A Farm in a Shop
No. 20 Dalston Lane was one of many shabby empty shop fronts in Hackney in northeast London. The borough fosters an unusual ecosystem of vastly inflated rental prices and empty unused or decaying buildings. Long imbued with a cultural history of its own and host to the London Olympics, Hackney's slick gated communities on picturesque canals are yards away from crumbling housing estates and postcode warfare. Its reputation for pound shops, unemployment and knife crime is matched by the hipsters, creatives and young professionals who are spawning cafes, bars, venues and galleries. Hackney Council have decided to speed up this gentrification a little. In a scheme that mirrors a famous pro-arts policy in Berlin, the council have offered a year's rent-free access to a number of dilapidated shop-front buildings to artists.
Enter FARM:Shop. A project by Something & Son which turned one of these such properties from a run-down street front with questionable wallpaper into a self-sustaining vertical farm with fish tanks in the front room, aquaponics, hydroponics, plants spiralling up walls, a polytunnel in the back garden, a mushroom farm in the basement and a chicken coop on the roof.
"We'll get some pigs, eventually", says Andy Merrit, as we walk around the house in mid-December, him in a coat and gloves, me shaking the snow off my boots. "We just need to give it a bit more time." Unlike other artists, FARMShop, comprised of Andy Merrit, a sculptor, Paul Smyth, an engineer and Sam Henderson, a sociologist, intend this to be a permanent part of the city. Between the three of them and a vast army of volunteers who have dedicated their weekends and free time for the past six months, they have managed to pull of a spectacular feat of contemporary farming in a small terraced house in Dalston. The sheer volume of plants and plant-growing gadgets that line the walls is as extraordinary as their ambition.
Our tour begins in the "shop". Painted wire bars on the window and cheap plastic flooring betray its former life but two vast fish tanks and a strange white light that emanates from the room give it away. The tanks, bubbling away, are preparing to host up to 160 Tilapia. Up to 10 of which they think should be ready to eat on a weekly basis, and another two tanks for shrimp. The water from these tanks is pumped through the room and is gradually filtered into clean water as it feeds seemingly hundreds of variety of lettuce that are stacked from floor to ceiling in the space bubbling and brimming with water and life.
The two front rooms will become a café. The team are bringing in an Italian chef and are collaborating with a nearby farm to provide all the food and menus they need. When they're fully set up, they will be serving teas and cakes during the day. This weekend they are hosting an Ale & Stew evening. In the back garden the team's savvy acquisition of corporate sponsors and partners to support their venture is revealed. A polytunnel, donated by the Swiss bank UBS, is covered in snow. "Almost 90% of the project has been found through sponsorship or donations in kind," explains Paul as he gestures to another fantastical indoor growing system, donated by the manufacturers.
As we enter, the polytunnel, shaking the snow off the roof as we do, it seems that sharp green shoots are sprouting from every surface. Wooden structures, built by the team, serve as seed beds that mark the perimeter, but in the centre they are on high tables which can extend out as part of the café in summer, or serve as place to hold community workshops, they explain. Back inside, we head to the basement where we find piles of boxes of donated cutlery from a local law firm. In a few weeks the room will be the perfect dark, damp environment for an families of exotic mushrooms to grow. One of the benefits of their way of urban farming is that because they have to artificially induce the conditions, they have the potential to farm some very unusual goods. They hope to have pak choi upstairs and asian mushrooms and rare fruits.
On the way up to the roof, where it is promised we will find chickens, a jungle-like wall of grasses and herbs greets us on the landing. "We didn't know where to put it," shrugs Andy. Further up, a room with one wall of glorious Basil plants fed through a zig-zag of constantly running water also serves a rentable meeting room for local businesses. Next door we meet the hum of warm lights, warm air and a problem of aphids in the fruit room. We finally make it onto the roof, where there is indeed a lovely chicken coop, and donated hatch, covered in snow. Two perky and fat chickens – donated by the local farm - trot about proudly. Andy points at their red crests which have grown since they arrived and explains that they are still producing eggs despite their proximity to the ubiquitous screaming ambulance and police sirens. An indictment of success if ever there was one. Through their own individual projects and this collective experience, FARMShop are exploring permacultures – sustainable, ecological ways of-using land. With their space they have produced something that is firstly an engineering and agricultural achievement – every one of their plants is flourishing – but they have also offered something quite genuinely new and important to Dalston and their relationship to neighbours and collaborators confirms it. "I think people like it because it doesn't feel like they're in an art installation" says Paul. "We have achieved a certain output already – the output of bringing people together".