Stadtfarm, Infarm and Efficient City Farm demonstrate the way work in agriculture can differ from its portrayal in children’s books. The Berlin-based companies are experimenting with new forms of cultivation adapted to the urban environment, and they are fighting for their place in the market.
When it comes to the word “agriculture,” few think of greenhouses before they think of wide fields. But this is precisely where development is picking up speed. In horticulture, new agricultural businesses are emerging that confront the high economic pressure with new start-up naivety. Some of these farms are trying to establish themselves in the cities. By using intensive cultivation, new cultivation methods and a minimum of space, urban farming companies are testing concepts they say are as trend-setting.
It remains to be seen whether these farms will survive in the market. Many ideas still need to prove themselves, and no two companies are the same. But the companies have two things in common: they need immense start-up capital, and they turn completely upside down the image of family-run farms in the countryside.
Efficient City Farming: First fish and basil, then farms
Efficient City Farming operates a cultivation method called “Aquaponik” on its test farm in the middle of Schöneberg. This is a mixture of classic aquaculture and hydroponics, a cultivation method in which the nutrients do not come primarily from the soil. All of this works in a circulatory system. Cichlids grow in large fish tanks. Their excrements are converted into fertiliser by bacteria and used for basil cultivation. The fish ends up in the freezers of the big German supermarket REWE, and right next to it, the basil is offered for sale as a potted plant.
High prices show consumers that the fish and plants are cultivated on a test farm. The basil plants exceed by more than one euro the price of the organic alternative in the same supermarket. Although pesticides are used in small quantities and ECF does not qualify for an organic label, buyers still often enough opt for the greenery from the city centre. “In Italy, people don’t ask for organic sausage either, but for a tasty salami from nearby, ” explains Christian Eschternacht, one of the two founders. “Wherever you are, you just want to eat from the region.”
But the sale of basil and fish is not central for the company. The test farm only serves as an example of how a farm could look. The actual business model is different. “First we want to sell fish, then we want to sell farms,” says Christian. ECF designs and builds farm systems. In Switzerland, a farm planned and built by the company already stands on the roof of a green grocer’s shop. Trout, herbs and salads are produced here for hotels and restaurants, and for use in catering. A third farm in Brussels sells to food retailers and restaurants and offers its goods for direct sale.
Work as in a normal greenhouse
The work on the farm looks quite similar to that in a conventional greenhouse: fish farmers take care of the perch, gardeners grow the basil. The principle seems replicable everywhere and in any size. Why the farm has to be located in the city remains unclear during the tour of the farm. The founder even explains that a location on the outskirts of the city would be more efficient. It would be perfect right next to REWE’s central warehouse. From there, the products could be distributed to Berlin supermarkets, thus minimizing delivery routes. This shows how much ECF is oriented toward and dependent on retail trade.
The dependency on the supermarket chain is also felt in price pressure. According to the founder, aquaculture is only really profitable for distribution via supermarkets from 100 tons of fish per year upwards. Because ECF only produces around five tons in Berlin-Schöneberg, the sale of basil has to compensate for losses through higher prices.
The Stadtfarm Herzberge: Communication is work as well
In the Herzberge City Park in Berlin-Lichtenberg, you can visit a 2500 m² city farm run by TopFarmers. In the greenhouses of an old GDR flower farm, between beds of the company in-vitro-tec and fields and warehouses of the agricultural exchange, fish, vegetables and greens are cultivated.
The operators call their cultivation method “AquaTerraPonik.” African catfish are cultivated here in big, packed fish tanks. Since the amount of water in the North African rivers where the catfish live in the wild decreases strongly in summer, the fish do not react with stress to a high stocking density. While the excrements in the wild are washed out with rising water masses, here they are used for fertilizing. Here too, bacteria converts toxic ammonium into nitrate, making it available for growing salads, herbs, fruit and vegetables. The filtered water flows via the roots of the plants in coarse-grained substrate back into the fish tanks, reducing the amount of ammonium in the water and saving a high percentage of water needed for cultivation.
Without organic label, but with ambitions
Pesticides are not used by biologist Florian Danke, head of vegetable cultivation, because they are not needed. Instead, natural helpers such as earthworms, gall midges, green lacewing larvae, ichneumon wasps and ladybirds are used. However, this is not done for certification. In Germany, plants that are not cultivated in soil do not receive an organic label. According to tour guide Anne Vollborn, the fish farming does not qualify for organic certification. However, the city farm would not be averse to an organic label either: “For many people, the organic label is an easy access.” The WWF fish guide nevertheless describes the breeding of African catfish as environmentally friendly. The traffic light system used in the WWF-app is signaling green for all breeding and catching methods for catfish and carp.
Crop rotation is adjusted to the season to minimize the need to heat artificially. Therefore, tomatoes are only available in summer.
There are also other construction sites on the way to ecological production. The fish fodder is still purchased, and in the cold months, greenhouses are heated with oil. But solutions are already being sought. One team is trying to develop a vegetarian fish food with duckweed. Carbon Loop Technologies, a separate company, is working on a CO²-neutral heating method to abolish oil heating soon.
