We’re generally not huge fans of TV at Farm Urban (largely because we don’t have the time to watch it), but one of the few programs that we go out of our way to see is BBC’s Countryfile. We were therefore thrilled when one of their producers, Nick, contacted us to ask us if we would be interested in featuring in their special episode about Cities. We can’t remember our initial response, but we just hope it didn’t involve any comments about bears and woods or the religious affiliations of the Pontiff.
It was just after we’d arranged for Nick to come and see us that the only 100% reliable law in nature -Murphy’s Law- began to work it’s magic. Over the two years they’ve been running, our systems have performed incredibly reliably and only even given us minor problems. However, as soon as we’d said yes to Countryfile, everything started to go wrong. The fish feeders on our rooftop farm malfunctioned, dumping kilograms of food into the tanks and causing an algal bloom that clogged the filters and completely clouded the water. The same week, pigeons (who had completely ignored the farm for the previous two years) suddenly decided our plants looked tastier than their usual junk-food diet and wolfed-down the entire lot. Not to be outdone, a seagull nested in the roof above the farm and started attacking and pooping on us while we were there, and attacking and eating the fish when we weren’t. As if this weren’t enough it all coincided with a heatwave, and as we were so caught up with the other problems, we forgot to check on our seedlings in their grow-tent (always ready to replace harvested or damaged plants), which promptly dried out and died.
In the space of just over a week, we’d gone from being happy and fully prepared to absolutely devastated and with no plants for the cameras. We therefore spent the next few days frantically building pigeon and seagull-proof frames and planting as many seedlings as we could, accompanied by prayers to the gods of plant growth.
This was only part of the preparation, however. We’ve been working and running systems in the basement of the Liverpool Life Science UTC for the past few years, but cleaning it had remained stubbornly on the to-do list. Fortunately we’d just been blessed with the arrival of our new Operations Manager, Jayne, and our three French interns, Chloe, Eugénie and Nicolas, who as well as being passionate and dedicated urban farmers, also proved themselves to be a phenomenal cleaning crew. They gamely donned full dust-suits and masks, and spent more than a week scrubbing floors, walls and even ceilings, and shifting several tons of equipment around. At the end of their efforts, the dusty basement had been transformed into an ultra-presentable high-tech urban farming lab and something we have become incredibly proud of. Not only would it look great on TV, but it meant that following the filming, we would be able to start developing our fully-integrated urban farm / agri-lab.
Nick came up to see us a few of weeks later and we spent the day with him showing him our systems and talking about what we did. Nick was a reassuringly relaxed, friendly, funny and very down-to-earth chap, and not at all how we imagined a successful producer used to handling the egos of TV presenters would be. Nick told us that Countryfile was largely a labour of love for everyone involved in it, as it had a fraction of the budget of similarly rated TV shows and so felt very different to work on. This really comes across in the program as you can feel the passion and interest that everyone has in the topics they’re covering.
We had a great day with Nick, but didn’t allow ourselves to get too excited in case he’d noticed the tiny plants and murky water and decided we weren’t up to Countryfile standards.
Our feelings of excitement notched up a little when he called back to arrange the shooting a couple of weeks later and then went from excitement to sheer terror when we later discovered that Countryfile had higher ratings than the X-factor; yes, a BBC program frequently filmed in the rain and featuring sheep, cows, pigs, chickens and (occasionally) grumpy farmers, manages to beat the slick, massively expensive and highly promoted flagship program from ITV.
We’re not sure what this says about British people, but we think we like it.
The filming took place on a beautifully sunny Friday in July, when we met Nick, the presenter James Wong and the rest of the crew. James was really personable and approachable, and proved not to be just ‘some bloke off the telly’, but a respected Ethnobotanist who had been discovered working at Kew Gardens. James seemed genuinely interested in what we were doing, and proved his scientific credentials by being refreshingly skeptical and open-minded, and asking us some really insightful and probing questions. He also proved really knowledgable about how to store and handle plants after they’d been harvested, something that we’re really interested in as a way to reduce food waste.
The filming took place in the basement of the UTC, on the Guild Roof and at Alder Hey children’s hospital, and you can see Nick’s final edit on the Countryfile Cities program at 20:00 minutes in.
We’d like to thank Nick, James and the rest of the Countryfile crew for their incredibly warm and sympathetic coverage of what we’re doing, and for taking the time to talk to us and really understand the what and the why of what we’re trying to do at Farm Urban.