The truth is that the more I seem to be doing, the less I have the need and the energy to write about it. Meaning that you can safely assume that a LOT is happening in the quest to build the Vertical Farm. Never in these 5 years I’ve been so busy and so successful in doing what I do in all facets of my life: In the field of vertical farming and the areas of love, friendship, health, happiness and spirituality.
Now, I’m not yet where I thought I’d be 3 months after I started my quest (more than 5 years ago), yet for the first time since then I feel fulfilled just by walking the path. A very very interesting new way of life.
So what am I up to these days? A couple of things that all reinforce or will reinforce each other in the future. Below a list in order of energy put in:
Chairman of GroeiNEST: a Ghentian non-profit that is an open platform for setting up projects to make sustainable, local and healthy food as accessible as possible (urban farming an important tool for this of course)
Co-founding the Pad en Stoel cooperative: A Belgian collaboration between different mushroom farms
12 Steps to urban farming: Not making a business out of this project as initially intended. Yet it’s still alive because of its community and because it’s becoming part of the next project
Starting up AMI’s farm lab: an international platform for the exchange of data and knowledge to build high tech Food Production ecosystems (AMI-systems)
This post is to let you know that the Vertical Farming quest has never been as alive as it is today! Lot’s of beautiful things are growing and the future is looking epic!
Muchos Love and let me know if there’s something you want to know more about!
I’m a big fan of Peace on Earth, and I believe that we can truly achieve this seemingly impossible state of utopia. Yet in the quest to help obtain it, I’ve been struggling with a question that I do not seem to find an answer to.
Our world and our history has been full of people doing “exceptional” things. For example Alexander the great and Dzjengis Khan both conquered enormous territories. Another example is Julius Caesar who transformed the Roman republic into the Roman empire. Yet if you look closer into the stories of these many so called “great people”, It seems like they all had a deep hole inside of their soul that forced them to want to be the best. And because they wanted to achieve and prove themselves, their actions often came at a great costs.
Today, there is still lot of wanting to be the best in our society. This drive is creating a lot of innovation and progress, it is driving us forward for sure and bring us lots of comforts, pleasures & luxuries. But at what costs? Today 1 in 4 Belgians suffer Psychological problems, and do I really need to talk about politics and the other obvious stuff: The wars we still wage with ourselves, with our own nature and with our own habitat?
So yes, there is this question I do not seem to find the answer to:
Can we as humanity advance ourselves without the need to be better than someone else? Can we advance ourselves with respect for ourselves, the people around us, our environment and our planet?
The reason why I find myself asking this question is because I too recently discovered the hole in my soul. And like Caesar or Alexander the great, I also had a serious need for myself to be the best
The hole in my soul was initiated by a small trauma when I was 7. For me it was a defining moment. It was a moment that my 7 year old self would remember not in memories, but in feelings for the next 22 years to come. It would be on those feelings that I built my reality.
I’m not ready to tell exactly what happened to me, yet I can tell you that it left me with a serious feeling of abandonment, the feeling of not being worth it to be loved. And out of that feeling came the idea that I needed to prove myself to be loved. The start of me…wanting to be the best all the time.
Always trying to be the best is ludicrous for a at least 3 reasons.
Trying to fill up the hole in your soul is exhausting. It’s like feeding a monster than can never be satisfied.
It’s is destructive. This can be towards others, or towards yourself. For me it was mostly the latter: Carrying around the idea that you have to be the best, only gives you the feeling that you are NEVER the best. It’s like climbing a mountain, never looking back and enjoying the view, never enjoying the steps you are taking. And even if you reach the top, you never enjoy reaching the top, you only look at the next mountain to climb. So you keep on bashing yourself to be better and better and better. You can never enjoy and accept yourself for who you are at that very moment
And thirdly, it completely messes up your idea of what “love” is. If you cannot love yourself for who you are, you cannot let others love you for who you are. And you can also not love people for who they are. This affects all relationships: family, friends, romances,…
The solution for all this is of course very simple: it is self-love. But I’m not here to talk to you about self-love. I’m here because I still have this question.
