When Christian Echternacht gets invited to dinner, he likes to bring tilapia and basil rather than wine or flowers. His friends have grown used to it by now. They know that the fish and the plants have something in common: Both are harvested by Echternacht himself. They make great fish burgers topped with basil mayonnaise.
The ingredients prosper in the urban farm that Echternacht has run with his partner, Nicolas Leschke, for several years. It’s located in central Berlin, on the grounds of the Malzfabrik, a startup hub in the city’s Schöneberg district.
Tilapia at various stages of growth swim around in 13 different tanks, their skin varying shades of silver and pink. The fish don’t weigh much when they arrive at Echternacht’s ECF Farmsystems, as his company is called, but after a few months in his tanks, they plump up to half a kilogram (1.1 pounds) and are ready for harvesting.
Next door on this warm summer’s day, shirtless gardeners are working in the greenhouse where they grow basil from seed, an intensely aromatic sea of leaves. The plants sit atop gigantic grow tables onto which water from the fish tanks is diverted — filtered and full of nutrients. The water contains ammonia from fish excrement and is transformed into optimal fertilizer by bacteria. This symbiotic circuit made up of fish farming (aquaculture) and plant cultivation in water (hydroponics) is called aquaponics, a technique that is thought to have been used hundreds of years ago in China and by the Mayans.
The Berlin duo markets their products as “capital city tilapia” and “capital city basil,” and they are part of an international movement that seeks to bring food production closer to consumers in the city, thus making it more sustainable. Doing so is an absolute necessity, because traditional rural agriculture and forestry is responsible for 23 percent of manmade greenhouse gas emissions.
Bringing Production Closer to Home
Alternative forms of food production, such as city farms, are currently just as popular as modern aquaculture facilities. Saltwater shrimp are being raised in the village of Langenpreising, near Munich; and in supermarkets and restaurants, one increasingly finds futuristic glass cabinets from the Berlin-based startup Infarm, where consumers can watch herbs and lettuce grow and buy them freshly harvested.
All the producers are united by the mission of producing high-quality natural foodstuffs using modern technology and unconventional methods. In their indoor gardens, they use no pesticides for growing vegetables and eschew antibiotics in aquaculture facilities. Aquaponics has the added benefit that 90 percent of the water is reused. Shorter transportation routes result in fresher food and lower emissions, especially due to the reduced need for refrigeration.
A surprising number of those involved in such production are self-taught or mid-career beginners and don’t have backgrounds in agriculture.
That also holds true for Christian Echternacht. He initially studied medicine before founding an internet agency in the mid-1990s. Later, he spent a few years on the road with Roxy Music icon Brian Eno, helping out with his video installations.
His new career was born out of his interest in high-quality foodstuffs, the 48-year-old explains, and the beginnings were rather modest. He initially used a shipping container for the fish tanks, and he built a greenhouse on his roof. The remains of this container farm can still be seen on the premises of the Malzfabrik in Schöneberg, just a few meters from the current facility, which is 1,800 square meters in size (almost 20,000 square feet) and cost around 1.4 million euros to build. The money came from private investors and from the Investitionsbank Berlin, a state owned development bank.
The early years were difficult. The city farmers soon had to abandon their hopes of a completely circular economy in which nutrient-rich fish water would be cleaned by the plants’ roots and sent back to the fish tanks. “We realized that for optimal results growing the plants and raising the fish, we needed water with different pH values.”
They also experimented with a wide variety of different sorts of vegetables — from eggplants to tomatoes to peppers — before ultimately arriving at basil. And why did they choose a fish species that originated in Africa? Primarily because it is particularly efficient at utilizing food: 1.4 kilos of food produces 1 kilo of fish. Furthermore, the species is rather undemanding. “We would also like to raise pike perch,” Echternacht says, “but they are sensitive, require peace and quiet and are quick to stop eating if conditions aren’t perfect.”
‘The Experimentation Phase Is Over
Echternacht and his partner also experienced a steep learning curve when it came to marketing their products. Initially, they tried to sell on-site in addition to offering a subscription produce box for 15 euros a week. For a time, they also had a stand at a market hall in the district of Kreuzberg. But it was a partnership with the supermarket chain Rewe that provided the breakthrough. Rewe now buys up the farm’s entire production of basil, with 7,500 plants per week ending up in stores in the region just one day after harvest. The price at the store is around 2 euros per plant. Currently, more than 400,000 basil plants and around 30 tons of fish are produced each year at the facility right in the heart of Germany’s capital city.
“The experimentation phase is over and we’re going to be profitable this year,” says Echternacht, though the work done by the three gardeners and two fish farmers is only part of the business plan. The farm, after all, is also a showroom, with tours almost every day for schoolchildren and people interested in the facility from around the world. Just recently, Echternacht hosted a delegation from Bangladesh who were interested in learning more about aquaponics.
Echternacht and his partner have also branched out into consulting, offering feasibility studies for individual projects at a price of 15,000 euros in addition to planning complete facilities. Farms designed by the team are currently operating in Brussels and in Bad Ragaz, Switzerland.
Traditional farms will always cover the lion’s share of the demand, Echternacht says, but he says his farms show that agriculture in city centers is also a viable option. Far from being a short-lived trend, he believes the model presents a real alternative. “It makes economic sense for any Germany city with a population of more than 500,000, so they will spread.”
Another Berlin-based produce start-up is located just a few kilometers away — one that is currently working on an international growth strategy. The founders of Indoor Urban Farming, known as Infarm for short, have only recently secured funding for their expansion. The venture capital firm Atomico invested tens of millions, accounting for a significant share of a financing round totaling $100 million. It would seem that even large investors from the tech industry have faith in the concept of urban produce cultivated indoors.
