BE Food AG – StadtFarm | Updates

By Anne-Kathrin Kuhlemann

StadtFarm and BE Food in the Past and in the Future - Our Learning Process


Dear Companists,

As a startup, one is always in "sales mode" - everything is great, everything is great, and we are way ahead anyway. In reality, of course, we also experience lows, sometimes plans don't work or one has to take detours to reach the finish line. Here is a little review of the last seven years - and the hurdles we'll tackle next.


1. Highs and Lows

In 2011, we originally wanted to find a use for the worms that multiply in composting plants - giving them to fishermen was one thought, or feeding them to fish directly was another. If we wanted to breed fish, then in the city - this led us to aquaponics. We didn't like the technologies we found worldwide: all of them were monocultures and linear instead of a real economic cycle. So we bought a 10m² greenhouse, put it on the roof terrace of our office and built an interior.

The first attempts were pretty good when considering that we were working without any previous gardening knowledge - only the "berry capillary irrigation" (one can tell we were inspired by current research) really didn't work at all, and discovering that you don't plant cucumbers next to tomatoes because they don't like each other and the cucumbers get mildew - well, I should have asked my grandmother. The season was so fruitful that we prepared our self-bred fish for our Christmas party - which of course motivated us to continue.


BE Food - Prototyp auf Dachterasse

Left: The laboratory in the vocational school | Right: Greenhouse on the roof terrace


While the experiments continued on a small scale, we came across greenhouses in a vocational school. In 2013 we started a cooperation that enabled us to build a laboratory of 100 m² - while pupils could learn what agriculture of the future could look like. We were so excited that we decided to develop a new profession with the school and to get it recognized by the IHK: StadtFarmers (city farmers), a combination of teaching content from city gardeners and animal keepers paired with extensive technology. However, we clearly overestimated the possibilities of volunteer work on behalf of the teachers and the school... we had to put the matter on hold (though we believe "deferred is not suspended" - who knows when it will be relevant again!).

During the construction of the StadtFarm in Herzberge, we also learned a lesson that we certainly won't forget: One of the suppliers assured us that we needed much larger pumps than planned, he knew his stuff, the ones we selected wouldn't even be enough for a swimming pool. We wanted to be on the safe side with the first commercial system and took his advice. During the installation it turned out that we had been right, the pumps were now completely oversized and had to be throttled constantly. Our overall system had simply not been understood. Since then, we no longer listen to self-proclaimed experts, let alone those who want to sell us something.

Speaking of sales: The StadtFarm has been officially featured in BioCompany's magazine as a producing partner for three years. After all, we were already well known in our laboratory phase and so the plan was to place our products on the shelves from spring 2018. However, even a strong retailer like BioCompany cannot do magic: At the beginning of the year, the association prohibited the use of a regulation according to which non-organic products could also be listed in the organic food store. A few months later, we started our own pop-up stores at BioCompany - and switched to conventional food retailing for the actual listing. This resulted in a delay of about half a year; otherwise, the Berlin StadtFarm would have reached profitability much faster.

One topic that we approached very naively was the recent attempt to integrate people who had been unemployed for a long time into our team. The site where the StadtFarm is located is also home to a company that carries out qualification measures, and we wanted to employ "one or two people" every year, since our aim is to be a social enterprise. However, the worlds between enthusiastic startups with passion and drive vs. people who are often disappointed by society and who have to get used to routines and everyday working life are very far apart. Recently, we were able to hire a permanent colleague - in the office, however, not in production. Other than that, 2-3 are usually involved in clearly defined plant care tasks for a few months, but there is still a long way to go before the pace of work is marketable.


2. Next Steps

So far, paths have been short, hierarchies flat, and decisions were made quickly. As we grow, we are becoming more formal and more stringent, which involves significant relearning for everyone involved. This cultural change is one of the great challenges facing us in the coming months.

In terms of content, we are also currently working on the partial automation of the processing line so that StadtFarms can extend the value-added chain at a low(er) cost. Most of the machines on the market will probably have to be slightly modified to meet our needs and requirements. This is true for all of our technology, however, because we adjust parts or use components for different purposes. In this regard, I have complete confidence in our previous experience; we will figure things out. I will only have to tame my impatience as to how long things will take.


With kind regards,

Anne-Kathrin Kuhlemann


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