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PlantAge: the “biovegan” collective that wants to feed Berlin

A group of vegan amateur farmers in have created an earthly paradise out in Brandenburg

Photo: Maria Bogachek
Not so long ago, the fields where Frederik Henn, Judith Ruland and 28 other young farmers cultivate 19 hectares of vegetables and herbs were all but abandoned among the relics of the GDR’s centralised agriculture programme. “We’re in the far east here,” says Henn, originally from Bonn, the “crowded” west. “Here there is so much space. There are these old things that nobody uses and it’s cheap. It’s just waiting to be taken and filled with life.” Today, their plot in Frankfurt an der Oder, rented for around €300 per hectare per year, is brimming with food: generously sized courgettes, Swiss rainbow chard, salads of various kinds, high-climbing beans, fashion- able Padrón peppers and numerous types of tomato. Sweet fennel runs untamed along a dirt track skirting a vegetable field and in the open, lemon balm rests like a thicket between the rows of vegetables. This earthly paradise is PlantAge, a biovegan farming collective that feeds 750 mindful eaters back in Berlin, all without using animal manure to grow its produce. After moving to the capital in 2016, Henn and Ruland fled the city two years later to set up the project (although they still head back to stay with old mates from time to time). “Berlin’s a great place to be vegan with all the cafés and so on,” says Henn, who worked in the start-up scene before becoming a farmer. Still, the city’s typical vegan offering wasn’t strict enough for his liking. “Don’t [food producers] still use animals, like in manure in the whole vegetable-growing process?” In many ways food and farming lie at the heart of the climate emergency. Food production makes up more than one quarter of greenhouse gas emissions while 70 percent of freshwater globally is used for agriculture.

Mouths to feed

So, in 2018, Henn, Ruland and co found themselves staring at an empty field in rural Germany, trying to work out how to make a living from it. They needed funding, infrastructure and water, but also an understanding of the soil, climate and hands-on vegetable growing. The couple’s only previous experience of growing vegetables was while helping out at Schöneberg’s GemüseAckerdemie, a non-profit that runs gardens at 400 Kitas across Berlin. They came up with a financial plan. Direct sales would cut out the proverbial middle- man. Further income could be gained from a cooperative (eingetragene Genossenschaft) structure based on shares of €150 each. Two crowdfunding campaigns in 2018 and 2019 brought in €35,265 for seeds and young plants, protection against the weather, a trailer for vegetable transport, machinery and equipment. The next, more ambitious part of the plan involved individuals and farmers getting together to plan and budget for the season’s harvest. The bounty would be distributed in weekly veggie boxes in ex- change for a subscription. At PlantAge, members pay €79 a month and get supplies for 46 weeks, allowing for pauses over Christmas, New Year and four weeks of holidays. So what’s in a veggie box? PlantAge says that each box will feed about two adults, depending on eating and cooking habits. From late spring to early autumn, the east Brandenburg climate gives a bounty of herbs and veg. A partnership with a neighbouring fruit farm, a cooperative dating back to the GDR, means plums, apples and cherries occasionally find their way into the mix too. The cooler months are the time of the brassicas, a varied and hardy family. Kales, spinach, carrots, beets, Jerusalem Artichoke as well as Welsh onion, a robust wilder spring onion-like vegetable from Japan, arrive at the winter table. The leanest period is actually from April to May, when fresh veg is naturally scarce, so PlantAge members have to get by on a more modest offering of salads, kohlrabi, radishes, fennel, parsley and chives.

Farmers, fields and prefab

The PlantAge farm might come as a surprise to those expecting the beauty of an old stone dwelling or the romance of a country house. Living quarters for 13 people as well as the offices are in a repurposed GDR Mehrfamilienhaus located near the fields. The farmers work from 5.30am to 2.30pm, with an hour for lunch. They produce 790 veggie boxes a week (750 of which go to Berlin), with the objective of reaching 1000 by the end of the year. At 90 percent of production, Berlin takes the lion’s share of deliveries. Fifty pick-up stations are dotted across town, in co-working spaces, organic shops, cafés and at other meeting points. “This is really the space where the farm and the city are connected,” says Ruland. Over two to three hours, some 25 people might pass through a pick-up in Neukölln and stay for a coffee and chat. “We are quite organised,” explains Johannes Stiegler, a Kreuzberg vegan of 25 years and member of PlantAge. “There are Telegram or Signal channels for sharing information that the delivery has arrived.” Members also keep in touch to exchange recipes or make alternative arrangements if someone is on holiday, so smaller communities emerge within the larger one. Now in its third year, PlantAge has 800 shareholders who practise direct democracy. They take decisions collectively with a two-person executive elected annually. There’s an inevitable trade-off between efficiency and participation, though. Last season, a potato leaf-munching bug caused a stir when it threatened to decimate the crop. “That was a crisis. People asked the community what they should do. Should we use organic pesticides? Or could people collect the bugs so they can live somewhere else?” says Stiegler. “We had different options but managed quite well. Fortunately the bugs left by themselves and we didn’t have to do anything. That was really cool.” While PlantAge’s approach to farming might seem quaint in the age of industrial agriculture, their back-to-basics style actually fits with the global trend. Small farmers across Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas still grow most of the world’s food. Like tilling hard ground with a hand-held hoe, traditional farming might not seem like the easy option, but for urbanites seeking eco-friendly answers, something is stirring in Berlin’s eastern hinterland.