Small change

Categories: Behind the stalls, Features

A warehouse in Deptford, lit with electric purple LEDs and filled with tiny vegetables, may not be the most obvious place for the future of horticulture to take root, but the seeds being sown by MiniCrops, Borough Market’s purveyor of locally-grown micro crops, could have significant implications for urban food production. Market Life pays a visit

Words: Clare Finney
Images: Christopher L Proctor

It’s the humidity that hits first. Walking through the plastic strips separating the office from the crops, the heat that greets us is dense, damp and ripe with foliage. Then the light kicks in: electric purple LEDs that play with our pupils in such a way that it takes a good few seconds to adjust to our surroundings. We’re in a long room, surrounded by tiny plants packed floor to ceiling in regimented rows either side of a corridor. Smiling, Jamie Burrows hands me a sprig. “This is our wasabina mustard. You don’t need a lot—it packs in the flavour.” I nibble—and in seconds my ears are zinging and my eyes widening all over again, as my tongue tickles and takes in this dazzling, spicy heat.

It seems impossible—not that something so small could be packed with flavour. The Carolina reaper chilli speaks for itself, as does a wee caper. What seems impossible is that something so tasty, nutritious and beautiful could be nurtured in a small upstairs room inside a warehouse in Deptford. “Most people have this perception that for something to be natural and sustainable, it has to be outside in the open air, with natural sunlight and rainwater and so on,” says Jamie.

MiniCrops, the initiative he has pioneered with his wife Marie-Alexandrine and whose remarkable produce is sold from their stall at Borough Market, has proved otherwise. It might seem unnatural—alien even, to the untrained observer—but this form of agriculture is arguably as sustainable and ethical as any alternative.

“These lights imitate and even improve on the rays of the sun because they are always on and don’t move. We don’t need herbicides or pesticides because it’s a controlled environment. The plants are watered automatically, three times a day, and basic mineral nutrients are provided by a feed tank.” As a result, the crops grow faster, closer to the consumer—meaning fewer food miles and fresher leaves. Crops are harvested on demand, which means far less waste.


Overnight operation
“We’re an overnight operation, so we pick the orders placed during the day that night. Customers get their products within two to three hours of harvest, as does the Market stall.” Short of cultivating your own (a not impossible task, Jamie observes, and he recommends it for those herbs you use frequently), you’d be searching a long time for fresher greens in the city.

For the moment, Jamie and Marie-Alexandrine are just concentrating on micro crops—defined as plants that are generally 10 to 12 days old and have their first or second set of leaves showing. I say ‘just’: they grow more than 60 varieties, from mini daikon radish to red amaranth. Some, like dill, are indistinguishable from those you’d grow at home, while others sound familiar but look anything but. “Many are household name crops,” says Jamie, “but most people are generally not used to eating micro cabbage.” The micro leeks are small, spindly antennae-like shoots; the kale and broccoli a pretty assembly of tiny, heart shaped leaves.

“The way they look and taste is different, the way they are used is different, and their nutritional content is different also.” They’re wary of making big health claims, but studies in the USA have suggested that, gram for gram, the density of nutrients is far higher in these young, miniature versions than in their fully-grown equivalents.

The economic and environmental arguments for micro crops are irrefutable. “If you think about it, it takes 120 to 140 days to grow a head of broccoli in the countryside. That’s a lot of energy. Then you have to transport it to the city, racking up food miles.” By way of contrast, Jamie and Marie-Alexandrine’s punnet of micro broccoli “can be produced in 10 days in the city itself”.

Jamie and Marie-Alexandrine

They call this means of production ‘post-organic’ on the basis that, if you look at the totality of their production process, it is highly sustainable while not meeting the very specific demands of organic certification. “There is minimal waste, minimal energy usage, and no pesticides or herbicides whatsoever. We’re not competing with organic or saying organic doesn’t have its place, we just think this is in some ways better.”

One of the reasons that MiniCrops would never qualify as organic is that the crops are grown on a mineral and water-fed artificial substrate, rather than soil. Softly nudging aside the magenta-streaked leaves of a micro chard, Jamie shows me the substrate. It looks like damp, squidgy cardboard. “We worked with a technology company to create this ebb and flow system. Essential minerals—nitrogen, magnesium and so on—are provided by a feed tank, and the crops are automatically watered.” The food and water come from below. “The substrate expands upon contact with moisture and retains it for a decent time,” he explains.

With such delicate leaves, this is crucial. “If you water from above, you risk the plants getting pushed over or damaged. They only need water in their roots, and we have high humidity in here.” What’s more, adds Marie-Alexandrine, the chefs who buy their greens want them to be “perfect. They are very picky, and we can meet their standards because of the controlled conditions we grow in.”

The roster of chefs is indeed impressive, including Tom Aikens and, as of last week, several of the D&D group. “Some restaurants, particularly higher end, use them purely for garnishing, but we also work with Asian start-ups, who use a lot of coriander in their dishes.” Tom’s Kitchen, the casual, deli-style branch of Tom Aikens’ empire, serves MiniCrops’ micro salad mix. Marie-Alexandrine is keen to work with more Indian restaurants, to expand her understanding of the ways in which these herbs and curious micro vegetables might be used. “Just having all these varieties to cook with prompts you to cook other dishes,” she enthuses.


