Man versus machine

What does a new peri urban community farm built on principles of biodiversity and people offer compared to a tech-based vertical farm? Ellie Costigan investigates.

“We’re not a ‘community’ farm – we are a farm, which does a lot with its community,” says Chloe Dunnett, founder and chief grower at Sitopia Farm in Greenwich, London. “It’s an important distinction.” Banish any notions of community farming as a romantic idea, and one that ultimately offers no real alternative to mainstream food production. Dunnett and her team have big ideas – ideas which, in the few months since Sitopia officially opened, are already coming to fruition.

Thanks to a successful crowdfunder, which received £37,500 support from the Mayor of London, they’ve turned two acres of urban land owned by the Woodlands Farm Trust into a model of small-scale regenerative food growing. The plan, as the farm develops, is to work with the trust and its wider 89 acres to create a sustainable food, farming and educational hub on the land for London as a whole.

It flies in the face of increasingly common arguments that tech is what will save us – the silver bullet that’s going to feed the world’s ever-growing population – in direct contrast to grassroots growing or regenerative, small-scale farming. “I think when you say community farm, people imagine something small,” adds Carolyn Steel, Sitopia trustee and author of the book the farm is named after. “But there’s scope for it to be just a farm either in or near the city, but with that community engagement. It’s not hobbit-y and twee versus hard tech and proper. That’s a false dichotomy.”

Sitopia farm
Sitopia Farm, in Greenwich, London, is named after the eponymous book with a vision of a sustainable food system. 

When it comes to the fight for a more sustainable food system, any viable solutions to the myriad issues the world’s facing – the climate crisis, biodiversity loss and growing inequality – are welcome. One such solution is vertical farming: in essence, growing crops vertically, indoors, typically under specialised LED lighting. The benefits of this are seemingly multiple. It requires minimal land. Crop production is reliable and can be done without the need for pesticides – three negatives of widescale, traditional farming. But it’s expensive, and so far, only seems to be producing salad, herbs and micro greens.

The merits of socially-led or community farming, however, are not just that they avoid some of intensive farming’s worst crimes – though they do that in spades. “We need to explore all sorts of different solutions; we can’t just dismiss tech out of hand,” says Dunnett. “That said, I do have concerns about abandoning the soil. I suspect when we are better at measuring these things, we’ll find the nutrient value of food grown in fresh air, with sun and soil, is better than that grown in chemicals.”

Farming in harmony with the land also enables a more circular model, in which waste is recycled. “We’re creating what you call the ‘golden cycle’, where the waste of the city is spread on the land. We’re using a lot of green manure from London on our farm, which is really exciting,” explains Steel. “We’re also encouraging biodiversity,” adds Dunnett, “through intercropping and the growing of flowers as well as herbs, salads and vegetables. This is what we need more of, everywhere.”

Community farms are intrinsically connected to people, often run by local volunteers and selling food to local markets. 

There are issues surrounding accessibility and food sovereignty to be considered, too. Sitopia, much like other socially-led farms and growing spaces, was set up with its community in mind. It’s run by them, with many of the regular volunteers living locally, and for them, providing food back into the local market via the (eventual) introduction of a veg box scheme and links with local organisations.

Celia has been volunteering at Sitopia Farm from day one. “I’m by no means an expert grower, I just turn up and get stuck in with whatever needs doing. You learn as you go,” she laughs. “It’s been really nice to meet so many people from the local area. It’s a communal effort; when you’re not there to help out, someone else is there keeping things going. There’s something really lovely about that.”

For Celia, it was Dunnett’s vision of a socially inclusive farm that piqued her interest. “It’s incredibly physical work at the moment, which does exclude some people, but the aim is to get to the point where it’s accessible to everyone,” she continues. “We want this to be a place where everyone feels welcome – a community hub, inclusive and diverse in all its forms,” agrees Dunnett. “We have all sorts of plans: open days, volunteering opportunities, community feasts, harvest dinners, workshops and visits with schoolchildren.

“We want to explore things like social prescribing, to engage with people who otherwise might not have access to growing and eating fresh produce. Making good food more accessible for people is really important to us.”

Sitopia Farm
Sitopia is producing salad, vegetables, herbs and flowers to supply into the local community. 

The ability to grow your own food is, by nature, empowering. Technological interventions have historically been problematic in that regard. “Chloe and I believe very strongly that we need to allow people to get engaged with and take control of their food,” says Steel. “Obviously, the vertical farming model is by definition very high tech, owned by a certain, very small group of people, so it’s very disempowering on that level,” she continues.

“It’s often not the technology itself that’s good or bad, it’s who controls it, where the power is, what it’s used for,” agrees Dunnett.

It harks back to the key premise of Steel’s book, which informs everything at the eponymous farm: that food needs to be put back at the centre of our lives and society.

“The value of having it in the city is obviously partly that we can feed the city, but also because it can reacquaint city dwellers with what it means to feed them,” says Steel. “Because that’s the kind of revolution that we need – one where our economy and our culture value food again and put them at the heart of our thinking.”


Leave a Reply

  1. Vertical farming certainly has advantages.
    For example in the UK for year round leaf salad crops.
    They can be produced all year round in one location close to a transport hub to match demand without the need for imports.
    Also heat and light can come from energy generated by renewables and water can be recycled for repeated use.
    Environmentally the concept has great merit.
    Ocado have invested heavily in vertical farming and it is highly likely that they will build production units next to their Customer Fulfillment Centres.

  2. I like this. I agree that as we know more we may find that growing in healthy soil in natural light may produce a more nutritious plant!
    I also like this because I often see growing ones own food and shopping away from supermarkets as an act of rebellion. Doing something different, stepping out from the crowd, benefiting communities. Good work, be encouraged.


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