If I would not have had this trauma when I was young, would I have had the fire to push myself to go beyond my fears and limitations? Would I be on this crazy life’s journey? Would I have traveled the world and walked amongst the pioneers in urban and vertical farming? What would I be doing if not for this small trauma?
Now that I’m much more at peace with myself, and have less of a need to prove myself to others, the dye has already been cast: I am on this path and I’m planning to keep on following it
And because our history and our society today is full of people who want to be the best, we might extrapolate this question to the rest of the world. What would we be without these people? Maybe we would have world-peace, but would would we still live in tribes? Or would we have found other ways of discovering what we have discovered, Achieved what we have achieved?
As I believe that our society consist of individuals, I’m really curious towards your answers. If not for wanting to be the best,…
What powers your life?
What is it that makes you want to get up in the morning and create your world?
For many years, a lot of people from all around the world have been asking the Association for Vertical Farming (AVF) the same question:
“How do I start a vertical farm?”
As I was responsible for answering the AVF inbound messages for 2 years, I’ve tried to help a ton of people with that question. Most of them were hoping for an easy answer – a one stop shop solution – but I knew from meeting a lot of different farmers and experts from all around the world, that starting an urban or vertical farm is NOT that easy. There are just too many variables involved.
Of course, that didn’t keep me from trying to find answers to the questions of the many aspiring farmers. In that quest, two important things happened:
(2) I ended up contacting the many experts and urban and vertical farmers from all around the world. The pioneers that were already doing what so many other people want to do. The adventurers that explored places and did things that no farmer had done before.
So after many emails, meetings, questions, and eventually video-interviews, the “12 steps to become an Urban or Vertical farmer” saw the light. And it became something that is much more valuable than a blueprint to copy an existing urban or vertical farm. The 12 steps are inspirational guidelines with detailed information on how to start your farm.
I’ll repeat that again:
The 12 steps are inspirational guidelines with detailed information on how to start your farm.
So if you want to start an Urban or Vertical Farm because you are passionate about it and because you truly want to have a positive impact. If you want to start an urban and vertical farm with all the good intentions in the world, then the 12 steps is perfect for you.
On the 30th of June and 1st of July 2017 I was the main organiser of the first AVF workshop ever. Together with Youssef Bouchikhi, Thomas Zöllner and support of the many AVF’ers, we did an amazing job.
Last weekend, the first ever AVF Workshop took place in Brussels. There were people from all sorts of backgrounds – architects, agronomists, and even a caricature artist – all with a fervency for farming and food. Our task was to design a vertical farming system at the site of The Abattoir, an urban farming hub in Cureghem, southern Brussels.
Here’s what happened.
Day 1 – Friday, June 30
The sun rises. An hour later, the first people tiredly but eagerly arrive at The Abattoir for some coffee and a meet and greet.
Afterwards, we have a tour of The Abattoir – its slaughterhouse, and the rooftop garden. Most of the people I spoke to agreed that, although the slaughterhouse was a shocking sight, it was good that we had visited. There is something virtuous about being a meat-eater and having witnessed the work required to produce it, taking the bad with the good. It’s a down-to-earth way of thinking which is common in farmers, but sometimes lacking in idealists. Glad we had it.
After we got back, Zjef Van Acker gave us some words of wisdom on the sessions to come. We’ve all heard (or propagated, as I have) the ‘9 billion people by 2050’ narrative, but there are problems today for vertical farming to solve. We would be coming up with a systemic vision of the situation, and working with new people – simple, but not easy.
Then we listened to some presentations by the following speakers:
Jo Huygh (architect of The Abattoir) – a history of the site of The Abattoir, the masterplan, and current activities. Also outlined the constraints for our design at zone Manufakture.
