Evolve
ECF Farm: Aquaponics done right
ECF Farm sits in a grassy meadow dotted with a tiny lake and some large-scale art in an otherwise industrial outskirt of Berlin. On the day of my visit, sunbathers stretched out on the bank of the lake, bees were a-flutter in the wildflowers, and employees were taking advantage of the summer weather with an alfresco lunch.
There I met Christian, the shaggy-haired co-founder who described himself as the "business" guy behind the farm. He shared with me their five-year evolution from an experiment in a small shipping container greenhouse to the expansive aquaponics facility it is today, currently supplying local grocery stores with over 10k Tilapia/year and 380k pots of basil/year.

In contrast to the meticulously controlled environment, I found at the previous vertical farm I visited, ECF Farm utilizes the natural elements as much as possible. They grow their produce in a bright, airy greenhouse under mostly natural light and have water catchment barrels to help supply water for the fish.

Beyond the farm, they also support the wider urban agriculture industry. For example, they recently designed proprietary vertical farming equipment that farms can buy. Also, they offer a wide range of consulting services to folks looking to build farm facilities using hydroponics or aquaponics.

It was exciting to see a replicable model that was providing both a popular herb and protein-rich food to the local community (because people cannot subsist on micro greens alone!)

After a chat and tour, I concluded that their success lies in a combination of 4 factors:
Efficiency
Experimentation
Environment
Hyperlocal
After a chat and tour, I concluded that their success lies in a combination of 4 factors:
Efficiency
Experimentation
Environment
Hyperlocal
Efficiency is part of every decision at EFC Farm. For example, they choose to grow basil because it is a fast-growing crop that does not take up much space and is prone to few diseases. They harvest it before flowering, so the plant's lighting needs do not change. Unlike a lot of other hydroponic farms, the basil is grown in soil and sold as a mini plant. There is minimal processing needed post-harvest. They also pick fast-growing fish species that do not need a lot of fuss, like tilapia, which take around seven months to reach maturity. Lastly, a small, expert team runs the day-to-day operations.
1. Efficiency
Efficiency is part of every decision at ECF Farm. For example, they choose to grow basil because it is a fast-growing crop that does not take up much space and is prone to few diseases. They harvest it before flowering, so the plant's lighting needs do not change. Unlike a lot of other hydroponic farms, the basil is grown in soil and sold as a mini plant. There is minimal processing needed post-harvest. They also pick fast-growing fish species that do not need a lot of fuss, like tilapia, which take around seven months to reach maturity. Lastly, a small, expert team runs the day-to-day operations.
1. Efficiency
In a new industry like aquaponics, it's imperative to keep an open mind and be able to pivot.
2. Experimentation
Urban agriculture, especially when combined with aquaponics, is a reasonably new industry with no standardized playbook. Being able to keep an open mind, pivot when needed, and try out new things is essential for longevity. ECF Farm is no exception. When I was visiting, they had just received a shipment of a new fish species to test out. Christian outlined a handful of other adaptations they have done throughout the years like changing from one closed loop system to two loops (click on the "Farm" tab of their website for a visual), using a vertical rack with grow lights to start the seedlings off, and testing out different pest solutions. They initially used neem oil (to stay within the parameters of 'organic' growing) however, they found it did not work well enough on a particular type of fungus and ended up having to destroy the plants growing on the farm in order to eradicate the disease. Since then, they've opted to not label themselves as 'organic' on the off-chance this type of situation presents itself again, although they have only had to resort to this once.
2. Experimentation
Urban agriculture, especially when combined with aquaponics, is a reasonably new industry with no playbook so being able to keep an open mind, pivot when needed, and try out new things is essential for longevity. ECF Farm is no exception. When I was visiting, they had just received a shipment of a new fish species to test out. Christian outlined a handful of other adaptations they have done throughout the years like changing from one closed loop system to two loops (click on the "Farm" tab of their website for a visual), using a vertical rack with grow lights to start the seedlings off, and testing out different pest solutions. They initially used neem oil (to stay within the parameters of 'organic' growing) however, they found it did not work well enough on a particular type of fungus and ended up having to destroy the plants growing on the farm in order to eradicate the disease. Since then, they've opted to not label themselves as 'organic' on the off-chance this type of situation presents itself again, although they have only had to resort to this once.
3. Environment
ECF Farm touts many environmentally-friendly practices and has long-term goals to make them even greener. A direct supply chain, from farm to Berlin grocery stores, allows them to reduce the amount of packaging needed for transport because plants don't need to be watered en-route. And as with any local farm, food miles are minimal. At the farm, they installed a water catchment system to collect rainwater for their system. Eventually, they plan to shift from plastic to biodegradable plant sleeves.

4. Hyperlocal is in vogue
Their direct supply chain, from seed to grocery store, especially resonates with consumers in Berlin where 'made in Berlin' is a pervasive trend in everything from fashion to music to Michelin-starred restaurants. Retailers sell out of their basil regularly because more and more people are looking for local, traceable food-- even though their product is not labeled 'organic' and costs more than conventionally-grown basil. The shorter distance in food miles also gives their basil an advantage when it comes to looks and freshness. Moreover, the bright packaging highlights that it's grown in the city. As the farm is open to the public and has received a fair amount of press throughout the years, it is safe to say that their brand presence is widespread in the city.
Overall, I found ECF Farm to be a responsible local food partner and also a positive contributor to this new industry. It's obvious they care about providing clean, local food and also helping grow the local, urban agriculture sector. If you're ever in Berlin, I recommend stopping by their farm for a tour!
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