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Sunday
Dec272015

French Start-Up Growing Strawberries in the City

Running through Bercy Park one day this fall I saw the Cooltainer, a shipping container covered in wooden slats parked across from the Cinémathèque. I stopped to read the little info panels and thought Agricool was some sort of fruit food truck, but seeing no opening hours listed, I took a photo to remind me to Google it back home, and continued my run. 

“Beans from New Zealand, strawberries from Spain, Tomatoes from Morocco. Fruits and vegetables travel more than you. But unlike you, they don't enjoy it.” - Agricool.co

According to the website, Agricool was created by two sons of French farmers, Guillaume and Gonzagues, to grow fresh strawberries in a recycled shipping container (aka Le Cooltainer). Not only would they be pesticide-free, grown locally and inexpensively, the intensive production methods would allow them to grow as many strawberries in just 30m² as you could produce on a 4000m² farm. The idea sounded great, but to get these strawberries there was a waiting list. I sign up and get an email saying I'm #148. 

By chance, I got to see Guillaume speak at Végétalisons Paris, a conference sponsored by the Mairie de Paris at the Pavillon de l'Arsénal in late December. I learn a bit more but still had questions, and being the nosey journalist I am, I want to see these strawberries. I ask him for an interview and a peek at his Cooltainer. I may have been hoping for some fresh December strawberries, too.

Guillaume must get a lot of similar requests. "There aren't that many strawberry right now," he says when we meet outside the Cooltainer in Bercy Park on a mild December afternoon. "We've been experimenting, doing A/B tests." But I'm not really too disappointed. I've seen strawberries. But I've never seen a Cooltainer, and even before I turn on my recorder I can't help but ask how he got permission to park his prototype right in the middle of a public park. 

"A lot of emails...we just kept sending them until they replied." 

"To the park service?"

"No, to the Mairie, to Anne Hidalgo" he says, completely straight faced. Bien sûr, why didn't I think of that? I liked his youthful optimism. Or maybe it's just being at the right place in the right time. "She's very interested in promoting green projects this year because of COP21," he explains. 

Because they weren't just setting up a fruit truck for the benefit of the passers-by in Bercy Park. The Cooltainer is actually a prototype for a new way of growing fresh, affordable food in the city, year-round, and at a price that would make them competitive with the tasteless produce found in French supermarkets. 

For the sons of farmers, even the open-air markets of Paris didn't have the strawberries and tomatoes they remembered from their childhood. At least not affordable ones. For example, the strawberries being grown (and promoted in the press with much fanfare) on the roof of Galeries Lafayette are 80€/kilo, grown for the chefs of high-end restaurants. Paris also has over 100 community gardens, but they can only produce fruit for a few weeks in summer, and not in significant quantities. Guillaume and Gonzagues didn't just want to grow a few plants for their own consumption. Like all young entrepreneurs, they wanted to solve the bigger problem:

How do you grow fresh, affordable, healthy food for people in the city year-round? 

In Paris, like most cities, the biggest challenges to urban farming are a lack of space, fickle weather, and a restrained growing season. The only solution was to grow as densely as possible, and to grow in a controlled environment that would be optimal for the strawberries no matter the conditions outside.

In their Cooltainer, a 30m² recycled shipping container, they are able to grow the plants vertically, with complete control of the conditions using led light panels, closed-circuit drip irrigation with all the nutrients needed, a ventilation system to maintain proper temperatures, even a small bumble bee population to pollinate the plants.

"It's a complete ecosystem," says Guillaume as we step into the Cooltainer's control room. Inside it's warm and humid, like in a greenhouse. A sliding glass door separates us from the plants to maintain their temperature, and no doubt to prevent me from picking off one of the ripe berries I immediately spot on the closest plant. They are still testing two different kinds of lighting, as well as the placement of the drip irrigation tubes that run along the walls and empty into a large tank every few minutes. Getting all of the details right takes time and experimentation.

"Do you ever have to clean the water tank to keep algae from growing in there?" I ask, having seen many decorative vertical gardens in Parisian hotels, but having no idea how they actually recycle the water. Guillaume explains that they are still trying to figure out how to control the nutrient levels in the water, since the plants' need change throughout the growing cycle as they flower.

I peer through the glass and spot a few strawberry flowers, which still seems weird in December. I'm about to mention this when something moves, small and dark, on my side of the glass. I do a short freakout dance and Guillaume smiles calmly as one of his bees lands on his pant leg. "Don't worry,  they're just bumblebees. This won't happen when we figure out the proper insulation." He makes a point of mentioning once again that the Bercy prototype isn't quite finished (which explains why I'm #148 in line for the strawberry harvest). 

"We're the sons of farmers so we know how to grow things, but we're not experts in agronomy," he says, and when I mention how surprised I am they got this far on their own, "You can learn a lot on Youtube and Google." 

