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a blog by Maren Schoormans, Priva

Urban F***ers?

How would you spell this title? What is your verdict: Farmers or Failers? The startup Urban Farmers went bankrupt and the recent news generates quite a bit of discussion in the horticultural sector. This tells me it’s a relevant topic, although Urban Farmers (UF) did not intend to identify themselves with mainstream horticulture. For several reasons they failed to sustain their business, but let’s not forget there were also successes, and there is the iconic rooftop greenhouse.

Volunteers spend many hours, companies and investors lost money, and it’s remarkable to see that those who didn’t sometimes seem particularly emotional about the story. At the end of the day, I want to know what we can learn here. Failure is painful, but if you want to innovate, you have to accept failure. UF started out as a couple of Swiss entrepreneurs with fresh ideas, venture capital and a lot of courage. They wanted to grow fish and vegetables in cities. Their pilot facility in Basel generated a lot of publicity and a couple of years later they managed to convince their investors and the municipality of The Hague to build an urban farm on top of the Schilde building, a former Philips factory, strong enough to hold the fish tanks and the greenhouse.

At first glance the idea seemed crazy. But their pitch and plans convinced a jury installed by the municipality to grant them permission and part of the funding to execute their idea. Besides this, a couple of reputable companies (among others Koppert, Priva and Rijk Zwaan) looked into their plans and saw a couple of interesting opportunities. We decided to help them to get their venture started. Growing tomatoes on a rooftop near the Westland may sound like carrying water to the sea, especially on such a small scale but there was much to the plan of UF that made sense.

Maren Schoormans, Priva

Exposure for greenhouse technology
First of all: exposure for greenhouse technology. I am still wondering why the industry didn’t embrace the opportunity to identify with something innovative, sexy and out of the ordinary. Because that’s what we need! And don’t forget FUN. I know only one company in horticulture that have this in their mission statement. UF nailed it and the international press picked it up many times, including National Geographic. From the start to this date around 150 visitors a week get a tour through the facility hosted by the enthusiastic hospitality team. Many visitors get excited and they’re often not aware that growers nearby were basically using the same greenhouse technology on a large scale. Many appreciated the rooftop location for events, with awesome view of the city.

There was also a produce marketing angle. Is it possible to find a niche in the challenging Dutch market and sustainably sell the story that goes with the vegetables and fish? And, especially from Priva’s perspective it was a great opportunity to build a state-of-the-art showcase for high tech aquaponics, combining fish and vegetable crops in a closed water loop. In 2008 this was done already (EcoFutura) but technology has advanced since then. But maybe the most important aspect, supported by the municipality: take a partly abandoned building and create something really cool for the neighborhood. A place where people could meet, work and generate new ideas.

All the ingredients were there
So there was as plan, funding, support from the local government, a business case built on more than just growing and selling urban produce, they were surrounded by experienced people and companies to help them. All the ingredients were there, and a great team at the start.

The UF team included an expert on aquaponics, an excellent business developer, and an operations manager to lead the construction in The Hague and a grower who worked as a crop manager in a greenhouse operation in Switzerland. Regretfully, already before the construction was completed, disagreements caused friction in the UF team and within a couple of years after opening almost everyone from the initial team had left the company except one of the founders who had his own ideas about collaboration.

Not suited techniques
There were some flaws in their proposition and marketing was not able to cover this (it never is) but when it comes to the operations a number of mistakes could have been prevented. Despite a unique and beautiful greenhouse by Van der Valk en Klein, top aquaculture installations and our custom-made controls they decided to apply several techniques that were not suited for these operations or experimental. The NFT system for example, caused a lot of trouble. Imagine race driver Max Verstappen deciding to put square tires on his Formula One car, and driving while ignoring the instructions from the experts in the paddock.

Experienced growers from the Westland offered their services, in vain. Being innovative is great, but it is not wise to turn down expertise and ignore mistakes.

Sure, you can grow food in cities, and it makes sense for cities that are not in the proximity of a ‘greenhouse delta’ like we have in the Westland. Making it profitable is a huge challenge.

Technology and experience
For me the moral of the story is that integration of technology and experience is key to any (high tech) horticulture project, be it very innovative like this one, large or small, or in a place that doesn’t have a horticulture tradition. This integration, completed by expertise for growing crops and managing operations is at the core of the Dutch greenhouse proposition. Me and many others believe that this is worth branding and promoting.

Next September a group of companies will have the kick off of a major international marketing initiative called Dutch Greenhouse Delta. You will hear from us soon, and we hope you will join the movement. This is also a startup and we will do our utmost to avoid the same fate as UF.

Lighthouse for outside the box innovation
The fun ends here for them, but not for the Schilde building. I hope that the building as well as the rooftop greenhouse remain a ‘lighthouse’ for outside the box innovation in horticulture. Maybe the demise could have been prevented, but it’s better to focus on the good things and look ahead. There’s great people with great plans for the entire building, called The New Farm, including a vertical farming facility (this means growing in a building without daylight). This ‘Living Lab’ will start in September.

Besides that, I am very excited that Rob Baan of Koppert Cress, one of the most innovative entrepreneurs, considers stepping in and taking on the rooftop greenhouse in his world-changing mission to improve people’s health through plant-based food. The name on the front wall would only need a minor change: Urban Pharma (UP). There will still be a lot to discover in this place.

Maren Schoormans

VP, Strategy and Commerce Horticulture at Priva, co-founder of the foundation Dutch Greenhouse Delta but first and foremost enthusiastic about horticulture

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