The phrase ‘das ist so Berlin’ is arguably overused in the arty, alternative and idiosyncratic German capital, however when you hear the story of vertical farming start-up Infarm, it’s hard to disagree with.
From its beginnings in a Kreuzberg community garden to its effortlessly cool office and staff, the business seems very at home in the city. And when you speak to one of its three founders, Osnat Michaeli, it’s clear that the vision behind the company – which installs and operates vertical farms in supermarkets, restaurants and distribution centres across Europe – is as strong as its image.
“It all started six years ago in our living room. It was one of the harshest winters we’ve experienced in Berlin, but our house was like a jungle,” recalls Michaeli. “My partner Erez and his brother Guy built a very basic pipe garden [a DIY vertical farm] and the outcome was amazing.”
The trio had an old Airstream caravan from the 1950s and decided that instead of travelling in it they would park it in one of Berlin’s most famous community gardens, the Prinzessinnengarten, and build a small vertical farm inside. “It was a really cool installation where people could come and harvest their own salad and then seed the next ones,” says Michaeli. “We held workshops and debates and spent the entire summer there, meeting with all of Berlin’s activists, farmers, designers and architects. The interest, excitement and feedback we got really convinced us there was a place for a business like Infarm.”
The initial motivation for the project was that Erez Galonska, a passionate grower with experience living in various self-sufficient communities around the world, had been encouraged to move into the city by Michaeli but was keen to continue growing his own food despite their lack of a garden. He probably couldn’t have imagined that what started as a personal project would grow into a successful international business servicing some of the biggest retailers in Europe.
After a couple of years of bootstrapping, R&D and pop-up dinners, the company started designing customised hydroponic systems for restaurants, offices and hotels, installing units for the likes of Airbnb and Mercedes. The big breakthrough came in 2016, however, when Infarm landed its first in-store farm, at the Metro cash and carry in Friedrichshain, Berlin.
It was here that the company developed its current business model, Farming as a Service, and since then it’s been “a journey of working with retailers to really understand their needs”, Michaeli says. “We ask our customers three basic questions: What do you want us to grow for you? When do you want it? And how much? From there we can design the farms and offer different products to different clients, being flexible in changing what they grow according to customer demand.”
Most of the in-store farms measure 2 sq metres and grow common herbs such as basil, coriander and parsley, but they vary in size, with Metro in Paris boasting the company’s largest installation at 18 sq m. At this farm, which services many of the French capital’s chefs and restaurants, there are some more exotic offerings, such as wasabi rucola, shiso and Thai basil.
Even with its more common herbs Infarm makes an effort to find the best-tasting, most delicate varieties – ones you can’t easily find on the market – and once these have been established at a store or restaurant, the company might suggest introducing other products like leafy greens or baby kale. In total, Infarm grows around 65 varieties of herbs, micro greens and leafy greens, and Michaeli thinks it is “inevitable” that the company will move into growing larger produce too. “It will happen sooner than everybody thinks,” she says.
Back when the Infarm founders were experimenting with their pipe farm, they were growing all kinds of produce, from root vegetables to flowering plants like berries and tomatoes. But to grow a product commercially in a vertical farm it has to be financially viable – and that’s why smaller high-margin crops like herbs and micro greens make the most sense.
“Everything we grow has to be economically viable and you have to take into consideration things like electricity use,” says Michaeli. “Flowering plants need more light for example. So that’s the game – finding exactly the right growing recipe to produce plants that are in our standard of quality and are economically viable.”
As the technology becomes less expensive and more efficient, the potential of vertical farming to produce larger wholehead produce will increase, however the jury is out as to whether indoor hydroponic production can truly transform global food production. Not only is a vertical farm much more expensive to install and run than a glasshouse, it also lacks the same light intensity. And a plant biochemist from the James Hutton Institute warned producers at this year’s Global Berry Congress that growing soft fruit vertically was a sure-fire way to lose money.
Despite this, Michaeli believes that as costs come down, vertical farming will become “the biggest player in food production”, adding that she doesn’t see any other solution as populations grow. “I think that in the next ten years it will already be a huge industry,” she says. “Erez is always giving the quote that by 2050 we will need two more planets to feed the people if we go on with the same practices that we have today, so I definitely think vertical farming will be much more significant.”
A self-described optimist, Michaeli has a strong vision for the future. Ultimately, she wants cities to become completely self-sufficient in food production; for their inhabitants to grow more food themselves; for food waste to be eradicated; and for food to be regarded as preventative medicine, with a focus on its nutritional benefits.
“The current food system has so many deficiencies so there’s a lot to fix or change completely,” she says. “I think it will change dramatically because the way things work now doesn’t make any sense – food waste, chemical use, environmental damage, exploiting so many people in the third world. We can’t really go back as a society, but we just have to find more technological solutions that will help us go further, but in a sustainable way.”