UrbanFarmers – Fresh from the Rooftop



The global population is growing, our consumption of food is increasing, yet the amount of arable land is shrinking. So why not use urban sites as a novel and practical way to grow food?

“Sure, it’s an expensive undertaking,” Roman Gaus says, glancing back at us while he bounds up the stairs to the container structure on the rooftop next to a large greenhouse. He opens the door, letting in the warm early morning sunlight, and we enter a room slightly scented with wood and floral notes. “Of course, it costs almost ten times more,” he begins, as he fetches a tray, then sits down, “to construct a greenhouse on a flat rooftop and operate it professionally with all the necessary technology, engineering, and architecture. More than if you simply built it on the ground.” Setting down the tray with freshly brewed green tea, cool water, and chocolates on a table, he immediately pops one of the chocolates in his mouth. “But if we were to construct an equally efficient greenhouse on a field, we’d be taking yet another piece of land away from our already dwindling resources.” He absentmindedly folds the chocolate wrapper into a precise square. “We didn't want to decimate any more forest land or fence off even more fields for our business. That’s why we developed a concept that utilizes urban space.”

Parking lots, courtyards, flat rooftops – concrete everywhere. These are the spaces that UrbanFarmers is targeting with their sophisticated system that functions without natural soil. In the middle of Basel’s industrial zone the team is growing lettuce, sprouts, vegetables, and fish on a 250 square meter flat rooftop. In addition to housing plants, the large greenhouse is also home to three large aquariums. Together with the greenery, they are part of a process known as Aquaponics: A closed-loop water circulation system to ensure that the plants always have enough water and nutrients from the fish tanks. In reciprocation, the plants purify the water for the fish, thereby achieving an almost complete symbiosis. The only things that need to be added are the water lost through evaporation and fish feed.

Mr. Gaus was first introduced to urban farming in 2008, just before he returned from the US. A friend had drawn his attention to an article about Milwaukee and Detroit and how these cities were using empty land for a new form of agriculture. Intrigued, Roman Gaus decided to find out more. Back in Switzerland, he soon met his present business partner, Andreas Graber. “He's the scientist in the team. I'm the one in charge of the commercial side.” In the summer of 2010 they decide to realize their concept of urban farming.

Just imagine, if every supermarket grew its own produce on the rooftop!

Initially funded by a fellowship from WWF they created business plans, won “all the projects you can win in the field,” and staged the project: Schrebergarten 2.0 (community garden 2.0) by setting up a container to produce fish and vegetables. The objective: To produce 200 kg of vegetables and 60 kg of fish per annum, which roughly equals the yearly nutritional requirements of three people. And all this on an area the size of a parking space. “You won't be needing the parking space anymore because you'll have your own supermarket on your front doorstep,” Mr. Gaus jokes. A trace of chutzpah lights up momentarily in his blue eyes but is wiped away almost immediately by his good-natured grin. “Seriously,” he asks, “how great would it be if every supermarket grew its produce on its own rooftop?”

Initially, UrbanFarmers’ visual identity consisted mainly of earth shades, with a stamp print for the logo. “That didn't work at all. It made us look much too granola. And that isn’t our target group, either,” the entrepreneur reveals. “People who purchase organic produce on principle want to feel the soil and sweat that went into growing it. They’d prefer to believe in an agricultural fairy tale than harvest vegetables grown on a concrete foundation. The imagery is also much more attractive: Cute animals, cheery farmers, and spick-and-span farms,” the entrepreneur explains. “Even if the reality of it is entirely different,” he adds and looks at his bright orange wristwatch – the only item of apparel that stands out from his otherwise discreet outfit. “Getting people to change their mindset is a huge challenge.” And so UrbanFarmers’ appearance has undergone a makeover from homespun to cheeky and orange. “Of course it’s designed to be a bit provocative,” Mr. Gaus admits. “But that's okay. We're not a non-profit organization or a club. UrbanFarmers is a company with an invested capital of CHF 2.5 million and a commercial objective: we sell farms not tomatoes.” Depending on the angle of the light, the young businessman’s expression changes from driven to exuberant and passionate. “After having established the company in 2010, the worst thing somebody could do to me now is come up and ask: ‘Hey there, how’s your project coming along?’ To me that sounds too much like ‘Will you be working on your project tonight instead of going to the gym?’ That would really get me!”

People would rather believe in a whimsical agricultural fairy tale than harvest vegetables grown on a concrete foundation.

In retrospect, the urban farmer recognizes it might have been just slightly naive to embark on a pioneering venture like this. Possibly, however, he's simply surprised that not everything works as fast as the synapses in his brain. And, as though he can't grasp why the advantages are not glaringly obvious to everybody, he recapitulates. “We grow fantastic produce, and our products are used by gastronomists and top chefs. Our lettuces are absolutely fresh and don’t need a cooling system, the fish is amazing, and the vegetables are out of this world. We even have a specialty range of lettuce that can otherwise only be found at produce markets in Como. Colorful tomatoes, microgreens, edible flowers – we have it all!” UrbanFarmers’ motto is: “The fresh revolution.” Still, Mr. Gaus concedes it might take a while before people are actually prepared to change their mindset. “There’s still a long way to go before consumers have understood what we're doing and before they start looking for this production method. But then, Rome wasn't built in a day, either,” he points out philosophically.

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