Scientists launch soil-free urban farm with family fun day

A team of scientists is set to unveil an urban farm in a former school building with a day of family activities this Saturday (18 May 2019).

The abandoned school in Tinsley has been transformed with the installation of groundbreaking 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 pioneering soil-free technique.

With 24 billion 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 10 times faster than they do in soil.

Saturday’s open day will be the first event hosted by the new Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield – which brings together multidisciplinary expertise and world-class research facilities to help solve global problems like soil loss, achieve food security and protect the natural resources we all depend on.

Leading experts from the institute will offer hands-on demonstrations, food tasting, craft workshops and talks on nutrition and growing food in cities.

For former teachers and pupils of the abandoned school, Saturday will be their first chance to see how their old classrooms have been transformed.

After opening, 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 part 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.”

Tickets for the family fun day are available here:


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