Weaved into classics
At the moment her creativity is limited to what her children will eat, so she tends to weave them into her classics. “Our eldest loves the micro broccoli—she actually tells us not to sell it to anyone, so she can eat it all—but our two-year-old son still needs some persuading.” For Jamie and Marie-Alexandrine, working parents with young children, micro greens are proving a godsend in their own home. “Getting a kid to sit down to a small portion of leaves in a dish or on the side with a nice dressing, is much easier than a plate of red cabbage.” It’s a gateway to healthy eating, and much easier than making a bolognese filled with carrots cut into miniscule, indistinguishable bits.

In the pipeline are vegan sorbets and ice creams, made with nut-based cream, other fresh ingredients and a dash of, say, basil or mustard. What about pestos and sauces? I venture. “Yes, I would like to do those,” says Marie-Alexandrine. The issue they have though, adds Jamie, is time.

“We have a lot of demand we can’t fulfil. We’ve been working on the business for 20 months, and had this site for 10 months,” he explains. In that time, he’s worked 90-hour weeks, while Marie-Alexandrine balances helping him with childcare. They’re no strangers to hard work—Marie-Alexandrine was formerly in health research, Jamie a management consultant—but the recompense in this case is not money; it is personal fulfilment. “I did very well in consultancy, I was on track for partner in my early thirties, but the travelling nearly killed me and I don’t think it’s compatible with a young family.”

Eventually, following a bereavement and a serious reassessment of what they wanted from life, they decided to start their own business, “something that would have an impact, in line with what we believe”.


Urban health challenges
Fast forward almost two years (and a new mortgage agreement) and they had founded Vertical Future: a technology start-up focused on addressing the health challenges posed by urbanisation. “MiniCrops is just one part of this. We have a separate air pollution initiative, which is in its early stages at the moment.”

To say the couple are ambitious is an understatement. By the time you read this, they’re hoping to have expanded their operations by 150 per cent and hired several more members of staff, thanks to a grant they won earlier this year. Long term, the plan is to scale around 50-fold. “Your average restaurant in any street in London imports baby leaf lettuce from Italy, which is covered in pesticides to maintain freshness. If we do it in London, we can compete on price and it’s fresher.” The more they expand, the bigger the type of produce they can grow, and the more of London they can serve.

For the time being, their market is if not wholly premium, at least toward that end of the spectrum. Not every customer is a Michelin-starred chef, but it’s hardly a gross generalisation to suggest those in deprived urban areas aren’t spending their hard-earned cash on micro pak choi and micro broccoli. But this is just the first stage of Vertical Future. “By setting up initially in areas of deprivation, you have lower land rates and can bring jobs and industry to people who need it. The smaller crops we then sell to rising middle classes. In time, the benefits of economies of scale will enable us to grow and sell larger, more everyday veg to lower economic groups.”

In business speak, MiniCrops is a hub and spoke model. “There’s a big site, then a lot of spokes in other areas,” says Jamie. They are community focused, with plans for ex-offender and homeless employment already afoot—but their short-term aim is to build production sufficiently for them to expand. With more funding, they can develop a new, larger site in Shoreditch. “It’s 20 times bigger than this,” Jamie says, gesturing round his cosy, white washed office, “but we need more money to fit it out.” LEDs and automatic watering systems don’t come cheap.


A risky venture
The idea of growing food indoors in artificial substrate might seem like a risky venture, but over in Germany and America investors are growing wise to the fact that with mass urbanisation and food insecurity looming, localised food production might not be such a bad shout—investors like Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon. “He’s just invested heavily in an American start-up like ours. They are scaling like crazy,” Jamie says excitedly.

Meanwhile, in Germany, a vertical farming initiative has raised “a huge amount of money—something like 40 million euros.” There is no direct equivalent to MiniCrops. “We’re not the first people to do this in the industry, but our model is quite unique in the way it’s part of Vertical Future, and also in the customisation we provide for restaurants.” If chefs want three leaves on the stem, they get three leaves. If they want five, they get five. If they want an even stronger flavour, MiniCrops can up the mineral feed to produce it.

That, combined with the public health focus, has made for a strategy which even in its salad days has attracted the advisory support of the ex-head of the NHS and the chairperson of British Land. “We now have a nine-person board—a really good group of serious, professional people, who we meet regularly for advice and support. It’s been great,” Jamie glows. What with that and the recent grant, he is even more hopeful that MiniCrops will build on the extraordinary progress it has made since it began.

It’s been a long road—and a winding one, given that a mere 20 months ago they’d not a shred of horticultural experience between them. “I’ve never been green-fingered. We’ve had to learn everything about plant science since starting. What we’re passionate about, what drives us, is making living in a city easier. Food sustainability, malnutrition and food miles are just part of that.” They are not farmers, Jamie continues, but a company set up to meet the challenges to health posed by urbanisation. I’ve seen the future—in fact I’ve tasted it—and it is bright, miniature, and green.