William Feberi (Cultureghem) – presented the social activities of Cultureghem in getting the 80+ nationalities living in the area involved in good food. This is a crucial element of a child’s development.
Mathias De Vos (BIGH) – about the current situation of urban indoor farming. There are many opportunities, such as the enthusiasm of supermarket chains and using waste streams. There are many hurdles too – legislation, technical challenges, and a stubborn horticultural sector.
Then, we were shown around the impressive growing systems of Champignon de Bruxelles by Thibault Fastenakels, co-founder, in a cavernous cellar under The Abattoir. We also played a game to better understand the role of mushroom production in a circular economy. There are still challenges in realising this, like the plastic bags which have to be used for mushroom cultivation. At the moment, they get thrown away.
Afterwards, we had a few more insightful presentations:
Ir. Tycho Vermeulen (Wageningen University) – about how conventional greenhouses and urban indoor agriculture can coexist. The ‘Uber effect’ is reaching agriculture, allowing us to make use of small spaces. Urban agriculture is a service provider – not just a producer of food. Challenges include logistics and energy. The industry is emerging, so failures are welcome.
Prof. Danny Geelen (University of Ghent) – on space crop farming. Presented various lessons in biology from growing in space, and the implications for indoor farming down here on Earth. Microbes are crucial.
Bart Mertens (Millibeter) – Millibeter produces black soldier flies. Insects love being packed vertically. Black soldier flies eat just about anything, allowing Millibeter to upcycle thousands of tonnes of waste per year.
Mark Horler (AVF, Re-growth) – presented the AVF, and the achievements and opportunities of virtual co-location.
After a delicious lunch provided by Cultureghem, we travelled to Schaerbeek, in the north of Brussels, for an afternoon of brainstorming in groups.
Eventually, we came together and each group presented their findings. Some groups tended towards the technical side, whereas others focused on the business model or the farm’s social role. A project was voted for as a starting point for combining these ideas the next day.
The day ended in one of the many bars in Brussels with a wide range of Belgian beers (to add a cliché). Dave, James, and I discussed our views on human nature, Jeremy Rifkin’s third industrial revolution, and the interplanetary future of our species.
Day 2 – Saturday, July 1
The next morning, we met in Schaerbeek to get into groups to focus on different aspects of our farm – food production, waste management, finance, marketing, and the social aspect. The group I was in, waste management, came up with flowcharts to get an overview of the different resources in our system. The market outside The Abattoir throws away 21 tonnes of food waste per week. By lunch, we had a detailed overview of the possible ways of using this. Unfortunately a biodigester was out of the question. Apparently they can explode. Instead, we decided to hire a workforce of a few thousand black soldier flies. Our system would also use leftovers from fish processing – a product fishmongers pay to have taken away – as a source of protein.
Of course, it’s not just black soldier flies which can eat wasted food. Thanks to CollectActif, we could enjoy a lunch cooked using food that would have otherwise gone to waste.
After lunch, Ralph Becker presented his company, Urban Greens, based in Manila. In the Philippines, urbanites are malnourished. A third of children under 10 have type II diabetes. Urban Greens aims to improve peoples’ health through making fresh, high-quality vegetables more accessible. They make hydroponic towers, controlled by Arduino-based systems. Currently they are looking into big data and augmented reality to make it easier to improve yields.
Then, each group from before lunch presented their findings. This helped each group understand their context within the project. Useful – because now, it was time to refine our ideas. The group I was part of, doing waste streams, worked with the food group on some business model canvases. Then the number-crunching began. What would the turnover be? The return on investment? How many black soldier flies, fish, and plants could be housed? This was tricky, but after a few hours, we got some estimates. Just in time for a quick dinner before the conference.
The conference was on policy challenges for vertical farming. The following speakers presented:
Thomas Zöllner (AVF) – background and context of the conference. We are subsidising cheap cookies with expensive healthcare! How do we get the need of change across?
