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Photo by Martijn Zegwaard

Urban Farming:get good food from your neighbours at scale

Circular economy Community Education Entrepreneurship Food Research Sustainability

Urban Farming is not new, everyone can do it. But doing it at scale, efficiently and sustainably, that’s something else. Since they are Urban Farmers and they are food enthusiasts!

The sun shines through the greenhouse frames on the rooftop in the Hague. Even Mark takes the opportunity to grab his phone and take a picture of the shades and lights effect through all the green stuff. Mark Durno is my tourguide and the managing director at the Urban Farm UF002 De Schilde in The Hague. His Scottish accent is manifested heavily, though he’s a true ‘Haagse innovator’. We don’t need to start the discussion on the pronunciation of tomato, they are bigger forces at play here. Most noteworthy, we are standing in, on, and next to a 45 ton veggies and 19 ton fish per year producing farm.

the hague urban farmers farming martijn zegwaard

Photo by Martijn Zegwaard

The building was originally constructed as a factory office building, now it’s a production facility for green, fish and knowledge produce.

“We completely stripped down the roots of this strict office interior architecture and renovated it. As a result it’s now an organic living building with adds value to a city and the mouths of people.”

mark durno giving a tour through urban farming the hague

It’s a showcase project, for Urban Farming AG as a company and for The Hague Municipality as the host of the biggest European indoor urban farming complex. Because everything they do at this indoor rooftop farming complex is focused on growing and learning. Furthermore tours and partnerships with universities facilitate this experimental and academic experience. For Mark and his team it’s constantly adjusting and tweaking, as the whole adventure has just begun.

Compared to traditional farms, automated indoor farms use roughly 10 times less water and land. Crops are harvested many more times per year, there is no dependency on weather, and no need to use pesticides.

They release bumblebees and mites to be a natural repellent to the bad insects. Because louse will soon be part of their ecosystem as well. Due to it being a relatively ‘fresh’ project, the bigger challenges haven’t risen yet. There’s always a solution though, it’s about innovating and constantly accommodating the vegetables. Being 40 meters high up in the sky has some advantages, having less bugs is one of them.

“We’re just ‘waiting’ for someone to bring a bad insect up in their clothing, but we’re ready for them!”

The goal is, to create a full grown automated ecosystem, which can be run just by a few farmers. Urban Farming is wildly more efficient than ‘normal farming’. You just have less muscle and more brain work to do, says ‘Petit Paul’ aka Paul Jeannet, one of the farmers.

He continues by explaining that this ecosystem is run more by software and hardware. I almost finished his sentence by saying it’s more technology than mother nature, but that’s not the case. Because mother nature is the best and smartest technology out there. It makes farming more challenging though, much as when operated right, it’s powerful and straight up more effective.

This place needs more brain than muscles, run more by software and hardware than almost mother nature itself.

The ecosystem is built around aquaponics system that combines conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment.

The idea of aquaponics is that it’s self sustaining. The fish grow, filter the water, their feces are gathered and cleaned. The water from an aquaculture system is fed to a hydroponic system where the by-products (plain old shit) are broken down by Nitrifying bacteria into nitrates and nitrites, which are utilised by the plants as nutrients, and the water is then recirculated back to the aquaculture system.

Urban Farming aquaponic system the hague

When you enter the ‘Urban Farming penthouse’, you will not leave hungry or foolish (referring to one of the quotes on the wall by Steve Jobs), there’s lots of tasting going on. The smells and bites are great, which means something is done well. The ones fortunate enough to get on a tour with Mark, get a bag of fresh vegetables. Which means I ate salad that night, and I have to say it tasted great, nice and pure.

Urban farming is a way to monetize empty spaces

In changing cities and societies buildings last longer than the ways people work and operate. This calls for a change in mindset. Therefore new purposes for buildings and spaces are needed.

In this former Philips Telecommunication factory, designed by the grandfather of Rem Koolhaas, there’s now a ‘fresh revolution’ going on.

