Sheffield scientists launch soil-free urban farm

hydroponic plant

A team of scientists have transformed an abandoned school building into a soil-free farm.

The abandoned school in Tinsley has been fitted with hydroponics systems by Jacob Nickles, a Knowledge Exchange Associate from the new Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield.

Using a network of pipes, nutrient solutions, controlled growing environments and polyurethane foams, Jacob is growing everything from salad to tomatoes using a soil-free technique.

With 24bn tons of fertile soil lost globally to erosion every year and University of Sheffield experts predicting the UK has fewer than 100 harvests left, PhD student Harry Wright has developed specialist foams that chemically, physically and biologically resemble soil. So far, Harry and Jacob have found that plants in this controlled urban setting grow two to ten times faster than they do in soil.

After an open day this Saturday, the farm will provide fruit and vegetables to the community in Tinsley, as well as training for local unemployed or low-skilled workers and an educational environment for schools.

Involving the local community is a crucial aspect of the project, which was inspired by an initiative to install hydroponics systems at a refugee camp in Jordan, led by Professor Tony Ryan and Professor Duncan Cameron at the Institute for Sustainable Food.

Jacob Nickles said: “The Urban Farm is a physical manifestation of some of the groundbreaking work that happens at the University of Sheffield. Rather than speaking about it and publishing papers, we’ve actually built a working system for growing food.

“This Saturday is a chance for us to start engaging with our local community – learning from them about what food they want to see the farm grow, and talking about how members of the public can get involved.”

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