Forgotten underground vaults of Sheffield's Kelham Island turned into haven for producing organic edible produce

When Luke Ellis was looking for somewhere to grow his mushrooms, he took the novel choice of going underground.

By Rob Hollingworth
Thursday, 6th May 2021, 3:03 pm

The former builder who dreamed of the good life has transformed the forgotten underground vaults of Kelham Island, Sheffield into a haven for producing organic edible produce.

Green-fingered Luke founded Leaf + Shoot just four months ago and today his underground farm on Burton Lane produces a wide range of tasty mushrooms, leafy greens and fresh herbs which are sold directly to homeowners.

Luke, aged 41, began to sow the seeds for a new business venture six years ago when he realised the need for a change in the emerging technology hydroponics – which replaces soil with organic feed - could be used as a way of producing leafy vegetables and herbs without the need for soil or natural light.

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Luke Ellis with Andrew Bunn

After realising hydroponics was being adopted across the world but was not as sustainable as it could be, Luke began experimenting with the concept, in a bid to play his part in tackling food shortages, as well as making a positive impact upon climate change.

Luke said: “Bioponic vertical farming may sound like something straight out of the world of science fiction, but it is a sector which holds a lot of potential for growth and more importantly, offers solutions to issues like wasted food, inefficient traditional farming techniques, soil degradation, and address the challenges posed by climate change and global food shortages.

“As a child I would regularly help on my mum’s allotment, and I’ve always thought there’s something quite special about growing and harvesting your own food.”

He grew up in a single parent household in Moseley, Birmingham, and was inspired by gardening from an early age, helping his mother tend vegetables.

Luke Ellis with Bioponic equipment

“We didn’t have a lot and organic fruit and vegetables could be incredibly expensive to buy. So we grew our own. My mum was determined that I would grow up eating rubbish food and she got me interested in helping out in the garden from an early age.

“One of my earliest memories was cutting the chives we’d harvested from the garden. We grew pretty much all the usual things you’d expect to find a garden: cabbages, squash, cucumbers and tomatoes. It taught me the importance of being self-reliant.”

After leaving school, Luke worked as a builder, going on to run his own successful business, but his passion for gardening and finding new ways of growing good food more effectively led him to experimenting with hydroponics.

He began conducting aquaponics experiments where the waste products from fish are used to feed plants, but as he began to realise that neither could act as the catalyst for the green growing revolution he is hoping to inspire.

Luke Ellis with Andrew Bunn

"I quickly realised most companies in the sector used high-tech, state-of-the-art equipment and facilities which typically required significant levels of investment yet delivered few environmental benefits.

" I wanted to create a way of making the technology far accessible to all. Going forward, I am hoping that Leaf + Shoot won’t just become well known for our produce, but a company which will help to inspire others to explore bioponic growing, helping us all to play our part in building a greener, more sustainable society.

“The people of Sheffield seem to have a real affinity for green thinking. There is an incredible entrepreneurial spirit in Sheffield and being surrounded by people who are determined to make their mark on the world is infectious and inspired me to turn my hobby into a business.”

In fact, Luke’s life changed when his fiancée Lucy decided to relocate her street food business to Sheffield.

Luke Ellis

“She was spending time attending various food festivals across the UK and one our favourites was the Peddler Market in Sheffield. We liked it so much that we decided to relocate to the city and from there, we discovered the underground space at Burton Road and we decided to take a leap of faith.

“When I spoke about the concept in Birmingham, most people laughed at me. However, it received a completely different response in Sheffield. We found ourselves surrounded by positive people who gave us the support and encouragement to build and develop our ideas further.”

One of the first decisions Luke needed to make was the structure of his new business. Unsure how to set up and run a limited company, a close friend recommended the Launchpad programme and Luke reached out for help.

Launchpad helps business owners to access a wide range of free training workshops, as well as one-to-one sessions with knowledgeable business advisers.

Luke worked with experienced business adviser Andrew Bunn and within a matter of weeks, he had secured a lease on unused cellar space hidden under Burton Road and he began putting his building skills to good use, transforming the empty space into the city’s first underground bioponics farm.

“I could see from the outset that the space offered a lot of potential, and I was able to use by building skills to fix the leaks and transform it into a template. But perhaps the thing that worried me most was would the business idea work?

“I’d spent hours poring over every scrap of information I could find about this type of farming, but it’s such a new concept that there’s very little out there. A lot of my work, certainly during the early stages of the business was trial and error. But the success we’ve enjoyed today has proved the concept works and there’s no reason why it couldn’t be rolled out and scaled. It’s in this respect that the support and help I’ve received from Launchpad has been invaluable.”

Ask any entrepreneur and they’ll tell you that starting a business is a labour of love.

Luke swapped the backbreaking shifts on building sites with 12 hour working days, seven days a week – even sleeping occasionally in the bed where he now grows his range of organic leafs as he put the finishing touches to, what he hopes will become a template for a new, more sustainable way of farming.

Since launching Leaf + Shoot, the company has grown rapidly, selling fresh produce to local restaurants and delivering directly to customers around Sheffield.

As part of his commitment towards building a sustainable, green business, Luke took the conscious decision to eliminate plastic from his business wherever possible, whilst the nutrients fed to his plants uses waste food, paper, used coffee and ash which is composted and turned into organic feed.

Andrew Bunn said: “Although it is early days for the business Luke has already established a growing client base and the steps he has taken have helped plant the seeds for significant future growth and I’m looking forward to continuing working with Luke as his business continues to grow and evolve.”

The Sheffield City Region’s Launchpad programme helps individuals who are thinking of starting their own business as well as providing ongoing support and guidance to existing business owners.

It was developed in 2016 to help inspire and support new entrepreneurs and existing small business owners across the region. Since the programme launched it has helped thousands of would-be entrepreneurs to unlock the potential in their business idea.

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