From the 70 initiatives that pitched for the urban farming position in the Hague, everything came together in the Hague for Urban Farming AG. An investment, local software and municipal partners, like Rijkzwaan and Koppert Bio Control within a 5 km radius.

In 2015 the building went up for renovation and green implantation. The biggest rooftop farm in Europe opened in the beginning of 2016 with great festivity.

UF urban farming grand opening the hague

The ‘Urban Farming penthouse’ is made for learning

Next to farming there’s enough space to host workshops, tours and other activities for students and Urban Farming club members. For a small subscription you contribute to making cities more liveable and lively. With that you get the tools and know how to start aquaponic farming yourself.

Urban producing makes cities and its people more connected to the food source:

Children will definitely touch their veggies when they had an awesome learning experience on a rooftop. While grown ups will want to learn to make their own ingredients for their dinner parties.

There were ideas, projects and services around providing for people’s own rooftop gardens. Futhermore restaurants extending their kitchen garden on their rooftop. Urban farmers servicing people and the restaurants. These ideas were put back in the ground. Because if you want to start a revolution, you have to remain focused.

Currently there are 5,5 FTE contributing to this ecosystem. To help become a better learning experience all together, more people are recruited. Currently they are looking for a host to facilitate all this.

If you want to start a revolution, you have to remain focused.

To complete the whole sustainable journey, they are also looking for a partner to get the food where it’s supposed to be in the city. If you have a bakfiets and would like to contribute, jump on it now and contact them and start your impact business.

urban farming mark durno the hague

Their mantra: Real Freshness means food is grown where it’s eaten

Mark is a true urban farming innovator

Durno is active in the field like no other. He won the ‘the Hague innovators’ challenge 2016, not with Urban Farming, but with his app and community to help sell unloved food.

In short, Edibles is a market place for food that is about to pass its sell-by date. Edibles targets food that will otherwise become waste, giving unloved produce a second chance to fulfill its destiny!

Other revolutions going on

Especially relevant, Earth is running out of farmable land and fresh water. Due to our food production systems are incredibly inefficient. It takes an astounding 15000 liters of water to produce 1 kg of beef.

Fortunately, a variety of new technologies are being developed to improve our food system.

For example, entrepreneurs are developing new food products that are tasty and nutritious substitutes for traditional foods but far more environmentally friendly. The startup Impossible Foods invented meat products that look and taste like the real thing but are actually made of plants.

Impossible Food’s plant-based burger

Their burger uses 95% less land, 74% less water, and produces 87% less greenhouse gas emissions than traditional burgers. If you want to believe Mark, who tasted the burgers, they are great initiatives but there’s still a long way to go, especially in marketing this to the rest of the world.

Other startups are creating plant-based replacements for milk, eggs, and other common foods. Soylent is a healthy, inexpensive meal replacement that uses advanced engineered ingredients that are much friendlier to the environment than traditional ingredients.

Some of these products are developed using genetic modification, a powerful scientific technique that has been widely mischaracterised as dangerous.

Brightfarms, Aerofarms, and GrowX are notable ‘collabo-competitors’ doing similar activities like Urban Farming, they are well on their way to contribute to more lively cities and ecosystems. Because if we really want to make an impact we need scale.

Visit to taste the future

If you’re struck by the story, book a tour, find more information on their blog, and especially they are looking for people to work with to increase efficiency, not only in the farm but especially in the learning experience.

The local partners and ambassadors in the Hague that use the fresh creations of the urban farm are listed here:

  • Patrick from Mochi Restaurant,
  • Niels from Het Gouden Kalf,
  • Monif from Ocean Square,
  • Sergio from Les Ombrelles,
  • Ed from Strandpaviljoen De Kwartel,
  • Nick from Museum Catering/Catering Masters and
  • Junior from De Kookfabriek.
  • Rick & Guus from beachclub Copacabana,
  • Rob from Hof Catering

You can see the gastro-partner map here.

Written and interviewed by Milan van den Bovenkamp