This interview details Potager, an indoor farming company based in Germany. The interview is with Potager Farm.
What is the origin story of Potager?
Potager Farm is part of the Greenman Group, an Ireland-based multinational company and fund manager that owns and manages food retail properties in Germany, France, and Poland. In light of the rapidly changing retail landscape in the grocery sector and environmental concerns, the Group's strategic focus has shifted in recent years towards sustainable practices and diversified into technology-enabled projects. As part of this, the vertical farming company Potager Farm was established in 2021 as a joint venture between the Greenman Group and the investment fund Greenman OPEN, one of the largest investment funds of food-anchored retail properties in Germany.
Potager is responsible for the concept design, the planning, and the financing of the installation of Vertical Urban Farms on properties owned by the Greenman OPEN fund.
Although urban farming and vertical farming are well-known concepts, the combination of these with Controlled Environment Agriculture on a larger commercial scale is relatively new. Potager’s strategy is to build a profitable business focusing on a number of key strategic features that will combine the benefits of urban vertical farming, OPEN’s property portfolio, and its tenant and industry network.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing Potager in the future?
Vertical farming is still a contentious topic: While the technology is innovative and forward-thinking (given the challenges we will face in the future due to climate change), it can still arouse skepticism because plants are grown indoors and with artificial light - some people see this as going against nature and might not be fully aware of the opportunities, that this technology brings.
Secondly, creating a demand for a product that's sustainable but not labeled organic is tough in a market that sometimes equates "organic" with "better". For some consumers, if it's not organic, they’re not interested, even if it is locally grown. Due to current EU regulations, plants that are not grown in soil cannot obtain an organic certificate which is why it is important to communicate the benefits of crops grown in a vertical farm (e.g., zero pesticides, around 95% less water usage) to the broader public.
On top of that, rising grocery prices and energy costs are hard to ignore. They impact our operational expenses and test the price sensitivity of the German market, where people are discerning but also careful with their euros. So, while we're excited about delivering fresh, local produce all year round, we're also navigating the niche in which we want to position ourselves.
What is unique about Potager compared to competitors?
At Potager, we are committed to preserving valuable resources such as water and land and do not want to get caught up in empty promises but rather “walk the talk”. In order to do so, we already have some concrete ideas and potential partners in the background.
Moreover, we are fortunate to be part of the Greenman Group which has a proven track record of imminent success in the retail world and an excellent network of partners such as Germany’s largest retailers and leading project developers. We work closely with the Greenman subsidiary Greenman Energy (GME) which installs PV systems on the roofs of the fund's properties to generate renewable energy. As GME's expansion plans begin to unfold, we plan to source most of our energy from them. This will be a competitive advantage for production as energy costs are still one of the main cost drivers for vertical farming in general. In addition, being able to source our energy in a sustainable way fits in well with our corporate philosophy.
Besides, our investors are committed to a slower expansion with more emphasis on creating a robust business plan - we are focusing first on the products in order to perfect them for our customers. During our trial phase that we are currently running, the main focus is on continuously improving the technology, our cultivation methods as well as the products we offer.
How do you measure the impact of Potager so far? (Revenue, Employees, Customer Quantity, Production Volume) etc?
One big milestone for us was setting up our very first production facility in only 6 months.
The strategic decision to move to a Greenman-owned property in the East of Berlin enables us to have easy supply routes within the Berlin area and hence will save on food miles when delivering our produce.
Also, with the multi-purpose layout for our production facility, we can grow a variety of different crops. For instance, we have the possibility to have a tree nursery or grow herbs, flowers, leafy greens. This allows us to adjust to new trends and cater to the needs and wants of our future clients.
Though we are currently just operating one tower for R&D purposes, our new facility has three six-meter growth towers from a Scottish vertical farming company called “Intelligent Growth Solutions” (IGS). Therefore, within a space of 122 m2 we can grow from 44,800 plants to over 1 ton of produce per month.
Besides our team has grown as well: This year, we have recruited three new people (1 Farm Manager, 1 Head Grower, 1 Urban Farmer) to work in our production facility full-time.
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?
Indeed, our vertical farming towers are currently being supplied with an average of 90 kilograms monthly. We're exploring the potential of direct air capture technology in a pilot project. Enhancing the CO2 concentration to optimal levels, which presently stands at 800 ppm, has been shown to significantly boost farm productivity. This increase not only accelerates plant growth but also allows for a more efficient utilisation of light.
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?
At present, our 50,000 kWh solar array is able to meet only a portion of our total energy requirements which is why we also get energy from the grid. However, we are anticipating the completion of a renewable energy grid connection by Greenman Energy—a sister company within the Greenman Group. Once operational, this connection is projected to significantly lessen our dependency on traditional energy sources, enabling us to derive the majority of our power from renewables.
What have you learned that you wish you knew when you joined or started the company?
The startup life comes with its very unique set of opportunities and challenges. In order to navigate the setup and admin related to running a startup you have to be willing to learn new things – daily.
Furthermore, I wish I had known more about the complexities of the supply chain, especially when dealing with perishable goods like fresh produce. It would have saved us some early headaches!
How can people connect with you or learn more about Potager?
If you're stoked to dive deeper into what we're doing at Potager, there are many ways to stay in the loop. First off, our website is packed with info about our revolutionary vertical farming tech and our fresh-as-it-gets produce. Check it out at www.potager.farm
For all you professionals out there, let's make it LinkedIn official. You'll find updates, articles, and some behind-the-scenes glimpses into how we're shaking up the Berlin retail sector. Connect with us on LinkedIn.
And let's not forget Instagram. Our Instagram feed is a mix of lush greens, tech sneak peeks, and a window into our day-to-day. Be prepared to see some fun reels and some interesting information about vertical farming, sustainability, and food production. Follow us @potager.farm.
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