Urban Farming Co Takes Aquaponic Farming to Europe’s Rooftops
September 18, 2014 | David Sands
UrbanFarmers is on a mission to bring commercial-grade urban farming to consumers hungry for fresh locally-grown produce, and it’s doing so from the rooftops.
Based in Zürich, Switzerland, the company offers a brand of rooftop-based and modular growing systems to client businesses. It does so using aquaponics, a technology that combines plants and aquatic life forms into a harmonious recirculating habitat.
“At present, UF operates the only commercial aquaponic food production system in the EU,” Urban Farmers’ Director of Business Development Tom Zöllner tells Seedstock. “Although there are numerous initiatives and projects in almost every city, almost all of them are socially driven community-based, small-scale projects. We are not aware of anyone else that has been able to implement a large-scale, high-tech aquaponic system that sells year round into a major retailer.”
Urban Farmers was founded in 2011 as a spinoff of aquaponics efforts at the ZHAW (Zürich University of Applied Sciences). The company emerged from discussions about the viability of rooftop farming between founders Andreas Graber and Roman Gaus.
Graber belongs to the faculty at ZHAW’s Institute for Ecological Systems where he runs their Aquaponics lab.
Gaus, who serves as the company’s CEO, has a decade of experience doing business in the health and food industries in Europe and North America with companies like Procter & Gamble, Novartis Consumer Health and the Franke Group, a Swiss food and beverage firm. He got the idea for Urban Farmers from following foreign urban agriculture developments and learning about Swiss aquaponics research advances.
UF’s website describes these origins rather prosaically: “One day while flying back into the city, he noticed the thousands of empty rooftops, and connected the dots. Urban Farmers was born.”
As with other aquaponics operations, UF’s setup uses fish waste as fertilizer for its crops. Rather than organic, Zollner describes the methods as based on “real time declaration and residue free production.”
He says UF’s systems are capable of producing “over 450 different varieties of vegetables and 5 different varieties of fish.” The company’s website describes the former as an assortment of tomatoes, peppers, herbs, salad vegetables and micro-greens and the latter as a mix of tropical fish varieties and trout. Its systems are customized according to clients’ architectural needs. For this reason, the details and costs of particular rooftop setups can vary.
Options include bolt-on systems that can integrate with an existing hydroponic setup and rooftop systems capable of producing 7,300 kilograms of fish and 9,800 kilograms of vegetables annually. A mobile showcase unit is also available for folks who want to get a first-hand look at aquaponics in action.
Urban Farmers assesses the performance requirements for clients and designs blueprints to integrate different modular components that are purchased from a combination of retailers and direct manufacturers. For larger projects, they often rely on outsourced technical partners drawn from an existing consortium partnership to assist with development, engineering, build-out and service.
Loan financing is offered for projects with long-term produce purchase agreements. The company also plans to generate revenue through operations and maintenance as well as sales services to key retail clients. It’s also interested in licensing out the brand to responsible operators in the not-too-distant future.
That said, the company is still getting its legs. Currently it’s completed a proof-of-concept commercial rooftop farm in Basel, Switzerland that’s capable of producing five tons of vegetables and 850 kilograms of fish a year.
From this foundation, Urban Farmers is poised to bring its local food production methods to rooftops all over Europe.
“UF has a pipeline of signed contracts, projects and prospects within the northern hemisphere of the EU with a commercial value of € 50 m,” says Zöllner.
These include a flagship project in the Hague, which is being billed as the “Times Square” of urban agriculture.
That operation will cover 1,500 square meters of rooftop space at the Dutch city’s UF De Schilde building and another 700 square meters on its sixth floor for operations, showcasing and hospitality. The facility will also feature a wraparound digital billboard that will have status updates about the company and info about what’s happening in the greenhouse.
From there, the company’s aspirations are global. Urban Farmers’ ultimate aim in developing its brand is to help establish a commercially viable system that can provide 20 percent of fresh vegetable and fish products consumed in any city in the developed world.
According to the company’s website, there are already two “copycat” companies in Europe whose work the company says was directly inspired by their model. It noted this development rather wryly in a section on Urban Farmers’ track record: “This shows how much momentum urban farming has currently, but also how good ideas get copied–fast.”