Ema is the co-owner of Good Bank, a smart little restaurant in central Berlin that prides itself as the first restaurant with its own vertical farm. A Berlin-based startup, Infarm, creates and supplies the farm modules that host stocks of fresh lettuce and baby kale, all within the store and bound to end up in the delicious salads created by Good Bank. Dubbed the urban agriculture method of the future, vertical farming tops our list for environmental — not to mention visually spectacular — premises.
What actually is a vertical farm?
Rooftop farms have been on our radar for awhile now. Brooklyn Grange in New York made its mark and influenced a bunch of other rooftop farming activity around the world over the last few years. But this is a further development.
In the context of agricultural urbanization, vertical farming is not only about bringing farming to the city but also finding the most efficient way to grow food. For space optimization purposes, several rows of boxes with plants inside are stacked. Vertical farms can be installed within large warehouses, but they can also be built into shipping containers (a technique that we’re seeing in bloom) or even integrated within housing and commercial buildings. In order to reinvent natural conditions, the plants benefit from special LED lights, ventilation and watering system. Instead of soil, substrates or water make up the ground in which seeds are planted.
A hydroponic system
“It’s almost ridiculous what the farm can do by itself,” Ema told us. “The farm modules work according to a hydroponic system, which means that plants don’t grow in soil. Instead, they grow in water.”
That means that the soil isn’t really earth. It’s more like a substrate in which the plants drive their roots through. Then the roots end up in the water below, where they take all the nutrients they need.”
The functioning farm
As in the natural environment, two main things are needed to make the plants grow in a vertical farm: light and water. In the modules, sunlight is replaced by (fairly expensive) LED lighting which is turned off at night to mimic a natural nighttime (as plants would experience in the real world).
“It’s a very sophisticated and efficient energy system. In the night, the plants also sleep,” said Ema.
The plants are enabled to grow not only due to the rotating LED lights, but also because of the rotating platforms that they sit in. Regarding the water usage, efficiency is also a bonus in this farming technique.
“While you experience water losses in traditional agriculture — since water is dispersed into the soil — hydroponics makes the water usage much more efficient. The whole process is about 25% faster than the natural way. It’s not magic, but it’s much faster than if it would have grown outside.”
“We harvest outwards in a circle. Pedro turns the spiral like an old telephone and puts the new seeds in. That’s why our farms always look very full from an outsider’s perspective, even though the center actually hosts baby plants. This solution is clean and neat for a restaurant like us, because in a standard vertical farm solution, you usually need to take the entire drawers out. Then everything is empty and looks a bit chaotic.”
Good Bank has three vertical farms and 36 boxes of plants. In total, that’s 160 lettuce plants and 150 baby kale harvested each week.
“We are at our limit. Everything goes super fast, especially the baby kale which tends to sell out within the first 24 hours. So we’re looking into what other products we might be able to offer; we need things that are high quality.”
Before being dished up in front of the customer, the last step is to wash the salads.
“In theory, we wouldn’t need to clean the harvested products as this a pesticide-free production and we don’t use any products at all. The salads are ready to be eaten but due to hygiene regulations, we need to wash them.”
The possibilities of vertical farming
Not only salads but also aromatic herbs and smaller fruits such as strawberries or tomatoes could potentially be grown in this kind of indoor vertical farm environment. A lot depends on the capacity of the place in question and the time required for the production.
“We mostly want to grow green vegetables. But we are thinking about ways that we can encourage urban grown farms and offer specialities, so that when you come to Good Bank, it’s not only this kind of dish but something more, alongside the unique experience that we offer.”
Indeed, installing vertical farms can take up a substantial amount of space, which might make restaurant owners hesitate. But it’s also about adding new processes into the restaurant environment and educating the staff in using the farms, one of the biggest hindrances of the system. Good Bank even allows people to order to home from the restaurant.
“We are considering diversifying our offer rather than installing more farms. Possibly by creating a retail space to provide regional grown vegetables and specialities from across the continent, which we would then also use in the preparation of our food. Vertical farms are inspiring and attractive, but we don’t define Good Bank as a vertical farm restaurant. It’s more for us thinking about where the food market is heading and being able to offer a truly unique experience.”