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ECF Farmsystems

There’s Something Fishy in Berlin’s Vegetable Farm

A start up based in central Berlin farms fish and uses their waste to fertilize vegetables. In the supermarkets of the future, vegetables and fish may even be farmed directly in store.

The scent of fresh basil wafts through the streets of Berlin; follow your nose, and you will arrive at what is maybe the largest fish and vegetable farm in Europe. The expansive greenhouse, built on the site of an old malting plant, is home to thousands of pots of basil and 13 fish tanks stocked with perch. After seven months—once the fish have reached the appropriate weight for harvesting—they are sold to local supermarkets. “There’s no fresher fish or basil in Berlin,” said 39-year-old Nicolas Leschke, co-founder of Ecofriendly Farmsystems (ECF).

Established in 2014, ECF is based on the idea of cultivating plants and fish together according to a method known as aquaponics. The farm covers 1,800 square meters and uses rainwater collected from its roof. Water flows into fish tanks, and solid waste is filtered out. Fish urine is primarily ammonia, which microorganisms convert into nitrate. “It’s an effective plant fertilizer, so we use water from the tanks in our greenhouses,” explained Leschke. “This enables us to save €20,000 ($24,000) per year on water costs, and it’s the only fertilizer we need for the basil.” The city farmers also forego pesticides, opting instead to use friendly insects to protect the plants against pests.

Cultivating fish and plants together in urban areas dates back to at least the Aztecs. In the 14th century, they grew maize, tomatoes and beans on small islands, or chinampas, built in the river flowing through the Mexican mega-city of Tenochtitlan. Today many parts of the world’s oceans are overfished and polluted, and the global population is growing dramatically. Experts such as Carsten Schulz, Professor for Maritime Aquaculture at the University of Kiel, are convinced that our increasing need for fish can be met only through more use of aquaculture techniques.

Aquaculturing is not without its critics, but Schulz and other proponents believe those objections are unfounded, pointing out that fish reared in aquacultures experience much lower levels of stress than those reared in nature. “Our fish are healthy and require no antibiotics,” said Leschke.

His Berlin farm can produce up to 30 tons of fish annually—enough to supply 2,000 of the city’s inhabitants with fish for a year. ECF has already experimented with a variety of vegetables in addition to basil, from cucumbers, eggplants, peppers and cabbage to melons and tomatoes.

Leschke and his partner, Christian Echternacht, are self-taught, having gained their expertise from scientists and their seven employees. Echternacht is a web entrepreneur, while Leschke studied International Management in London before launching start ups in Italy and India. With sustainable aquaponic farms, the duo hopes to help make the world a better place.

Customers are quick to see the advantages. “Local cultivation cuts transportation time and cold chains,” said a representative for Rewe, the supermarket chain that has been offering “City Basil” in 340 stores across Berlin since March 2017. Sales have been brisk. At €1.99, it costs little more than other, smaller pots and has a relatively long shelf life. And since it is transported such a short distance, there is no need for plastic irrigation trays.

Following this successful test phase in Berlin, ECF is planning to establish city farms elsewhere. The company intends to build what  will be the largest aquaponic farm in Europe on the site of the historic Abattoir in Brussels. Covering 2,000 square meters, it’s a joint project with the European Natural Thinking Factory. “Fish and vegetables will be farmed on the roof and sold at the indoor market located below—it doesn’t get any fresher than that,” Leschke said. Also involved in the project is renowned architect Steven Beckers, whose designs incorporate the principles of the circular economy.

Meanwhile, ECF  built a city farm for a vegetable wholesaler in Switzerland; it is heated with the waste heat from the refrigeration system. “It’s particularly smart to locate aquaponic farms near factories or industrial sites that release a lot of excess energy,” said Leschke. He and Echternacht are also in the midst negotiating projects in Albania, Kazakhstan and Luxembourg.

Since its founding, ECF has been financially supported by Investitionsbank Berlin Brandenburg (IBB),  and a private investor. “Regionality and sustainable production are becoming increasingly important in food production,” IBB’s Marco Zeller said. He and his fellow investors believe that aquaponics has morphed from a niche issue into a veritable trend with great potential. Indeed, ECF is not alone on the aquaponics stage: In Switzerland, Urban Farmers is designing similar plants, and in Brooklyn, Edenworks recently opened a farm that produces both fish and herbs.

ECF expects to become profitable in 2017, with a turnover of €2 million. Leschke said that is only the beginning. “ Very soon we will have fish and vegetable farms in cities throughout Germany.”



Katrin Terpitz
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