Infarm was founded by three Israelis who moved to Berlin six years ago from La Gomera in the Canary Islands, where they grew a broad array of vegetables for their own consumption. Once they moved to Berlin, they were put off by the quality of standard vegetables at the supermarkets. “The vegetables only had an echo of the flavor that we had grown used to from our own,” says co-founder Osnat Michaeli. But they were faced with the problem of too little sun and no garden of their own. So, they began growing lettuce and cherry tomatoes in their apartment — and the very first harvest was so good that they decided to professionalize the operation.
‘We Sell Living Plants’
They developed mini greenhouses that look a bit like glass display cases. Inside, the herbs and lettuce grow on plastic trays, arranged on seven levels — a principle known as vertical farming, the goal of which is to grow lots of produce in a tight space.
“We have a specific strategy for each seed,” says head biologist Ido Golan as he stands in the corridor between dozens of growing cabinets at company headquarters. “The basil here is currently sleeping,” he says, pointing to an incubator where the grow lamps have been switched off. The incubators are computer controlled in an effort to create the ideal growth conditions for each plant, which can mean simulating a Mediterranean climate for many of the herbs.
The plants’ roots are in water into which nutrients are added by way of canisters in the floor of the cabinets. That means that each of the miniature greenhouses is completely autonomous from the others. Once the lettuce and herb plants reach maturity, they are only separated from their root balls at the supermarket. “We sell living plants, which makes a huge difference,” says Golan. Standard produce, he says, loses valuable vitamins and antioxidants during transportation. “Normal growing practices are focused primarily on keeping produce fresh longer so they can withstand the transportation and storage phases. Nutrition and taste are last on the list of priorities.”
There are already around 200 connected and remote-controllable Infarm cabinets in German supermarkets, with an additional 150 at wholesalers. The company hopes that the number will rise to over 1,000 by the end of the year and they are currently focusing on expansion throughout Europe. It’s not the vertical farms themselves that Infarm is selling, though, but the produce inside. Supermarket operators and wholesalers then sell the produce onward at a markup. Infarm employees take care of the harvesting and restocking, referring to the business model as “farming as a service.”
Yet the reliance on grow lamps raises questions about energy consumption — concerns that Infarm head Michaeli immediately counters: “We rely on green energy and our CO2 footprint is less than 20 grams per plant. A traditionally produced head of iceberg lettuce is responsible for many times more than that.
At its production site in the Berlin district of Tempelhof, the company isn’t just producing seedlings for supermarkets, but also for Germany’s star chef Tim Raue, whose name is written on two of the vertical farming units. At the moment, they contain Peruvian basil, a special type of coriander and a kind of edible flower. Because he farms independently of climactic zones and seasons, Golan is also able to handle special requests. The biologist pulls a stalk of arugula from a harvest container that produces a wasabi-like aroma in your mouth. He also raves about a rare type of oregano found in the Middle East and coveted by Moroccan chefs.
Restaurants are important buyers for most of the new urban farming operations. They include the one belonging to Fabian Riedel, who has established a modern aquaculture facility in Langenpreising, located just northeast of Munich. The 36-year-old is actually a lawyer by training, but these days, his mobile phone contains the numbers of several high-end chefs, who are able to place orders directly via WhatsApp. As proof, he reads a recent message from a chef on Austria’s Wörthersee lake: The previous day, the chef wrote, Jon Bon Jovi ate at his restaurant and praised his food. Now, the chef needed to lay in fresh supplies.
Raising Shrimp in Bavaria
The supplies grow in a large warehouse in an industrial zone in the town, not far from the Munich airport. Behind a hygienic gate that leads to rooms containing eight shallow pools, the climate is tropical, with high humidity and temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s how the pool residents, of the species litopenaeus vannamei, prefer it. The shrimp species is native to mangrove forests, but here in Bavaria, the grayish-blue animals seem to be doing just fine. The edges of the pools are lined with white curtains because the creatures can sometimes jump quite high out of the water.
Riedel buys the shrimp as larvae for around 15 euros per 1,000 and then spends three to four months feeding them a nutritious diet of peas, wheat and sustainably produced fish meal. They are then caught in fish traps, killed with electricity and packed by hand to be sold in select supermarkets and through the company’s own online shop. About half of the shrimp go to restaurants.
Riedel says that although his operation “may not be romantic, it is a contemporary industrial farming enterprise.” In contrast to production in Asia, he says, no mangroves are harmed, no water is polluted and no antibiotics are used — and because transportation distances are short, there is no need to freeze the shrimp. They can even be eaten raw in the form of sashimi or tartare.
‘Indoor Farming Will Play a Significant Role’
The launch of his exotic business concept of raising shrimp in Bavaria wasn’t exactly easy. The state of Bavaria provided a significant financial grant, but Riedel’s co-founder soon backed out for health reasons. Later, there was a several-month period with larvae supply difficulties. Riedel says he also initially underestimated the seasonal demand for fish. “Having only a single product is risky,” he says. These days, his brand CrustaNova also sells caviar, lobster and salmon from other producers with similar quality standards. He says the company has become profitable and is investing in growth. His facility can be expanded modularly and he has secured the neighboring property.
For now, Riedel only sells around 30 tons of product each year, making him something of a niche producer, just like the urban farmers in Berlin. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. In the United States and Asia, larger aquaponic facilities are in operation and one company is trying to establish a mass-production shrimp farm on land.
Infarm co-founder Michaeli says she believes the development is unavoidable. “Because of climate change and depleted soil, we need methods to produce more with fewer resources. Indoor farming will play a significant role.”