Berlin Farms

This interview details Berlin Farms, an indoor farming company based in Germany. The interview is with Vahik Soghom, Co-Founder of Berlin Farms.

Source: Berlin Farms

What is the origin story of Berlin Farms? 

A great opening question! Silke and I met almost three years ago at another agtech startup in Berlin called Smart Soil Technologies (SST for short). SST specialized in creating smart soil for outdoor and indoor farming, and over time, pivoted toward R&D for large indoor farming companies in Europe and the Middle East. We learned a lot at SST in terms of how to run a consistent production operation, and about the industry more broadly. 

We were both fascinated by indoor farming and saw its immense potential in bringing clean, locally produced food to urban environments. But one concern we both had is that sometimes, farming operations can actually be harmful to our environment in more ways than one. Another shared concern was that most of the crops produced indoors tend to be leafy greens and not very high up on the nutrition ladder. 

Source: Berlin Farms

And so over time, we realized that we wanted to do things differently. First, we wanted to grow crops that have the highest nutritional value, so microgreens were the obvious choice. From a business perspective, significantly shorter growth cycles also mean more nutritional output and, in theory, better profitability. Another important goal was to run as sustainable an operation as we possibly could, which meant moving away from the need to use chemical fertilizers, so microgreens fit the bill perfectly. Our goal was to produce highly nutritious crops only using substrate, water, and light - and microgreens were the perfect candidates. Plus, they really do taste amazing! 

So we went on our own way and founded Berlin Farms in June 2021, and it’s been an amazing journey ever since.

Source: Berlin Farms

What are some of the biggest challenges facing Berlin Farms in the future?

Like all indoor farming companies today, we’re operating in a market downturn and an industry that’s really been hit hard after the initial hype bubble burst. There’s an ongoing market correction that saw a lot of big players closing shop, which obviously creates a great deal of uncertainty in the market and a loss of trust among investors. And of course, the Ukraine war and current geopolitical tensions across the globe don’t help either. 

As a result of these changes, we’ve seen some loss of trust and excitement among consumers toward indoor farming. That’s the problem with hype and inflated expectations - sooner or later, not just investors, but consumers are going to realize that things are not as rosy as they were initially painted to be. 

So all of this is to say that our biggest challenge is to get consumers excited about indoor farming again. To show them that a lot of the promises inherent in indoor farming are actually still there - reducing transport miles, growing clean food locally, improving food security, and so on. None of this has changed, but you need time and patience to convey this to consumers. And you need to be consumer-facing, as exhausting as that can be. That’s why we’ve made it a point to interact with customers face-to-face at farmer’s markets and preach the benefits of indoor farming and our microgreens more specifically. 

Source: Berlin Farms

The second challenge is getting them excited about microgreens. We were rather surprised to find out that most people don’t know that there’s a broad variety of microgreens beyond garden cress, the main variety they know from German supermarkets. At times it feels like we’re bringing an entirely new product to the market, which means that we need to convince consumers to purchase something they don’t really know much about. 

But thankfully, our USPs make it easier for us to establish trust with consumers. We’re certified organic, which is always a big plus, and microgreens have immense health benefits, which isn’t hard to explain to consumers. And of course, once they taste some of our varieties, they’re hooked - at the end of the day, food is about flavor. 

We believe that we’ve been navigating these challenges really well, and we’re only getting better and better at developing the right consumer messaging. 

Source: Berlin Farms

What is unique about Berlin Farms compared to competitors? 

We see three factors differentiating us from competitors:

  • Proprietary soil-based substrates: Unlike virtually all competitors, we use soil/compost as part of our substrates. The market has always had a problem with soil for a variety of reasons, so we've taken advantage of this to differentiate ourselves. Soil has several advantages over inorganic substrates, from better growth to longer shelf life and higher nutritional output. And we're happy to say that we've rarely experienced problems using our soil indoors.

  • Organic certification: Another major advantage of soil is that it enables organic certification, which we are proud to have been granted in February of this year. This changes the landscape entirely, not just in terms of meeting end-consumer needs, but also in terms of opening up opportunities for us to target organic-only supermarkets, which most competitors can't do.

  • Longer shelf life: Yet another advantage of soil is a longer shelf life. We've noticed that our products have at least double the shelf life of conventional microgreens on the market. And consumers love this since they can eat a little bit every day without worrying about spoilage. Our restaurant partners are also delighted, as one major problem they have is microgreens going bad within a few days - with some of our products, we've seen microgreens staying fresh for three weeks, so it's a major plus for our customers. 

  • Extensive variety: Most competitors, especially the bigger ones, focus on a limited portfolio that customers tend to be familiar with - garden cress and radish being the most common. On the other hand, we produce more than 30 varieties, from broccoli to basil to nasturtium. And we're constantly testing newer varieties that we then add to our portfolio so far, we've tested 60+ varieties. 

Source: Berlin Farms

What is the current size of your growing area?

We have about 30 square meters of floor space. It doesn't sound like much, but you can actually do a lot with it. We have 6 growing levels, so that brings it to a total production area of 180 square meters. Remember that microgreens are short-cycle crops, so you can do several cycles per month. With our current space, we can produce up to 20.000 microgreen trays! 

Source: Berlin Farms

Do you use CO2 in your operation today -- if so, how much and what do you pay for it? What are your thoughts in CO2 usage in indoor farms? 

We don't use CO2. Our microgreens grow just fine without it, but we understand that for some crops and production environments, CO2 can be a major fact in faster and healthier plant growth. 

Energy is a big topic in indoor farming right now. How much do you pay for electricity (kWh)? Is it mainly from the grid or renewables?

Our energy price always changes, but we pay on average 0.40 Euros per kWh. It comes from the grid but we are planning on introducing renewables in 2024, and we hope that we can generate the majority of our needs from renewables by the end of the year. 

Source: Berlin Farms

How can people connect with you or learn more about Berlin Farms?

Our company is called Berlin Farms GmbH but our main brand is called Supergrün. If you want to find out more about what we do, then check out our online shop at https://supergruen.shop

We're pretty friendly and always happy to talk to people from the industry. You can reach out to us personally at vahik@berlin-farms.com or silke@berlin-farms.com

We look forward to connecting!

Source: Berlin Farms

 

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