Christine Zimmerman (AVF) – many current policies make it harder to implement vertical farming. The AVF has been lobbying to change this. Also, she explained the AVF’s pivotal role in bridging different parties in the industry, who felt uncomfortable sharing information directly.
Peter Jens (Koppert Biological Systems) – in the eyes of policymakers, vertical farming is just a technology. But it’s much more than that. The narrative of ‘9 billion by 2050’ is a product of a scarcity mindset. Our goal should be more than just feeding people. We should nourish them, focusing on the next generation’s health and microbiome. There’s more to it than yield. Thankfully, things are changing. Since 2008, Big Food has been losing market share.
Finally, after tinkering in PowerPoint in the back of the room, it was time to pitch the final outcome of the AVF workshop: Brusselaer Circulaer. Brusselaer Circulaer is to be an integrated resource management system at site Manufakture. It would use inputs from the city to produce high-quality food. It would also be a place for local people to participate, learn, volunteer, and work. Of course, these are all ideas we’ve heard before. Now come the challenges of implementing this plan. The workshop does not end there. A number of people are interested in working out the details for this farm. Looking forward to our meeting on Friday!
Had it not been for Bert van ’t Ooster, my lecturer, I would not have been able to participate in this exceptionally amazing workshop. Thanks a million!
Many thanks to Zjef Van Acker, Mark Horler, Glenn Van Roey, and others for their photos.
Thank you Alex. You’re awesome and I hope we’ll be able to do more of these workshops together!
He has a great smile, is a funny & elegant speaker, has SWAG and also made some decisions that shook the US in its foundations. Barack Obama is for sure the coolest president the US ever had.
So, why the f*ck do I feel disappointed upon seeing such a phenomenon live at Seeds&Chips 2017 in Milan?
It is not every day that you attend the same event as one of the most influential world leaders of the past 20 years. And I for sure was not the only one acknowledging the special occasion. Everyone had been talking about it for weeks and the excitement reached the summit right before Obama’s appearance.
The crowd in the conference room was just swarming all over the place. Everyone was walking around nervously, talking to everyone while looking around, taking selfies and not really wanting to sit down as if they had to be ready because the guy could be walking by them any second.
An interesting experience I completely immersed myself in.
Anyway, 30min behind on schedule, Obama entered the stage, thanked everyone and launched a furious and passionate speech about the importance of food and Climate change.
1h25min “If we can act boldly and swiftly than it is not to late, and we can leave a world behind that is worthy for our children”
So far so good. Zjef was very happy.
For the second part of the event, there was a Q&A with Sam Kass, chef and personal friend of Obama. In the beginning of that conversation I learned more awesome things about Obama. Like the fact that he is setting up an institution to empower the young leaders of tomorrow. And I also felt a shiver down my spine when he said the following:
“The mark of a good leader, is somebody who is able to empower other people”
So far – still very good. Still muchos Obama Love.
Yet, around 2h00min things started to change – Slowly but drastically.
It all began when Sam Kass brought up the biggest driver of Climate change: Beef production. They both agreed that it was an important issue to tackle. HOWEVER, when it came to talking about solutions, Obama was very very veeeeery vague. He basically avoided to talk about the bold and swift actions that are required to address this issue.
The bold and swift action for which he was advocating just 35min earlier.
I mean – common – It’s so fu*king simple.
To heal this planet you first start tackling the stuff that is the biggest contributor to its destruction. Just like when you are injured, the doctor will first fix that open leg fracture before the little cut on your arm.
Please stop me if I’m saying weird stuff here!
And that’s where my disappointment about Obama rose to the surface. After that moment, I started noticing that his responses were always very diplomatic, yet those responses never reflected the wisdom and boldness that our society needs so badly.
We all look up to the Obama because he is one of the best politicians we have seen in the past years. But the dude is still one of those politicians that are more a part of the problem, than a part of the solution. Their actions do not reflect their words.
