Farmers Cut: High life for urban salad

Vertical Farming


Why buy travel-weary rocket from Italy when it grows just around the corner? Entrepreneurial duo Mark Korzilius and Isabel von Molitor run Hamburg's first vertical farm right in the heart of the city centre. Our author Nicoline Haas tried their high-tech lettuce.


Nicoline Haas

Nicoline Haas is a freelance journalist who loves writing about sustainable projects and fine, traditional handcrafts.

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Nestling behind the city's central station, Hamburg's most state-of-the-art “farm” lies hidden: a grey steel box in a warehouse on the Großmarkt, towering close to the ceiling. Height nine metres, footprint 100 square metres. Hoses and cables run in and out. Isabel von Molitor opens the sliding door at the rear with a fingertip on the touchscreen – but just a crack, to protect the artificial climate. The ventilation system roars. We count nine stories indoors, each irradiated with purple LED tubes. Runners hold flat plastic trays. And inside them grow salad leaves.

Isabel von Molitor in front of her outwardly austere workplace at the Großmarkt industrial site: to the left the office container, to the right the warehouse where salad leaves are grown.

New dimensions of urban gardening

Farmers Cut is the name of Hamburg's first vertical indoor farm, a startup by Mark Korzilius, 53, and Isabel von Molitor, 29. The two are neither farmers nor botanists, they're business management graduates. With their newly developed high-tech system they want to demonstrate how metropolitan areas will be able to supply their own sustainably grown greens from the urban heart outwards. In the pilot phase, the team is raising around 20 small-leaved cut-and-come-again salad leaves, cresses, herbs and sprouting seeds. The range will include more than 100 varieties later on.

This fully automatic “incubator” has little in common with urban gardening projects like the Gartendeck in Hamburg's St. Pauli district and the Prinzessinnengärten in Berlin-Kreuzberg, where city-dwellers happily get dirt under their fingernails. Instead of earth, the greens are rooted in so-called “growing pads”. “The main thing is for them to have something to grab hold of”, Isabel von Molitor assures us. “The light-emitting diodes provide an exact copy the light spectrum that the plants need for their photosynthesis”. Without this technical innovation, coupled with the LEDs' high efficiency, indoor farming wouldn't be both feasible and cost-effective, the marketing director explains.

The atmosphere is also sterile inside the warehouse. No place for lovers of nature or traditional farming – it's high-tech. The closed steel farmhouse can be seen in the background.

Everything's digitally controlled: the day and night cycle, the ideal temperature (20 to 22 degrees Celsius) and humidity (around 60 percent), the economical drip irrigation and precisely measured doses of nutrients. And who looks after things? “Sensors continuously send us control data,” replies managing director Mark Korzilius. For programmed plant welfare, he hired an agricultural biologist from India, with a PhD from the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology. He seems to be doing a good job, because the samples we're allowed to pick – pak choi, Batavia lettuce, oakleaf lettuce and a mustard-wasabi rocket – taste fresh and crisp.

Checking a batch of freshly harvested Batavia lettuce.

All the same, do we really need this? What arguments favour vertical indoor farming? From the founders' point of view, there are four main ones:

High output, small space: In the same way as a tower block stacks offices, the farmhouse so to speak stacks lots of mini-fields. Added to the space saving is productivity: “Outside in the fields you can only get one or two harvests, we harvest 20 times a year,” says Mark Korzilius. To him, salad veg fields that lie fallow for months are “a waste of land”. He says his farm can yield at least 80 kilos of greens a day with a cultivated area of 550 square metres – that's around 1,000 portions. Three more salad leaf towers are planned, enough to satisfy the salad cravings of 4,000 Hamburg residents per day.

No pesticides: The closed system offers constant conditions on the one hand, and protection from invaders on the other. According to Mark Korzilius, no insect, fungus or weed can stray into the farmhouse. “That means we don't need pesticides. And the leaves don't even need to be washed before eating”.

Wide variety at all times: Mucky weather? Seasons? Not indoors. All salad greens are always in season, and a wide variety can be grown simultaneously. The supermarkets' offerings are paltry by comparison, particularly now in winter. Their only local produce is lamb's lettuce and chicory, everything else is imported.

Couldn't be fresher: The short distance to the consumer protects the climate and the veg. But harvest-fresh wares still aren't fresh enough for the city farmers. Isabel von Molitor tells us: “We now sell our greens with roots, i.e. as living plants. That way they retain their vitamins and minerals”. In the jargon, it's known as “harvest on demand” or “farm to fork”.

The concept has been well received by its first customers. For example, by TV chef Tim Mälzer and restaurant manager Christoph Koch at “Die Gute Botschaft”, a restaurant on the Alster lake: their guests can help themselves from a “Salad Garden” included in the lunchtime buffet. Leaves from Farmers Cut are presented in wooden boxes for them to cut their own. Meanwhile, fresh supplies grow on site, smartly presented in a tall glass cabinet.

Good news for freshness fanatics: guests at Die Gute Botschaft can cut their own living salad leaves at the buffet counter. The larder is a tall glass cabinet. (Photo: Gute Botschaft)

Inspired by Infarm in Berlin

It took around four years from the initial idea to the trials, the startup and a private investor put 2.5 million euros into developing the patented technology and building the farm. The inspiration came from a Berlin-based company. Infarm, however, has a decentralised concept: the company leases wardrobe-sized modular hothouses which are now scattered all over the urban area at 60 locations, restaurants, hotel kitchens, and Metro and Edeka supermarkets. I.e.: the salad plants grow from seedlings at the place where they are purchased or processed.

On his research trips, Mark looked at other industry pioneers, for example the Aerofarms in Newark, New Jersey and one of the Mirai Group's gigantic plant factories in Japan. Output: up to 12,000 heads of lettuce per day. “I hadn't a clue about the subject to start with, but it attracted me all the more for that reason,” the founder admits today. He had no idea about gastronomy, either, when he opened the first “Vapiano” restaurant in Hamburg in 2002. Vapiano is now a company with more than 200 restaurants in 33 countries.

Farmers Cut only wants to sell its living greens directly to restaurants and canteens, and in a few months' time it'll also be at Hamburg's farmers' markets. The team is also planning to sell and with other startups hold occasional food events in the cultivation hall. Slogan: “We love local”. It's no coincidence that other companies of a similar nature are at home in the same container-based office: online farm shop Frischepost, liquor manufacturer Elephant Gin, apple-juice producers Leev and Roots&Fruits, which makes juice shots.

From the River Elbe to the desert?

That said, the salad farmers are already looking beyond their Hamburg home turf and forging plans for expansion: “We're considering the Middle East, for example, metropolitan areas like Dubai, Doha or Riyadh,” Mark Korzilius reveals. In contrast to Hamburg, they get too much sun and too little rain and rely even more on expensive imported vegetables. They could make themselves a little bit more independent with fresh vegetables from indoor farms.

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