Friday, April 11, 2014

The London Dispatches: Unexpected Aquaponics

By Cadence Woodland 

You may have heard or seen the term “aquaponics” more frequently lately on homesteading, urban agriculture, or small farming sites and forums. Though water based agricultural and multi-level systems have existed throughout human history, I’ve noticed an uptick in interest in it recently and have been curious to see it in action. As it happens, I got a chance recently – London’s superb and surprising agricultural scene delivers again!

Welcome to Farm:shop, a kitchen and a cafĂ© within a shop that is based entirely on the aquaponics system. Located in the Hackney area of London (yet another somewhat run down area with a surprising history of reclaimed garden and agricultural space) Farm:shop is easily one of the strangest shops I’ve ever set foot in from a design perspective alone. 

A glimpse of the herb wall, the fish tanks, and the cafe seating.
 Aquaponics can be described at its most basic, as a symbiotic system that incorporates both plants and aquatic animals in a closed recirculating system. Animals and plants feed off of one another’s chemical and organic byproducts. In some cases this can drastically reduce a plant’s reliance on soil for nutrients, making it attractive to some food growers with little land or space. 

Though a smaller system space-wise than, say, an acre of farmland, I had an idea that such system itself must require a significant degree of upkeep and management. But, as the worker on duty explained to me, aquaponic systems are so self regulating in design that a fairly small amount of care and intervention is needed. It’s more technologically reliant than other farming techniques but amazingly self-contained.

A diagram of the Farm:shop system.
Billing itself as the world’s first “farm in a shop,” Farm:shop’s enclosed space is almost entirely taken up with its system. Diners may eat their freshly prepared food amid the growing plants and sounds of trickling water. Leafy vegetables take up the majority of one wall, herbs another, with fish and shrimp basins and tanks all around. 

In the garden at the back of the shop, a greenhouse houses more vegetables as well as a number of tables for dining and meeting. Simply stepping in off the high street to relax amid the greenery and soil – and the chickens! – is encouraged. They also rent workspaces for a nice alternative to coffee houses for freelancers like me, and make the site available for event hire. Altogether it's an active hive of sustainable effort and opportunity, contained in a modest shop front on a London high street.

I can never resist a photo opp for urban chickens.

Primarily concerned with urban farming, Farm:shop stocks a number of homemade or organically sourced items for sale, but by far the most interesting buying options are those that allow you to garden in space and time sensitive ways. This is part of a concerted effort to encourage fresh food grown locally, and like so many of the other places I’m visiting in this series, Farm:shop believes than an urban setting is no barrier to that goal. Their goals and ethos are both wildly ambitious, but they've been open since 2010 without any signs of stopping.

Are you interested or using aquaponics systems? What has your experience been like? Since this is my first up close and personal encounter with the method, I'd love to learn more from readers. Weigh in with your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

Cadence Woodland is a freelance writer, editorial assistant, and marketing consultant. Her journalism has contributed to the New York Times, the National Wildlife Federation, and other venues, but she can be found most often at her blog where she writes about her adventures across the Pond in London.


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