A farm built for the school class
Walking across the site shows how important communication is for the TopFarmers concept. School classes ask for guided tours, student groups visit the farm, and there are regular information events. Every Saturday there is a market on site with other regional manufacturers. Every Friday there are guided tours. The farm also lives from its visitors, and thus from its surroundings. The park, gardens and fields around the greenhouses attract guests and buyers. “A farm should not become much bigger, the farms must fit organically into their locations,” explains Anne Vollborn during a guided tour of the company’s plans for the future. Up to ten new farms are to be built in Berlin.
The presentation of the farm is therefore vital for survival of the company, and customers are particularly sought in the direct vicinity of the farm.
PUnlike ECF, the Stadtfarm does not yet sell its products through supermarkets. Instead, part-time employees and students work in the visitor centre at the sales stand. Five days a week, they cycle to deliver ready-made salads prepared by cooks to companies, city authorities and private households in the district. What is not included in the salad is preserved for later distribution. The catfish are smoked, processed into fish sausages and fish balls, or simply frozen. Vegetables that are not used in salads are processed by the cooks.
Infarm: Vertical miniature farms in the vegetable department
For some time now, Infarm has been operating miniature herb farms directly in supermarkets. With its vertical cultivation areas, the Berlin-based company is pushing the idea of efficiency even further, especially when it comes to saving space. According to its own information, the small herb skyscrapers require only 0.5% of the area of conventional agriculture. The water used in the farms is minimized by a closed cycle without soil. The delivery routes are also 90% shorter — whether compared to delivery routes of herbs from the Netherlands, or in contrast to the distance covered by apples from South Africa remains open.
David, one of the Infarm city gardeners in a Berlin supermarket, calls this “hyperlocal.” The city gardeners are responsible for sowing, planting, harvesting and packing the herbs. But it seems that their most important function is to talk to customers. Like his colleagues, David drives his van from supermarket to supermarket, and works directly in the vegetable department between people doing their shopping. Constant questioning about herbs and cultivation is the rule. Many are curious and want to know more. As he packs herbs and puts them on the shelves, he helps a customer select the right product. Seconds later, he tells an interested shopper about his employers’ growth plans and the pesticide-free nature of the plants.
The “spirit” must be represented
The importance the company attaches to presenting itself is also reflected in the job requirements. Full-time gardeners do not need to have completed an apprenticeship, and also don’t need to have an academic degree. A green thumb, a red card (official training certificate for handling food), a driving license and a lot of sociability are sufficient to maintain the farms. Above all, however, the heart of the job is “representing the spirit at the locations.”
When you look at the job advertisements, you get the impression that the actual work takes place somewhere else. In addition to city gardeners, the company that was founded in 2013 is looking for architects, engineers, plumbers, planners and coordinators, as well as those in finance, sales, customer service managers, human resource managers, IT and data specialists, and web developers. The job titles show that urban farming sometimes has nothing to do with pitchforks. Instead, the growth is produced on Macbooks and on the construction sites of highly engineered farms. The company is aiming for aggressive expansion.
Urban farming sometimes takes place at the desk
This is the part of urban agriculture that remains invisible to customers. A large part of the income is generated while working at desks in offices and co-working spaces. As in the countryside, engineers are also working to increase efficiency — not just on huge rolling agricultural production machines, but also with architects on greenhouses and irrigation systems. This only works with a lot of start-up-capital. In most cases, new concepts emerge in strong dependence upon investors. Companies must subordinate their ecological ideas to the pressure of capital. Where things are different, savings often have to be made somewhere. For companies that need to build themselves without big startup investment, the challenges are countless.
Distribution via the supermarket lures many companies into dependency, as the development of distribution channels off the beaten track is slow. Consumers are comfortable, though, and higher prices and other avenues for supply quickly act as a deterrent. Innovations in urban agriculture therefore have to answer one question in particular: How can the product reach consumers in an uncomplicated way?
How urban agriculture will develop remains to be seen. New distribution channels could set the direction for this development. Whether the new cultivation methods will ultimately lead to more ecological production or to highly engineered and huge agricultural factories will be decided both by consumers and by legislation.
But in order for consumer purchases to have a conscious influence on development, one thing above all else is needed: transparency. Lively demand and well-attended guided tours testify to a growing interest in ecological cultivation. In order for consumers to be able to correctly evaluate products in supermarkets, however, they also need insight into production and trade.
A new awareness of the problems of farmers is also needed in the city. Price pressure from the retail trade is often the most important factor here. Increased proximity and easier access offer potential to curb the alienation of city dwellers from agriculture. At least the new concepts could help to give a nudge in the right direction — with openness and a willingness to talk.
After having studied urban sciences for a few semesters, Raoul Danilo Spada intends to return to the Institute for Media and Communication Studies at Freie Universität Berlin this year to finish his master’s degree. He sees his future in journalism. This article was motivated primarily by his interest in topics related to urban development and food.