Words by Christina Dean

Go to work, check your emails, make a coffee, dip into a meeting, check more emails, go on a veg harvest….yes for some lucky Londoners that last part is a regular fixture in their working life thanks to Square Mile Farms.

The urban farming company puts vertical hydroponic farms into a range of workplaces, residential buildings and restaurants across the capital and because the modular systems don’t require soil, they can be installed in virtually any space. Not only do the farms add greenery to an otherwise bland office, they improve the air quality by absorbing carbon dioxide, they help relieve stress and increase productivity as being around nature is mood-boosting, they open up conversations about sustainability and food waste, and they help to connect people with where their food comes from. 

It all started with a rooftop in Paddington Central, where Square Mile Farms founders Patrick Dumas and Johnno Ransom set up the first farm after looking out over the city and seeing both the lack of greenery and the untapped potential in a space that could be used to grow food. The idea behind that first farm was to grow and supply produce to people living and working within the local square mile, with a small market set up in the lobby building for people to come and take the produce.

“The scent of basil during a harvest fills any building”

But as Chief Growth Office Hamish Grant explains, “people wanted more than a bag of produce, they couldn’t imagine a farm on the roof of the building, so we began doing tours for people. One thing led to another and our neighbours approached us asking if they could have a farm in their office for their employees to enjoy. It all took off from there.” 

The first farm was only installed in February 2021 and since then Square Mile Farms has expanded to 70 across London – keeping up with the demand is their biggest challenge at the moment, although there are plans to grow outside of the capital. Modestly, Hamish says that “it seems to have struck a bit of a chord” but he’s totally right; after lockdowns spent cooped up inside, the desire for access to greenery has never been higher and there’s been a spike in interest in people wanting to grow their own food, with 100,000 people on the waiting list for allotments. Square Mile Farms are essentially putting allotments into offices, without any of the hassle for the individual, who then gets to benefit from it all year round. 

As well as designing and installing the farms for businesses, the Square Mile Farms team help the building residents run harvests – some companies use it as a team-building opportunity, and others take the produce and give it to the chefs that run their in-house cafes and kitchens – which is a key part of the whole operation. “You get people involved in coming in, harvesting the produce, packing it up and taking it home with them,” says Hamish. “It’s all about providing super fresh produce but also having conversations with people about food, where it comes from and how they can eat more healthily and smarter for the planet.” He shows us something that always gets a reaction at harvest sessions to demonstrate how effective the sessions are at bringing ideas like sustainability and buying locally to the forefront. It’s a Google Map view of a location in Murcia, Spain, that produces a lot of the herbs that we buy at the supermarket, and it’s a hundred square miles of polytunnels, so as well as the food miles attached to those herbs, there’s a mountain of plastic along with it. 

“It’s all about providing super fresh produce but also having conversations with people about food”

The varieties of produce that Square Mile Farms uses in its systems changes about every eight weeks, so there’ll be lots of sage and thyme in the lead-up to Christmas and then chard and kale in the new year when everyone is detoxing. There’s a real focus on “growing volume, growing quickly, and growing stuff that people are going to use”, so there’s always a lot of leafy vegetables (things like cabbage and courgette can be grown in their systems but they take a lot longer) and the turnover rate they can achieve is really impressive.

One 3-metre farm they’ve installed in an office building in Shoreditch has “190 plant spaces on it and that means every two weeks we’ll get between 110 and 130 bags of produce off this system”, explains Hamish, who goes on to say that they can have pak choi ready in four weeks, whereas to grow it in the ground would take eight to ten weeks. “If you think about how hard life is for a plant outside, the temperature goes up and down, the amount of sunlight you get changes, you’ve got wind, you’ve got bugs,” he says. “We have none of that to deal with, so the plant basically puts all its effort into growing.”

Most of the work is done by the plant but there are some special techniques used by the farmers that enable them to harvest such quantities every fortnight, and they’re only too happy to share tips and tricks so that people can try them with their own herbs and potted plants. Here’s one you can try: when you cut off the white part of a spring onion, put it into a cup of water, change the water every day for a week, and it’ll start regrowing. Fill up a coffee cup-sized container with some potting mix, pop it in and you can just keep growing your own supply of spring onions on your windowsill.

The highlight of having a farm in an office is different for everyone, there are “things like how the farm boosts productivity, is therapeutic, looks great, smells great – the scent of basil during a harvest fills any building – and that’s just to name a few”, says Hamish. For him, “it’s something that happens every week, which is the look of amazement and excitement whenever someone tries some of the produce for the first time. That never gets old!”

Local Heroes is a series where we big up the people, small businesses and neighbourhood spots that make London great, you can see more from our series here.