The life of a farmer: all rolling green hills and wide open spaces – or is it? Paul Smyth is part of Something & Son, a design practice whose latest venture has been to set a working urban farm, FARM:shop, complete with chickens and fish, in a disused shop in Dalston. Katie Jackson put on her wellies and went to find out why…
The supermarket system and the way we procure food needs to change.
We need to come up with different ways of doing things. An opportunity came up through Hackney Council to take over an empty building, so we came up with the idea of building a farm within the shop. This shop isn’t the answer, but it’s a step in the right direction.
The food issue is a really interesting one because it brings together a number of different issues like sustainability and the future of the supply chain. What is food going to look like in 30 years? How are we going to respond to the different demands and growing populations? We think it’s important that people ask these questions but there’s no point approaching the issues from a head-scratching, preaching perspective. We just want to present a positive alternative vision.
Our initial proposal to Hackney Council was quite rough at first, but we quickly realised that you can’t do something like this without having the time to explore and experiment. With that in mind, we designed a business rather than an arts project. We needed the project to run as a business so that we could run it long-term and give ourselves the time to keep exploring and learning.
I think a lot of empty shop projects, although they’re great, can be too focused on art. They tend to be about pretty pictures in shop windows. People call that regeneration, but I think that to develop an area and create something meaningful you need to think ahead and be a bit more practical.
The council welcomed our approach. They’ve given us a lot of support. We can use the building until the end of July and after that we’ll be taking on the rent for the building and running as a regular business.
We use the shop to grow food and farm fish and we sell it or serve it in the cafe. The project is run by a team of fantastic volunteers who are all enthusiastic about urban agriculture. As well as being a farm shop, the project has become a bit of a meeting place. For me, the people are the project, and the community that is building up around it is really the most exciting part.
At the beginning we were making plenty of mistakes, including floods and aphid infestations. It’s been challenging at times. People have spent generations learning to be farmers and we’ve tried to learn to grow food a lot quicker. This kind of re-learning of skills is happening all over the place. There are re-emergences of the craft culture everywhere. I don’t know why it is; maybe it’s a recession thing or a climate change thing or maybe we’re just remembering how fun it is.
While my colleagues were a bit better, I didn’t have a clue about how to grow food before I started this project. Occasionally I would plant some seeds and fail miserably. Growing food is a skill. I’d say the best thing to start with is salad crops. It’s very expensive in the supermarket and it doesn’t taste half as good as the stuff you grow at home, plus it’s one of the easiest crops. Come to the farm shop, get some seeds, scout somewhere to bed and you’ll end up with a home-grown meal.
If anyone is interested in urban farming and they want to know more, they can come down to the shop or reach us on our website. We love to hear from people and we’re eager to help in any way we can.
Paul Smyth, cofounder of FARM:shop, was talking to Katie Jackson. Find the shop at 20 Dalston Lane, London E8 3AZ.
Inspired by Paul’s project? Apply for Ideas Fund Green to win £5,000 of funding for a green project.