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Home-grown! We investigate Berlin’s local food initiatives

Urban gardening? What about a Berlin banana? For these initiatives, sustainable food production starts right in our backyard. We investigate Berlin's local food scene.

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Photo by Iryna Sylinnyk. Since 2017, Anne-Kathrin Kuhlemann has been overseeing the circular aquaponic system at Stadtfarm.

Only a decade ago, your options for “local” fruit and veg were limited to Brandenburg produce from farmers’ markets or CSA boxes from the likes of Ökodorf Brodowin – unless you were lucky enough to have a balcony sunny enough for growing tomatoes. Since then, there’s been an explosion in com­munity gardening, with Kreuzberg favourite Prinzessinnengärten (opened in 2009) opening the door for projects like Spandau’s Bauerngarten, Wedding’s Himmelbeet and Allmende Kontor’s Gemeinschaftsgarten on Tempelhofer Feld (started 2011).

Ecologically-minded entrepreneurs looked at these Berlin greens and saw euro signs. In 2013, three Israeli Kreuzbergers raised €25m to start Infarm. Now, their water-saving “hydroponic gardens” – soil-free glass cabinets in which lettuce, sprouts and herbs grow under UV lamps – can be found everywhere from Tim Raue’s kitchen to the Martin-Gropius-Bau’s new café Beba to Edeka supermarkets.

A year later, Schöneberg saw the con­struction of ECF Farmsystems’ shiny new 1800sqm greenhouse complex, where founders Nicolas Leschke and Christian Echternacht grow cichlid fish in a so-called aquaponic system. The fish waste is filtered from the water, converted into a nitrate-rich medium which is then used to fertilise the produce. You’ll find their Hauptstadtbasilikum in every Rewe in the city and can order fish for pickup on Thursdays (1-8pm, €14.90/kg).

The latest addition to the landscape is located in Lichtenberg, a 20-minute M8 tram ride from Alex. Anne-Kathrin Kuhlemann, 39, co-founded Stadtfarm in 2017 and now oversees production. In a circular aquaponic system similar to ECF’s, Rostock-farmed African catfish help fertilise lettuce, kale, tomatoes, peppers, chillies, cucumbers, lemongrass, taro, Indian spinach – plus a few papayas and bananas, “just to show that it’s possible – we don’t sell them.”

Niedersachsen-born Kuhlemann is proud to have repurposed two 15,000sqm green­houses in Landschaftspark Herzberge, where the GDR used to grow chrysanthemums for export: “We had to invest €1m. For that we could have built it from scratch, but it’s nice to keep this small part of East German history alive,” she says, pointing out the neighbouring cemetery holding the graves of socialist revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Inside, there is a constant humming as 80qm of water circulate from the fish tank, through filters which extract nutrient-rich sediments (to be transformed into soil by earthworms) and convert the remaining ammonium into nitrate, before reaching the plants growing in Stadtfarm’s secret-recipe substrate. The only electricity used is for the pumps and the heating that keeps the fishtank warm in winter. Kuhlemann doesn’t believe in artificial UV lighting: “I can’t fool the tomatoes!”, she says. All crops grow in mixed cul­tures, pollinated by the bees who live in hives outside, while the closed cycle means no chemicals can be used on the plants – “the fish would immediately go belly-up” – and no water is wasted (a major concern for Kuhlemann, who’s is convinced that the next global wars will be over water).

Three-quarters of Stadtfarm’s an­nual 50 tonnes of fish and 30 tonnes of produce go to Berlin restaurants. The rest is sent out as fish “sub­scription boxes” (biweekly from €25) and sold at their farmer’s market, either raw or in the form of pestos, sauces, fish sausages and more (Mon-Sat 10-16; fresh fish: Fri-Sat 10-16, €20/kg), all pro­cessed in Stadtfarm’s on-site kitchen. And Kuhlemann and co. are expanding: Starting January, a second farm will be built in an as-yet-undisclosed location in southern Berlin. Future plans include buying solar panels, breeding their own fish, and potentially us­ing the fish skin to make sustainable leather. Who knows: perhaps one day we’ll be able to buy the Lichtenberg-grown bananas, too!