Sh*t, I’m complaining about politicians….how did I end up here?
People who know me, know that I never give that much attention or energy to politicians. So why did I start now? Well, maybe it is because Obama is not the real source of my disappointment.
The big disappointment is about us and the fact that we give so much attention to leaders whom we should not be adoring that much. OBAMA is no Gandhi, Jane Goodall, Aristotle or Lao Tze that bring themselves and this society back into balance with itself and this planet.
The big disappointment during Obama’s appearance is a resurfacing disappointment of a realisation I made long ago: I cannot rest until I know our society is in balanced human hands.
So yes, you are understanding this right.
The big disappointment is because I just want to chill out on a f*cking beach, enjoy this amazing planet and make love to beautiful ladies without having to worry about anything else.
ps1: Don’t worry, I also find a lot of joy in life helping our society to transition and get into sync with our planet.
ps2: Learn about a way to produce meat that is good for this planet – check out the Soil Carbon Cowboys
On Saturday the 29th of April 2017, I was invited to the yearly conference of the International Association of Students in Agriculture and related Sciences (or in short: IAAS).
There’s a lot of beautiful things I can tell about this event, BUT there’s one thing specifically that stuck with me and it had something to do with The Big Why.
For the afternoon group discussions of the IAAS-conference, all the participants split up into groups of their interest and one of them, of course, was about urban farming, to which I was assigned expert.
After an hour into the discussion, there was one person who asked the following interesting question that is the cause of this blog post:
You know, we’ve been talking about urban and vertical farming and I get that it’s nice and that it has many benefits. But, I’m still missing The Big Why. Why should we be doing urban and vertical farming?
I love a question like this and I was eager to answer it.
But, as I wanted everyone to think for themselves – rather than giving an answer before they could do so – I held back and deflected the question to the crowd. And it had the desired effect. Many students in the group answered and many interesting points were stated:
Urban Farming Brings people together.
It brings people into contact with their food
There are less foodmiles and a lower Carbon Footprint
It has higher yields per surface area
Urban farming projects can re-use waste
and so on…
I loved it.
Yet, even after a dozen people gave many reasons on why urban and vertical farming is needed, the two people still remained unconvinced about “The Big Why“. The dozen students had indeed brought up many valid points on “why” we should be doing urban and vertical farming, yet to be honest, I wasn’t satisfied either.
So, when the 2 unconvinced students turned back to me with a gaze of hope mixed with desperation, I cleared my throat, took one last deep breath and let the true Zjef reveal The Big WHY via a loud and confident voice:
I can not tell you why you should do something. I can only tell you why I do what I do.
I do what I do because I see a very destructive human society. We are destroying nature. We are destroying people. We are destroying life. And thus….we are destroying ourselves.
This cannot go on and I want to be part of the needed change, rather than remain part of the structural problem.
Does this mean I think vertical Farming is the answer to all our prayers? Hell NO! Vertical farming is just what it is: a technology. It’s not inherently good or bad. It is defined by how we, humans, use it.
What I do believe is that vertical farming is a powerful tool for change because it touches the foundations of our human society.
Vertical farming touches our basic human needs: food, water, energy & Shelter. Hence, if we can do vertical farming in a creative, constructive and ecosystem-manner, we can transform the foundations of our society and spiral our species into a new era of beauty and magnificence.
Is this the big why? Did I go into vertical farming because of this rational reason? Well, partly, it helped me to form a strategy.
The real reason why I chose vertical Farming as my battlefield for societal transformation is very, very, very simple and much more down to earth. It is because, when I first learned about vertical farming and Dickson Despommier’s vision in an article in Scientific American (somewhere during 2010), my thoughts and feelings just screamed:
This is fucking awesome!
And that, my friends, is the essence of the big why!
Knowing and feeling why to do something, comes from no other place than within!
You’re sitting down in a group of people where everybody’s doing their own thing. But you, you’re super self aware. You’re self aware because you know what’s going to happen 30 seconds from now.
