Cut Above The Rest

Once upon a time in the distant past long, long ago, a happy farmer loaded bushels and barrels of happy, organically grown salads and herbs and produce onto his handcart and set out across the heath to deliver his delicious and pesticide-free goods to the 80 percent of the world's population that lives in megacities and other high-population areas. His greens were very popular because they were of the highest quality and very tasty, as they were grown on his farm in the fertile soil of Mother Earth with only a wee bit of water and no pesticides or GMO seeds. His wares were as highly nutritious as they were…

Hey! Wake up! Reality call! The fairy tale above was and is exactly that: make believe. At least the parts about the farmer and his handcart. And the soil. But some of the rest might one day come true, because the future of farming could well change drastically in the years to come. And Farmers Cut is one of the trailblazers leading the way out of the dark forest of yesteryear.

Farmers Cut (FC), based in Hamburg and founded by Isabel Molitor and Mark Kozilius in 2015, aims to realize a worldwide network of indoor vertical farms in urban centers in order to provide fresh, healthy and pesticide-free greens, herbs and produce all year round to both the consumer and gastronomy sectors. Their pilot project will launch the end of August 2017. To learn more about what exactly Farmers Cut is, and to find out to what extent some fairytales come true, we sat down for a chat with Isabel Molitor in Berlin.

What is Farmers Cut?

"Farmers Cut is a combination of things. On the one hand, it is a technology that we filed a patent for last year; on the other hand, you can think of it as a plant factory. We have an ecosystem that goes from seed to fork within one day."

You mean you grow your greens in just one day?

(Isabel laughs.) "No, the growth cycle takes, depending on the plant, 19 to 20 days."

"But given today's circumstances, with the pollution and the urbanization, we need to find a different way to get back to that quality – and the way we believe this is possible is through technology."

Why is food production an issue for you at all?

"For me, personally, it was my time in New York, where you have a highly populated city and you see how local produce is in high demand. It's actually three things that I like that are combined: technology, food, and the demographic trend – urbanization."

What qualifies you for the task?

"We're no farmers and we're no scientists. Mark and I both studied business economics, and we come from the consumer point of view. We started wondering how we can use today's – or future – technology to deliver the freshest produce. Greens that are nutritious, healthy, pesticide-free, and produced in a sustainable way. As a start, back in 2015, we talked to a couple of big corporations who claimed that they could deliver turnkey solutions for vertical farming, and we thought, 'Great! So, we're only going take care of the distribution, sales, and marketing, and the technology is up to them.' But it turned out that isn't the case, or at least it wasn't the case then. So, we began to develop our own technology with Dutch, Finnish, and Japanese partners and engineers, and that brought us to the point where we are right now."

What were the biggest challenges for you – intellectually and technically?

"I would say that Mark and I have a similar background in terms of education – i.e., no background in horticulture. We dared to get into the topic like a child; we were naive and we tried different paths. I think pharmas or experts in this field would never have dared to go into it so deeply if they had come from traditional farming. So that was an obstacle, but maybe an advantage, too.

"The biggest obstacle was being located in Europe, but particularly in Germany, when it came to funding. In the US, in NYC, everybody was willing to help. Here in Germany, people are more risk-averse; people are more critical. Here, people first tell you ten reasons why something couldn't work or doesn't make sense instead of saying what makes sense and supporting you."

How did you respond?

"By trying and failing and trying. Which is something we are doing with our pilot project. We've built one part – one fourth is ready – and in August we will see if it works. And if it works the way we imagined it, then we'll optimize…. And then we make the big farm, hopefully as good as possible.

Have you already tested your produce with the actual consumer?

"We have a little test lab in Holland, where our engineers and also plant biologists tested our technology, and we took some of the produce to Hamburg where we tested it, for example, in Tim Mälzer's restaurant. Reactions were good, but sometimes also mixed. What counts in the end is the taste, and the certainty that we don't use any pesticides and that it's highly nutritious. But when people ask about the cultivation and when they see that there is no soil, or no sunlight, some people are skeptical and say: 'But you need soil, you need sunlight, the taste and the different nuances….' But I guess some consumers don't know where their salad in the supermarkets comes from, because most of those salads come from greenhouses and have no soil but cocoanut peel or whatever…."

Do you use solar power for sustainability?

"We would like to use solar power, but given that the location is in Hamburg it isn't an option at the moment – so, we're using a block heat and power plant system. But in the future, when we go to Dubai and especially to hot places, solar would be our ideal solution. Nonetheless, it is very sustainable in terms of less water usage: 80 percent less water, 60 percent less fertilizer. In the big picture, there are many aspects that we consider in terms of sustainability – for example, we also don't transport our produce from the south of Spain to Hamburg, but only produce in Hamburg and only deliver to the people in Hamburg.

The way we eat is the way we live. But now that we already live in a certain way, we will have to adapt the way we eat to it, won't we?

"Exactly. We call this idea the 'Farmers Cut circle': We're trying to achieve a quality similar to how it was 60 years ago, when we you had your field, your open field, next to your house, and you could really harvest your salad and have a healthy salad every day. But given today's circumstances, with the pollution and the urbanization, we need to find a different way to get back to that quality – and the way we believe this is possible is through technology. That is the circle: Finding a way back to this quality, but using today's futuristic technology.

So, while it's not "organic" in the original sense, it is definitely local.

"Many consumers contradict themselves, they say 'local, local, local,' but want pineapple. But there is no pineapple here. So if they ask for local, we try to fulfill this desire – and local is one of the major demands in food right now. For us, it's beyond organic. That's one of our mindsets: We don't compare ourselves to organic produce, because we are beyond organic. We don't use any pesticides, we can produce all year round, locally, so there is no comparison or competition from our side to organic. We don't produce big vegetables, or wheat or corn, we produce microgreens, baby leaves, herbs….

Maybe in the second phase, in 2019, we will be at a point where we can produce cherry tomatoes or strawberries, but for now we are in a very small niche market and have about 4000 portions of salad a day. So, while we can serve 4000 people a day in Hamburg, we don't compete with any of the traditional farmers."

"We don't compare ourselves to organic produce, because we are beyond organic."

No bananas or pineapple in sight….

(Isabel laughs.) "In the end, it is all a question of energy. The bigger a plant is, the bigger the surface, the more light you need to supply. So in the end, it's a question of the economics. Which is why, at the moment, we're focusing on these three sorts of greens – but in the long run, the outlook of the efficiency of LED lights is very positive. Energy is one of our major cost factors, and that is developing in a good direction for us. The diversity of what we can grow is increasing. We chose greens like baby salad because it grows best and is highly nutritious; everything in a smaller format has a higher nutrition density.

Will there be Farmers Cut technology in retail stores?

"We think big plant factories to be lucrative, and to have the best controlled environment. If you put the technology in a supermarket, the chance that humans intervene and bring bacteria inside is high, so we want to keep it closed and don't want to involve too many external factors that could ruin the system. We have a closed system: We don't open any door or walk through layers of salad because we don't want to use any pesticides. For that reason, we keep it closed. We try to combine tradition and reliability with today's technology."