Last week we went to speak with Jan Urbanowski, the founder and owner of Urbogreens: a small but mighty urban farm based in Bermondsey which currently specialises in microgreens. Microgreens are the young seedlings of herbs or salad greens, only grown to the true leaf stage, and as a consequence, they’re incredibly nutrient-dense and very tasty! Jan is passionate about sustainability and fighting against what he considers a broken food system which values cheap tasteless food over high quality, nutrient-dense, locally raised food. #yesplease!
For starters, could you introduce your brand, what you sell, and how you started?
I got started because in my previous career I was witnessing a global and microcosm of consumerism that wasn’t aligned with my values and beliefs. Primarily because a lot of it was detrimental to the preservation of the planet. I felt like a hypocrite servicing an industry that was helping destroy the planet. So I decided to stop that, but I’ve always loved growing. As a family we’d grow vegetables when I was growing up. I never really saw farming as a viable career, or in fact a sustainable career. The more I looked into it, the more I realized that there are routes and avenues to be able to grow food for people in the city, in the city. I made the leap, and started Urbogreens early February 2019, and never looked back.
The response has been amazing. What’s really interesting is there’s a global consciousness of people being aware of localisation, and community, and hyper-local food, and the knock-on effect of that system. And how broken the industrial food system actually is. The more we can reduce food miles, the more we can bring food closer to people in the city, the more beneficial it is for the planet. And the consumer as well! It tastes better, it’s more nutrient-dense, you’re more connected to the person who is growing it. We’ve sort of come full circle. People used to grow food all the time. People serviced allotments. There was always that kind of community aspect with food.
I think people are becoming more in tune to that again now. Especially with the whole climate change issue and the awareness of that, has rocketed, especially in the last year. More people are actually witnessing, in front of their eyes, the actual effect, instead of total hearsay, they’re realizing it’s a very issue.
Me starting the farm kind of married with all that philosophy, that’s rippling through the global consciousness at the moment. It’s worked out really well, the response has been great. I’m not a particularly great businessman, it’s kind of by chance and accident.
What is the guiding philosophy behind Urbogreens?
We believe in trying to fix a broken food system, the mass-produced madness that drives our global economy which values cheap tasteless food over high quality, nutrient-dense, locally raised food. This industrial system leaves us disconnected from the comfort, the nourishment, and the taste of food — not to mention the people who grow it. Instead, Urbogreens aims to encourage a value-based culture that drives responsible business and encourages meaningful engagement.
Poet and agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry suggested that “there is no big solution, only many small ones”.
How does Urbogreens contribute to a sustainable future in agriculture?
I think by sheer existence. Urbogreens is a testament that you can grow food in the city, in a sustainable fashion, for the city. In this context, it works. I also think that regenerative agriculture plays an important role in the future of sustainable agriculture. There’s a lot of hype around hydroponics and vertical farming, which is great, and as you can see I’m growing vertically and hydroponically. However, I think if all resources are funnelled into that avenue, thinking it’s going to save the planet, that would worry me. I actually think regenerative agriculture, servicing the land, and looking after the soil, is almost more important. But I think the two can work very much in parallel, and they should work in parallel. Because, and I can’t emphasise this word enough, it’s about context, and in the context of the city, vertical farming does work extremely well, and it can service, and grow an awful lot of food for an awful lot of people very quickly and very successfully.
Where does this farm fit in that whole ideology? Well, we can grow an incredible amount of food in a small space. I think what this farm does is that it illustrates that possibility, and can hopefully encourage people to grow food for themselves. And realize, it is easy, and people should grow their own food!
Finally, in terms of sustainability in the day-to-day operations of Urbogreens, we grow on a biodegradable grow felt medium using certified organic seed and we also require much less water than traditional farming methods. Our packaging is also made from plants, not plastic, and even the gloves we use to harvest with are compostable with food waste. We also deliver everything by bicycle.
What is the biggest challenge Urbogreens is facing right now?
Price points are relatively high compared to high street supermarket prices, however, with our price point, we are able to offer hyper fresh, hyper-local nutrient-dense food with full transparency as to where it has come from.
There’s an education that comes with that. Yeah, okay, you can buy a bag of salad from the supermarket. You don’t know who’s grown it, maybe you can see it’s from Spain, but do you know how it was grown really? There are lots of questions that come with produce. And there’s a responsibility from the consumer. They should be asking those questions, but are they? Probably not.
So when people see my price point, you have to explain why it is the price it is. More often than not, after that chat, people are in line with that philosophy and that price point, and they do understand why it does cost that much. It’s also a lot of labour. There’s a lot of time and labour that goes into this. And again, this mass-produced madness that kind of drives our global economy, people expect carrots that cost 5 pence and 10 pence. Well, why does it cost 10 pence? You’ve got to ask that question. But people don’t. So when they go to the farmers market and a carrot costs 80p, they’re like why does it cost 80p?
So, I think there is still a big education needed, directed towards the public about food, and this is why I think farmers markets are so fantastic. There is a direct connection between farmer/seller and buyer and the sale is often surrounded by a conversation. And everything starts from a conversation.
Wherefrom is building a community of conscious consumers, what’s something you do, as an individual, to lead by example in the realm of sustainable consumption?
Personally, I try to eat consciously, and I think more people should do the same. Which goes back to my previous comment, don’t be complacent, know where your food comes from, how it was grown, and if you can, find out who or what has grown it.
Classic, trying to use less plastic. It’s really really bad. That’s an obvious one.
Ride a bike, classic [laughing]. Don’t use a car where possible, again it’s about context.
And that’s a good point actually. Don’t beat yourself up. If you do use plastic, or if you do end up not being able to recycle something. That’s okay. Take it step by step. Maybe one day you use less plastic, and the next day you forgot your reusable spoon or spork or whatever, don’t worry about. It’s okay, you’re trying. That’s what’s important.