Politiken.dk | Copenhagen hi-tech farmers grow green without sun
"The small start-up company Nabo Farm grows sprouts, watercress and hanging herbs indoors. Completely without soil, pesticides and sunlight. And they do this with a technique that makes the plants grow three times as fast as normal, and which minimizes water consumption by up to 90 percent.”
Excerpt from the article:
It's going to be a day with lots of rain in the north-east,' sounds a little apologetically from the host of the radio newspaper, as we move out of Frederiksborgvej in Copenhagen's North-West quarter on a Tuesday morning.
We are in the middle of a day that threatens to deliver the equivalent of a small month of rain, it says. And it's a threat that Copenhagen's north-western neighborhood seems to have embraced. It is largely deserted in the area, which otherwise in recent years has gone from being an industrial district on its knees to constituting a buzzing mecca for entrepreneurs. Only a single mother is in the process of placing a raincoat-wrapped child in the back saddle. And through a couple of energetic windshield wipers, an elderly couple smiles understandingly at those of us who didn't make it in time.
While DMI does not immediately appear to be saving water, the ambitions of the two guys we are on our way to meet are somewhat different.
In October last year, they started the small start-up company Nabo Farm, which is something as unconventional as an indoor farm. Here they grow sprouts, herbs and salads that require neither soil, sun nor particularly good rainy days. Everything is checked down to the smallest detail with the aim of getting the best possible benefit with the fewest possible resources. And when the harvest is ready, yes, it is transported on no other fuel than rye bread food.
In this way, Nabo Farm has created a sustainable system that leaves neither overconsumption of water, toxins nor packaging in the process. And it can help show the way for future food production.
The rain drums rhythmically on the roof as we poke our heads into the disused car repair shop, which has today been converted into an indoor farm. The room is divided with hanging greenhouse plastic, and from the outside it looks most like a luminous confirmation tent.
"Hello", it sounds, before a small crack in the plastic is opened, so that a red-blue light flows out. It is Jens Juul Krogshede who receives us. He is in the process of studying how Nabo Farm's latest experiment, oyster leaves, has developed overnight, he says.
"Maybe they should have more days this winter", he notes and explains that in a cold room you can make the plants think that it is a different season than it is, so that they give the extra gas when they is taken out to a slightly warmer "spring morning".
"Spring morning" is the room we now find ourselves in. Here are shelves packed with sprouting vegetables on shelves under LED lights, which bring to mind more the Reberbahn in Hamburg than a place that supplies greens to some of Copenhagen's leading restaurants such as Alchemist, Aamanns and Høst.
When Nabo Farm is not experimenting with new plant species, techniques and methods, they grow to order, says Sebastian Dragelykke, who is the other half of the start-up.
"We grow, among other things, what are called microgreens, which are everything from watercress to pea shoots," he says and walks down the rows with an outstretched pointing finger.
"Cilantro. Red mustard. Arugula. Radishes. Wasabina. Fennel. Garlic,' he says and bounces a little with his hand on top of a tray of watercress. "You can easily grow the sprouts in open ground. With us, it just doesn't take more than 8-14 days. With the watercress, we have thus cut 14 days from the growing season. And this means that our customers can quickly get fresh sprouts, which per gram have 8-10 times as high a nutrient and vitamin content as the fully grown sprouts,' he says.
From NASA to the Northwest
What the plants at Nabo Farm have in common is that they grow from and out of water - without soil, pesticides or sun. Hydroponics is the name of the method, which as such was already used with the hanging gardens of Babylon a few thousand years ago. But even if the basic theory behind the technique remains the same, newer technology has made it possible to speed up the whole process.
And in recent years, NASA in particular has been interested in developing the technique, as it can help minimize the weight of spacecraft if they do not need to transport the same amount of freeze-dried and vacuum-packed food to the astronauts, says Jens Juul Krogshede.
»NASA has certainly made hydroponics mainstream. They have refined the old techniques to find a way to make do with a very small amount of water to grow vegetables and fresh produce", he says, clapping his hand at Nabo Farm's large reservoir in the middle of the room.
