Meet the East Yorkshire novice farmer growing vegetables and herbs in a shipping container to supply top restaurants

Sowing seeds that grow crops for harvest in eight to ten days is the way in which one East Yorkshire horticulturalist is going back to his Irish roots and fulfilling a dream of producing food.

Ben has used digital technology to attain optimum growing conditions in his shipping container

Ben Conway of The Gatehouse in Kilnwick Percy, near Pocklington, had wanted to be a farmer when he was younger, having spent holidays with his uncles and aunts in County Mayo.

Ben said his fledgling micro greens enterprise called Short Stack, utilising a decommissioned refrigerated shipping container on a neighbour’s farm, may not be traditional in the sense of farming dairy, sheep, arable or pigs, but it is a new emerging form of farming.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“I was searching for something ethical and sustainable and micro greens fit that ethos. There has been a perfect storm in the past few years especially through the pandemic when people have become more aware of herbicides and pesticides being used and they have shifted to ethically grown food. All of my seed used is organically certified.

He now supplies restaurants in York and Hull with vegetables and herbs

“I started out with an initial proof of concept by growing from a breezeblock outbuilding in our garden, which I insulated and began growing in trays vertically, three to four decks high. It proved successful and that’s when I invested in the container to take it to the next level.”

Ben’s university studies at Salford and Leeds had been in technology and his career has included technology sales, but in music and communication rather than growing food. Ben said that technology in all areas has been a major part of his life.

“I’ve always had an interest in the technology behind hydroponics and what I now see as digital farming or digital horticulture. It is a way in which quality fresh food can be grown more quickly all-year round and provide the healthy food that people are switching on to in restaurants and at home.

“People refer to it as vertical farming, because the micro greens are grown in trays on a stacking system, allowing greater capacity to be used in the container, but it is the digital aspect that makes all the difference and allows for such a quick turnaround.

The warmth inside the container means he can accelerate the growing process

“I can grow radish in eight to 10 days and herbs such as Thai basil, lemon basil or coriander within a month. It’s about simulating summertime 52 weeks of the year using climate controllers to control the amount of CO2, humidity, temperature, watering and to control daylight and night times.

“It is the atmosphere and humidity while germination takes place, along with the stacking with weights that encourages the roots to grow downwards that is initially vital.”

Ben said the beauty of growing in this manner is that he is not dependent on seasonality and that he can continue producing the same crops over and over again, which is what his customers are looking for, continuity of supply.

“I had always kept allotments, where my wife Holly and I lived in Fulford previously, and since we came to Kilnwick Percy six years ago I have grown lots of chillis and tomatoes, but this is different and far more maintainable.

“One of the spurs for me to develop the business was that I had worked part-time, filling in as a chef for a good friend, Mark Hill, who ran The Street Cleaver in York and now owns a really cool food and drink place called The Social Distortion in Hull. They pride themselves on fresh food with natural ingredients and are great with experimental Asian cuisine.

“They were already taking my chillis and tomatoes and when they knew I was going to grow micro greens, all of the ones they like to use, they said they would buy from me because they had real problems getting hold of fresh supplies.”

Ben said his new environment, based on Simon Ackerley’s farm, is taking him back to Ireland in some ways, and that his method of farming is just as labour intensive albeit in a limited area.

“Hanging around a real, functioning livestock and arable farm makes me feel good and I am always busy with some aspect of my own crops whether that is sowing the seeds, harvesting, using packaging that is derived from corn or cleaning out the trays.

“We grow in stacks of six trays high and have the capacity for 250 trays of micro greens at any one time. I purchased the container and bespoked it to what I needed. It provides an ideal shell for what is in essence an indoor farm. All of the stacks are on wheels.

“Simon and Fran Ackerley have been great. When I approached them about having the container here because I was looking to expand they came over to my place and checked out what I was doing. We are now good friends and they receive a ready supply of micro greens!

“I’m currently running at just over half capacity, but that is likely to be full capacity pretty soon as everyone is on the lookout for fresh micro greens.”