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Green City Growers’ CEO & Founder, Jessie Banhazl, reports from the road on her Eisenhower Fellowship, taking place from September 9th- October 13th, 2019. To learn more about her program objectives, check out her previous blog post.
Before arriving in Berlin, I had a vague sense of what urban agriculture looked like in Germany. I have always thought of Germany as very progressive in regards to environmental initiatives, and in doing my initial research as to where I wanted to visit on my fellowship, I found a high concentration of urban ag in Germany. That is what lead me to propose the country as one of my locations.
Having now been here for a week and having met with 11 unique organizations operating in the city, I have a much better sense of how the residents of Berlin feel about growing food in their urban center. In summary, a deep history and commitment from the City to public gardening and public parks has led to a culture of support and enthusiasm for urban ag. Public parks, community gardens, and allotment gardens (city-run garden plots for residents), are widespread. Case in point- Berlin has over 25 square miles of public park spaces!
Produce prices are significantly less expensive here, which appears to allow for better access to fresh fruits and vegetables for the population. The commercial urban farming industry is still in it’s fledgling stage compared to the US, but the organizations I met with were highly professional and seemed to be gaining traction.
Challenges for urban farming in the City of Berlin appeared to stem from a cultural feeling that while gardening services and gardening education are important, they are not something that you pay for or that should be done to generate revenue. While some of the organizations I met with had been successful in creating revenue-generating models, others found a both a lack of grant opportunities and interest in private consumers to purchase gardening assistance.
Unlike the US, Berlin has a lack of urban and suburban “market farms”- small-scale farming operations serving the urban center. There is also nowhere near the number of farm-to-table focused restaurants in Berlin, and “Farm-to-Table” is not a well-known phrase or, as it has become in the US, its own category of restaurant. Vegetarianism and veganism are only now becoming popular as the conversation around climate change grows.
I heard from multiple people that I met with that Berlin is “Not Germany”, “A Bubble”, or “Its Own Thing” due to its international influences (the middle eastern food here is AMAZING) and liberal leanings. I am really interested in being able to compare my experience here to my trip to Munich next week, and my future stops in Malmo, Gothenberg, Stockholm, and Paris.
My trip has been fascinating so far, and I’ve been able to take advantage of Berlin’s fantastic public transportation, plethora of world-class museums and public parks, stellar international food, and, of course, the great beer! #wheninberlin
My first meeting was with Anja Feidler, the Founder of Stadt mach Satt (The City is Full). Anja seeks to connect city dwellers to nature and urban agriculture through education, community organizing, and school garden education. She believes there should be more support from the city districts (individual districts control the use of land within their geographic area) to integrate in food-producing and ecologically appropriate city trees. She’s hoping to grow her organization and secure funding to be able to continue her engagement activities- I hope she can!
Above illustration is from the Stadt macht Satt website.
I got an opportunity to check out the impressive operation over at ECF Farm Systems. Nicolas, the company’s Co-Founder, showed me their aquaponics system that produces both Talapia and basil, both sold directly to Rewe (a German supermarket chain). ECF has expansion plans to continue to develop and manage aquaponics farms throughout Germany, and then beyond. He said there was a very positive response to their product, and he believes their highly productive systems could be the future of food- offsetting food being flown in from other countries with locally produced fish, fruits, and vegetables via aquaponic rooftop greenhouses.
I met with Martin, owner of Cafe Botanico in Berlin. Martin runs a Italian cafe attached to a massive perennial garden. Martin sees the garden as a unique selling point in a saturated restaurant market. Martin started by first and foremost wanting to create a permaculture garden. At 10,700sqft, the HUGE space that he rents to garden on needed to be financially sustainable for him- he then decided that the cafe was they way he could sustain his passion for permaculture. By partnering with an Italian chef, Martin connected the cafe to the garden, producing wild herbs for the cafe’s salads and other dishes (the food was delicious. I had a lentil and smoked mozzarella salad with wild herbs). He hopes cafe customers will walk around the garden to learn more about native plants and wild edibles- the garden is filled with informational signage. While the approach to gardening is casual in nature (he follows permaculture and food forest principals that call for stepping back and letting the wild control the outcome), he still considers his operational a professional one, even going through the effort of getting the garden certified organic. Thank you for your passion for urban gardening and permaculture, Martin!
I had the please of sitting down with Kathrin Specht from ILS- Research Institute for Regional and Urban Development. Kathrin filled me about the City’s allotment garden program. Allotment gardens are a huge deal in Berlin, with over 5 million garden participants at any give time. The allotment gardens have existed since the industrial era, and are their own land use category here. These garden plots are required to have 1/3 of the space produce food. They are managed through organizational structures created within the allotment garden community, with appointed managers and community-led quality enforcers (they’ll catch you if you’re not growing any food!). Kathrin’s research is around collecting data from these allotment gardens to show their value. She and her team are trying to understand how much food is really grown through these locations, along with other values such as social connection and education. She believes that there is a such a deep culture of these gardens being available to residents, along with municipal support of them, that they could not be forced out from a turnover of government officials. So awesome.
