The future is urban. With a growing population that increasingly clusters in large cities, the looming question is how we are going to feed all these people. And while the acreage of vertical farming is not yet enough to feed the Randstad, the development of this new way of cultivation is not standing still.

In 2011, John Apesos and Jens Ruijg of GROWx opened the first commercial vertical farm in the Netherlands in Amsterdam. In it they grow dozens of varieties of micro vegetables and leaf crops. Every day, fresh vegetables leave the vertical farm on their way to various high-quality eateries in Amsterdam.

Supplying exclusive restaurants
The working day starts at 8 a.m. Until the afternoon the team is busy sowing, harvesting and packing the vegetables. In the afternoon they deliver the products to the customers and gather feedback. "Freshness is very important, we ensure that the harvested vegetables reach the customer within 24 hours," says John. "Most customers order twice a week, and according to our customers, GROWx products have a longer shelf life than vegetables from the ground or from the greenhouse, and they stay in the kitchen for 2 to 3 days." Hugo Engels is sous chef at restaurant Taiko in the Conservatorium hotel and one of the buyers of GROWx vegetables. "The products have a pure flavor and it stays fresh for a longer time. We also think it's important to support local initiatives such as GROWx," he says.

Photo: John Apesos, CEO and co-founder of GROWx

High-tech vegetables from a food factory, is that something that the consumer wants? "People sometimes have an excessively romantic view of the cultivation of vegetables. The reality is different, consumers want nutritious, honest food that does not involve crop protection agents. In a vertical farm we can control the climate very well and limit diseases to a minimum," says John.

Loved by chefs
Micro vegetables are in fact traditional vegetables that are harvested at an early stage. They therefore contain a lot of flavor. "Chefs love it, they use it as a functional garnish," says John. "In the past, people used a sprig of parsley or some mint to give color to a dish in restaurants. Nowadays chefs are almost artists, everything revolves around a perfect picture on the plate, paying special attention to color, taste and structure."

John himself has no agricultural background. During his travels he saw the consequences of climate change with his own eyes. After studying business administration, he worked at a LED company and became involved in various start-ups. And so he ended up in the Dutch capital. Why Amsterdam? John laughs. "Sometimes people think I brought this idea from America, but the opposite is true: the Netherlands is the hotspot when it comes to horticulture. Wageningen University is known worldwide, just like Dutch seed companies and horticultural suppliers. And all this exists within a radius of 150 kilometers. People from all over the world come here to learn about horticulture and the Netherlands has an excellent climate for innovation."

Future plans
Currently the Amsterdam vertical farm covers 250 m2. John says there are plans to become 5 to 10 times bigger. The production must then supply a larger geographical area. Export, however, is not in the planning. "Our goal is to provide the city with locally grown food, and if we continue to expand, it would be in the form of a second location in another area."

The article appeared earlier in edition 7, 32nd volume of Primeur.

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John Apesos