"When you do it this way, the plants grow faster and with much less water than in free soil. There is probably 800 liters of water in the reservoir, which we top up with a small amount of tap water once a week. And that's it,' he says in the direction of his companion, who nods his head.
"Plants need three important things to grow - nutrition, water and air. And hydroponics is fundamentally about having nutrition in the water rather than in the soil", continues Sebastian Dragelykke.
"The fact that we can control the climate, nutrient content and amount of water here with such great precision means that the plants grow 2-3 times faster, while at the same time they use up to 90 percent less water", he says and explains that the low water consumption is due to the fact that the water is constantly recirculated.
He goes to another bookcase, where the watercress struts from the upper floor. There are different types of hydroponic systems, he explains. And where some stand in wet hemp mats, others are sprayed directly on the roots. He explains a technique called aeroponics and lifts up a group of plants so that you can see how the drops sit on their hanging roots.
"Regardless of which of the techniques we use, we only use exactly the amount of water that is needed to make them grow. It is very efficient, and therefore we have virtually no overproduction,' he says.
This also means that you cannot just call and order 10 kg. radish sprouts for tomorrow morning. Nabo Farm harvests three times a week for customers who have a subscription scheme with them. When the harvest is in, they pack it into buckets before being cycled off to the customer. When it is delivered, they take the packaging with them.
And then it is simply "the gift that keeps on giving" that there is no land involved in the process, explains Jens Juul Krogshede.
"It is a huge advantage that there is no soil all over the place when you harvest. It would require a lot of water to be used not only for cleaning, but also for cleaning the plants. Because they are so small and flimsy, they lose flavor, texture, nutrition and durability very quickly if you wash them,' he says.
An agricultural supplement
It might not look like much. The rows of fine, young sprouts that lie like colored carpets on the shelves at Nabo Farm. But even if today you are probably not in danger of overeating in the room in Nordvest and the terminus at the moment is primarily rustic, ceramic plates at Copenhagen's top restaurants, the mission of the two entrepreneurs is greater.
"Just take some of the mega-large farms, whose garages, warehouses and storage rooms are more or less inactive for most of the winter. Imagine if you took advantage of the space and period to grow greens indoors,' says Jens Juul Krogshede, soaking a piece of hemp cloth in water and then sprinkling seeds on it with something that looks like an overgrown cinnamon sprinkler.
In this way, you would optimize the energy and space that is still used in agriculture. And maybe the farmers could even learn a thing or two about saving water. The vast majority of the world's recovered water is used for food production. And if we are to be able to meet the world's water shortage, and feed a rapidly increasing world population, then it will be absolutely crucial that we be able to produce more food with fewer liters of water, says the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO. And new technologies and methods can help promote that, believe the gentlemen at Nabo Farm.
"We do not see Nabo Farm as a competition, but more as a supplement to agriculture. In the end, it's about more food for the people for fewer resources", says Jens Juul Krogshede.
Nabo Farm is first and foremost a local project. Just like the plants in the small indoor farm, people in the apartment complexes in the area live vertically. People may live close together, but this does not necessarily require a strong social environment. And that's why they also offer a farm sale once a week, where people can come by and buy greens from their "backyard".
Sebastian Dragelykke goes to the door and extends his hand through the doorway, where the rain is still pouring down. He tells us that we are in an old factory street. Here was the Glud and Marstrand factory, which once produced dairy products and enamelled consumer goods such as the kitchenware 'Madam Blue'. Today, however, the old factory has been converted into 187 modern homes.
"We have chosen to call ourselves Nabo Farm because we like some of the old values that once existed in agriculture. An understanding of where the food came from. And where the production was no bigger than the fact that you had contact with both products and customers. It must be such that if it were pigs we had reared, we would be able to know the names of all of them", he says and continues:
"It is very much about looking at the local environment. Mirror the people and companies that are located here, and then specialize production for them. That way, there will never be two neighboring farms that are alike.'