Crisp, fresh strawberries from local cultivation all year round: this is what the Witten-based start-up vGreens, founded in 2022, achieves thanks to sophisticated vertical farming technology. In the enclosed space of around 50m2, the popular red fruit grows and thrives in a vertical arrangement, on several levels above one another, and completely without sunlight or other external environmental influences.
Claas Ahrens (left) and Maximilian Hartmann between the four-story 'strawberry shelves.' In the future, strawberries will grow on five levels at a new location.
The ambitious project began at the start of the pandemic in 2020, when Claas Ahrens, Dr. Stefan Hey, and Dr. Maximilian Hartmann started out together with the first prototypes in the garage. Instead of leafy greens, such as herbs or microgreens, the founding team ventured into vertical strawberry cultivation. "We started with five people, and now the team includes a total of eleven people from different fields, such as business administration, IT, and crop science," says Hartmann, describing the start-up's rapid development.
View of the cultivation sites: In total, the micro-farm accommodates 1,200 plant sites, which corresponds to a total volume of around four tons per year. Several LED processes are also used.
A completely separate ecosystem has been set up in which sustainable water and plant management play a decisive role. Only rainwater is used, which is treated in the course of a hydroponic system and fed to the plants. Hartmann: "The system is almost 100 percent circular, meaning hardly a drop of water is lost in the cycle. The bottom line is that we thus create a water reduction of up to 95 percent compared to conventional systems." Other advantages include the extremely small amount of land required, the fact that no pesticides are used, and the minimal transport distances between the producer and the customer.
At the moment, there is a short break from harvesting. The next harvest wave is expected to start in May. It takes only 23 days for flowering to harvest. In order to eliminate the energy problem - around 24 kilowatts per hour are currently required per kilo of strawberries - the company wants to switch to green energy in the future.
After extensive yield and taste analyses, the young company decided on the Favori variety. With FrischeParadies in the Essen fresh produce center, vGreens has already found a firm customer. The next step, he says, is to further optimize production and harvesting operations. "We are working together with partners and scientists on a robotized harvesting process based on AI. In order to be able to put this data-driven strawberry production into practice, we want to move into an industrial-scale production site by the beginning of 2024 at the latest. For example, we envision an old industrial hall where we can set up a larger farm and possibly produce other crops such as melons or blueberries in the future."
On the right: strawberries in a 250g box. "At Christmas, we were the only ones who could deliver regionally produced strawberries," Hartmann says proudly.
Suppliers instead of producers
Meanwhile, several major buyers have already expressed interest in the strawberries from vGreens, Hartmann continues. "We want to permanently optimize our data-driven approach and make it available across the entire value chain in the future, for example, in a kind of franchise system. In other words, in the future, we don't see ourselves as a classic producer but as a service provider or industry supplier. There is already interest on the producer side, too, especially among the new generation."
For more information:
vGreens Holding GmbH
Tel.: +49 1573/1339516