"Is that what you did!?" I ask, already knowing the answer.

Guillaume smiles sheepishly. "We got about 70% from the Internet,  like how to set up the electrics and which strawberries to grow, but for the remaining 30% you need experts."

And testing.  Because although it's "similar " to hydroponics or similar to growing in a greenhouse, there are no models for what they're doing. "People can say 'Well in agronomy when this happens we do that,  but I don't know if it will work in your Cooltainer, ' so we just have to test it,"says Guillaume.

They not only have bees, they also have little green pucerons, or aphids, eating their plants, which they're trying to control with ladybugs or other insects. They use zero pesticides, and even the outside air is filtered so the Cooltainer could be set up in a polluted city center, a noxious parking garage, a corner of a factory.  The Cooltainer only takes up the space of two parkes cars.

"Nothing is impossible," he says, full of certainty. I can see why Agricool has been able to raise the funding they need. "Our goal us to grow seven tons of strawberries per year in 30m2. We know it can be done,  we just have to figure out the details." When I bring up films where people grow food in strange conditions (ie The Snowpiercer and Matt Damon's botanist on Mars), Guillaume laughs. "People always compare us to SciFi films, for them this is science fiction," he says indicating the Cooltainer. 

The Cooltainer first arrived, empty, in Dunkirk last June. Guillaume and Gonzagues worked on it for several months before bringing it to Bercy in October 2015,  where the 3600 strawberry plants were finally planted. The press tastings and various experiments have depleted about one third of the strawberries in the Cooltainer, but Guillaume says they hope to finalize the prototype in early spring 2016. They are currently hiring an agronomist and an engineer to move things along more speedily.

So once the prototype is perfected, then what? "We'll add two more Cooltainers, one for tomatoes because you need good tomatoes, and one for salads (lettuce) because they're easy to grow."

What about terroir, I ask, thinking of how unnatural it seemed to be eating strawberries grown in a box, in the winter. But you learn something every day if you ask stupid questions, and apparently terroir is not an issue with short-rooted plants. The deep roots of trees and grape vines, spending well over a decade in the soil, are different. "We've taste tested ours, and they're just as good as the ones Gonzague's parents grow in the ground," Guillaume reassures me. 

Of course there are always critics. "Some people say we're bad because we want strawberries in winter, or that we need to use solar panels and rain water. But it won't work underground like that. Maybe we'll create a different prototype in the future for outdoor use. For now, we're trying to finish this one."

The question of "strawberries in winter" is a valid one. Wouldn't the solution simply be to just eat seasonal foods? Isn't it a luxury to want fresh fruit year round? Yes and not exactly. The reason Guillaume and Gonzagues started with strawberries is for the simple reason that they suffer the most from being shipped into cities in terms of taste. Tomatoes are another food that tastes completely different when fresh, and is today considered a staple food by most people, not a summer luxury. So they originally wanted to solve the problem of getting fresh ones to Parisians the same day they're picked. And in order to make it a sustainable business for an urban farmer (ie profitable for his time and investment), growing year-round is the best way to maximize the Cooltainer. 

Because let's be clear: this is not a cheap DIY project for the casual hobby farmer. "The first one is just the prototype, so the costs are quite high," says Guillaume. "But if we can manufacture them in larger quantities we hope to get the price point down to about €15,000 per working container." The most expensive components are the lighting and the water pump.

Once the Cooltainer prototypes are done, Agricool will manufacture them for independent urban farmers and manage the network which distributes the fresh produce to customers within the delivery area. For example, I would be able to order three kilos of strawberries from Agricool app, and the closest urban farmer Cooltainer would be notified and start preparing my order to be delivered by Agricool's delivery system within a hours of when it was harvested. Agricool would keep small percentage of all sales, but the urban farmers would be independent. Each set of three Cooltainers will need one full time farmer,  and Agricool wants to make sure that they can earn a decent income from their work. "Like Uber for agriculture," he says with a huge grin. Bien sûr.

I ask if he imagines we're going to have Cooltainers on every street in Paris. He shakes his head. "This is exceptional," he says indicating the Bercy location. "It doesn't have to be a Cooltainer on your street,  but it shouldn't be coming from Spain, or even Brittany.  There's a lot of available space in the immediate area around Paris, even underground parking at la Defense. It would be great to have 2000 Cooltainers around the city."

Agricool hopes to bring fresh, healthy and affordable fruits and vegetables not just to the people of Paris, but to people in large cities around the world. If you're interested in becoming a Cooltainer farmer in your city, or to simply be notified when the Agricool network is operational, be sure to sign up for their mailing list

If your French is passable, you can also attend Guillaume 's upcoming presentation and see the Cooltainer yourself on January 23rd from 2:30-4:30pm. Additional information and free registration by calling 01 53 46 19 19 or emailing main.verte@paris.fr 

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