have much more precision, especially at a large scale where tending every crop by hand becomes almost impossible.
Do you think that urban farming models such as yours serve a purpose beyond the idea of ‘local food’? How can it impact the current, and future, way that food is produced in the UK?
In most hydroponic systems we’re talking about producing leafy greens. Salad essentially, there could be some fruit in there. Others do grow root crops in hydroponic systems, but it’s probably not viable in vertical systems, where space is limited. So I don’t put too much expectation on feeding the world on our kind of systems. The focus is on one really important part of the diet – leafy greens, which are essential – but you obviously need carbs and protein and all the other elements of a balanced diet. Others may make other claims, but I see vertical hydroponics as limited to salads and leafy greens.
What we do here is only part of a wider solution, which does involve more, smaller, soil-based organic farming. There are other parts of the solution which can be complimentary to what we do.
The UK imports 60% – 70% of its leafy greens. 90% of our fruit is imported. It can be of low quality, and have big carbon and water footprints associated. Let alone pesticide use and potential socially damaging practices within the industry.
I predict that in five to ten years, every large town or city will have a vertical indoor ‘megafarm’, supplying salads and possibly other fruit and veg. I know of at least one comapny planning on building these farms next to large supermarkets, to be that salad in the supermarket and replace the imported stuff. Which is a huge market. It’s replicating industrial systems to an extent, but will be more local and sustainable.
Personally for Grow Bristol I want something quite different, which is to focus on city centre, ultra-local, premium products, for chefs and those that are willing to pay for very high quality healthy food. While at the same time providing the space for engagement, and opportunity, and the education for others to get involved – which we already do here. Plus, my vision is to bring together lots of complimentary integrated food production systems. I’m of the view that each one should be run by someone where that’s their speciality. They’re very different things; different systems, product, needs. Grow Bristol focus on hydroponic, vertical, leafy greens, and someone can work along side us on aquaculture for fish protein. Mushrooms grown from waste products like coffee grounds. Algae farms, insect farms. I visited an insect farm in Brussels a few weeks ago, and I think there’s definitely room for insect protein.
I think there’s opportunity for high-density, high-productivity, city centre spaces for producing healthy food. Businesses can get involved, as can education, sales – diversifying the income streams for the farms. There are research, and other, grants available, but it has to wash its own face, and not rely on grants but be commercially viable. Which is a big challenge.
Being in Bristol is great for routes into the market. There’s a lot of restaurants and foodie places opening up. There’s interest from the universities here – it’s a good place to test and learn. There are disruptive ways of getting to market, such as ethical online retailers like Fresh Range (who we don’t sell through), and Farmdrop who have just landed in Bristol – we sell through them. It’s quite slow at the moment, but they’re an example of trying to disrupt the supermarket system.
What challenges do you think the coming years will bring, politically and environmentally?
There could be just as many opportunites as challenges. In the sense that people might become more aware of food resilience. If the country’s moving away from Europe, it has to become a bit more self sufficient. If a large percentage of our food is currently imported then that’s put at risk by Brexit. But this is an opportunity for more local farmers and producers to move into that market.
And as the world and its crises evolve, we’re providing part of the solution to that. I guess as those problems get worse there’s more need for what we do and we’ll use that to try and increase what we do, and make the city better.
Finally, why do you do what you do?
I experienced a lot of things that made me realise that we’re all part of the problem, in terms of how we live, how we eat, our carbon and water footprints. We’re all part of that problem no matter what we think. So I want to be active, and do something that’s part of the solution.
On a more selfish level, it’s to meet my need for fulfilment in what I do day-to-day. I left a very good job, well paid, with five weeks holiday, to earn no money and find these challenges, because its simply more interesting. Altruistic but also selfish, I’m lucky they dovetail!
What’s kept me going is that most of the people who have come to me, and wanted to get involved, are from lots of different backgrounds, and all in their twenties. That’s half my age. It means I can create a bit of a legacy. When I run out of steam, there’s this whole group of people who will take it on. That’s what Grow Bristol is about. Creating the space for those future farmers. People can take on what we’ve already built, they can run with it, I can sit back and advise and take it easy!
Find Grow Bristol on Twitter here.
For their website, click here.
Photography: Steph Wetherall