ECF: Berlin’s First Aquaponic Container Farm

Aarti Mehta-Kroll investigates Berlin’s new aquaponic “container farm” concept…

Prototype of ECF’s Container Farm concept in Berlin

I have a friend who only buys fresh produce when it is in season. When green beans are in season she’ll buy them by the kilo and use them in soups, salads, casseroles and every other dish imaginable.

At any other time of year she’ll steer clear of the beans grown and brought over from places like Kenya and Israel. “Imagine what they must do to keep these products fresh on the long journey here. I’d rather wait until they are harvested in Germany.”

Many restaurants in Berlin and elsewhere have started to recognise and respect people’s desire to eat meals made from ingredients grown on farms close to the city – and indeed many farms have been happy to accommodate the growing trend. Yet one company has recently gone one step further by creating a farm right in the city – nope, not the well-known Prinzessinnengarten, but ECF Farmingsystems, who have taken up residency in a brewery in Tempelhof-Schoeneberg.

The space in question belongs to the Malzfabrik, a former Schultheiss brewery that stopped producing beer in 1996. It was bought by Real Future AG, who have refashioned the sprawling, red-brick factory into a space for events, artists and entrepreneurs like ECF Farmingsystems, who have harnessed the age old practice of aquaponics to make large-scale, year round-food production in cities like Berlin a reality.

Aquaponics has been used around the world in different forms for centuries, but its employment in commercial farming enterprises is relatively recent. In this system, fish and plants are paired together in a symbiotic relationship with each helping the other grow.

Fish swimming in tanks excrete waste that is rich in nitrates that serves as a food source for plants growing on top of the tank which absorb the nitrates and carbon dioxide in the water, thereby creating a liveable environment for the fish. With the right technology, these systems have the potential to produce a substantial amount of food, and many see this as an opportunity to reduce transportation costs and localize food production in urban centers.

ECF Team [L-R]: Nicolas Leschke, Karoline vom Böckel and Christian Echternacht
I met two of ECF’s founders, the friendly and surprisingly youthful Nicolas Leschke and Christian Echternacht, when I stopped by at their company headquarters (the third is Karoline vom Böckel, pictured). Nicolas, dressed in jeans and a tee, was walking his dog while Christian – kitted out in workmanlike overalls – was putting together one of the company’s Container Farms. They told me how ECF, like many entrepreneurial endeavours, came about as a result of a series of serendipitous events.

Nicolas was managing Malzfabrik for Real AG when Managing Director Frank Sippel came to him with a proposition. Sippel had learned about a Swiss company called Urban Farmers that had created an aquaponic farm using an old shipping container.

He wanted to bring this to Malzfabrik.  The container farm, known as Rostlaube (which translates as “rust bucket”, with “laub” also meaning “leaves” or “foliage”) was installed in June 2011 and quickly received press coverage – which brought it to the attention of Dr. Werner Kloas and his team at the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries.

“He told me that due to the difference in water and nutrient levels required by fish and plants, classic aquaponics cannot be used on a commercial scale,” said Nicolas. Fortunately, Dr. Kloas had a way around this problem: a patented system called ASTAF pro that is specifically designed to integrate classic aquaculture with classic hydroponics.

In this system, biofilters capture the nitrates excreted by the fish converting them into fertilizer. This regulates the nutrient level in the water which can then be reused by plants. Soon after meeting Dr. Kloas, Nicolas, in partnership with Christian, joined hands with the Leibniz Institute to create and sell commercially viable aquaponic systems.

ECF’s current container farm, which is open to the public.

ECF currently has two products on the market: Container Farms and City Farms. Their Container Farms, fitted with the ASTAF pro system, can yield 100kg of fish and 300kg of vegetables during one growing season (April or May till the beginning of October).

They can easily be set up almost anywhere, like in a parking lot or on a rooftop, and Nicolas describes the container farms as a “lifestyle product…ideal for restaurants or schools as it could serve an educational or marketing function.”

Members of the public are welcome to visit and explore the Malzfabrik Container Farm. In fact, up to two hundred people have the opportunity to adopt a fish – one of the perches that live in the tank – until the end-of-season grill party, when sponsors will gather together at Malzfabrik to enjoy the season’s harvest.

In March 2014 the group received a seven figure sum in financing. This sum plus investments from a couple of investors is helping to construct the city’s first proper aquaponic farm (which will also be the largest in Europe) and for ECF to move on to the next level of growth. This farm would be in operation throughout the year and could yield 25 tons of fish and 35 tons of vegetables annually. From the beginning of 2015 ECF will be supplying restaurants directly with fresh fish and vegetables and Berliners will be able to visit and stock up on some of the most local, sustainable produce in the city.

The construction site of ECF’s aquaponic farm, which will be the largest in Europe. Image by ECF.

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