I also met with Diana Matz and some of her team from the Humboldt University start up incubator. We discussed how start-ups are supported in both Germany and the US. The Humboldt U program provides office space and helps their teams apply for funding from the government. It was a great program that appeared to provide a lot of support for students, I’m happy I got a chance to learn more about the program. and meet with some of the companies hosted in the incubator.
I met with Kai from Gruppe F, a Landscape Design firm in Berlin. Gruppe F’s approach to installing community gardens was really interesting. While providing the landscape design services to convert district-owned spaces in to community gardens for housing developments and community use, they also provide hands-on engagement services, marketing, and communications support for the projects. They work with the neighborhood to install the gardens together, and support the residents in the ongoing maintenance for as long as the client will fund them to do so. These additional services make it easier for developments to integrate these kinds of projects in to their plans. Gruppe F has a staffed sociologist to support the neighborhood engagement. Contrary to the US, German development is required to include green space, with anywhere from 20-45% of the footprint of the project required for that purpose. It appears that Germans feel entitled to green spaces in their cities, and that is supported by the municipalities without push back. The garden site Kai brought me to was well organized and taken care of. He said that the participants take great pride in the garden, and that their community garden projects have shown to reduce crime and misuse of the public spaces.
I met with Nobelhart & Schmutzig Owner Billy Wagner to discuss his innovative approach to fine dining and the culture around local food in Berlin. Billy’s Michelin-star restaurant showcases local ingredients and defines it’s cuisine as trying to capture the “flavor” of Berlin, which Billy says they work daily to try to fine tune. Billy and his team do not purchase from urban farms as they haven’t been able to find vendors that can provide the same quality as produce they purchase from suburban farms. They believe there is a potential market for urban farming to serve their restaurant and others like theirs, as they could have more control over the varieties and quantities that they’d like to purchase if they could work direct with a small-scale urban farmer providing high quality products. Farm-to-Table restaurants are not a trend in Berlin, with customers preferring quality, fresh ingredients, but not necessarily caring how far they traveled to reach their plate. I think that as awareness of how the food system impacts climate grows (which appears to be effecting the way people eat in other ways- such as choosing not to eat meat), Berlin may see a change in preferences from their consumers. Billy would love to grow food on-site at the restaurant, but the landlord wasn’t super keen on the idea. I gave him some suggestions about how they could use the roof, we’ll see if it works out for them, fingers crossed. Also, thanks to Billy for the silly selfie :).
I met with Ina, Chairwoman of Uber den Tellerand, an established cooking education non profit organization. Founded in 2013, her organization creates opportunities for refugees to teach others how to cook dishes from their home countries. The act of sharing personal and cultural experiences can provide a deeper connection for participants to each other and their own health and quality of life- all through cooking together. With 35 satellite organizations throughout the country, Ina and her team work to create resources and organizational support for their team leaders who are hosting cooking workshops and events. Some of the satellite sites have excelled at integrating in urban gardening to the programming and sourcing for the cooking classes, while others have not. She and I agreed that funding is needed to support the gardens in order for them to be productive and fit in with the organization’s primary mission, which has been a struggle. Cooks through the program are not that concerned about how the food is sourced for the workshops, and local food sourcing is not a priority for them. She hopes that as their organization continues to evolve, they can engage their cooks and volunteers in nutrition and climate impact education without alienating their participants or complicating their mission. I loved the work this organization is doing, I hope they continue to thrive.
I met and had lunch with a group of volunteers for Spreeacker, a non-profit gardening organization located at a residential and small business co-op in downtown Berlin. Volunteers for the organization have established a series of gardens throughout the property, including a wide variety of wild natives, fruit, and vegetables. They were able to convince their district to give them additional space, which is now set up as a garden with permaculture and food forest principals. We harvested from around the property for a delicious lunch from all of the foraged items. The group focuses on educating the public as to what is edible and what is not, hoping to widen the breadth of edible items Berlin residents consume. When we were discussing the purpose of the project, a phrase that I think captures the principals of their work continued to come up: “please, eat”.
I had the pleasure of meeting with Robert and Daniel from Prinzessinnegarten. The organization does similar work to Green City Growers by installing and maintaining vegetable gardens for companies, schools, and a wide variety of locations. Unlike GCG, they manage a series of urban plots which host vegetable gardens, events, workshops, and on-site cafes that use the food grown on-site. I met Robert and Daniel at their newest location on a re-purposed graveyard. The space was HUGE. They have a large raised-bed garden set up, smaller permaculture and education areas, and a sizable market garden that Daniel is planning to expand to over an acre in the next year or so. Robert and Daniel were both happy to hear GCG existed, as paying for garden and farm maintenance services in Germany is not something that is usually done. Prinzessinnegarten is established as a non-profit, but a majority of their funding comes from revenue-generating activities, such as the cafe, events, and garden installations. With a staff of 25, they have a significant impact on the local food system in Berlin. I am so happy I got to see their location, and I had a wonderful heart-to-heart with Daniel about what it means to be in the business of growing food for others, and how important the mission of our organizations is to the future of food, farming, and sustainability.