You’re sitting down and you feel your heart rate going up, you feel your blood flowing faster and you sense a kind of adrenaline rush filling every corner of your body, from your toes till the top of your head.
The moment has come, you stand up, walk to the front of the room and look into the eyes of the big dark monster that is the crowd. And that big monster is looking back at you with its hundreds of eyes, full of expectation.
You stand there with only yourself and your thoughts.
Then and there, in that moment of truth, there are only 3 choices: (1) you numb out and make it the most boring experience ever, (2) you think that that adrenaline running through you veins is stress and you let it traumatise you for the rest of your life, or (3) you embrace the rush of epinephrine as excitement and start enjoying the rest of the ride, whatever the outcome.
Of course option 3 is the best choice, but it is by far the most difficult one to make. I still struggle between option 2 and 3, but more and more I’m able to keep it at three.
And that’s why I love presenting so much!
In this post you’ll find an overview of me enjoying the ride in the form of some cool video’s where I’m presenting. You’ll find:
A video of me presenting in India while staying at home in Belgium
Zjef at the Aquafarm fair in Pordenone (Italia)
A marketing video, yes a marketing video
New videos featuring Zjef at the 2016 AVF-summit
It’s already 10 months ago, but recently 2 extra video’s got uploaded where you can see yours truly on stage at AVF-summit 2016 in Amsterdam.
In the first video you can find me giving the introduction to Kasper Moreaux (Mycelia) who talked about the role of Mushroom production in Vertical Farming (one of my favorite subjects).
The Second video (and even more awesome video) is of a panel about my all time favorite subject: The Circular Economy Vertical Farming concept by AVFami.
This AVFami concept looks at the biological processes in nature and tries to combine 4 different food producing industries to design a completely sustainable Vertical Farm. AMI = Aquaponics Mushrooms & Insects (and for those who wonder how I get to 4 different industries: Aquaponics is Aquaculture and Hydroponics combined).
Ow yeah: I was the moderator of this panel of superstars – so cool!
Presenting in India while staying at home in Belgium
I love going to India, but I cannot always do it. Moreover, I do feel guilty to travel by plane, it is still unsustainably using lots of fossil fuels.
So on the 14th of January 2017 I did not go to the “India national seminar on smart farming technologies” in the Ramnarain Ruis college (Mumbai). Instead I made a presentation at home in my couch and send the video to Vijay Yelmalle from CRAFT. He, as the main organiser, made sure the people visiting the seminar learned all about Vertical Farming and international collaboration.
The funny thing is that instead of going far away abroad, I went back to the town where I grew up and gave a presentation there.
Zjef at the Aquafarm fair in Pordenone (Italia)
There’s many reasons to love Italy yet there’s one for me that sticks out above all.
Because of my extremely low self-esteem while growing up, I’m very bad at….seducing. It’s hard for me to overcome my fears in most settings (especially my fear of rejection). YET, in Italy seduction seems a part of the daily life, and because of that, the timidity disappears and the seduction beast in me just gets unleashed.
And I love that seduction beast.
When I was in Pordenone for the Aquafarm fair in January of 2017, that’s exactly what happened. I was there to moderate the morning session for the Vertical Farming conference, and I had a presentation on my own. As a moderator I could introduce awesome people like Dickson Despommier, Bill Barber and Diane Esvan! As the presenter I talked about Circular Vertical Farming and international collaboration.
Watch the presentation below, especially the cool thing I did in the beginning.
Second video is about yours truly giving a small interview talking about the Association for Vertical Farming and the fact that the Aquafarm fair is awesome.
(I was wondering: would it be coincidence that there are so many beautiful women in this short video? 😉 )
Introduction to the 12 steps to become an Urban or vertical farmer
So since the summer of 2016 the KIKVORS team has been doing interviews for an educational video-series called “the 12 steps to become an Urban or Vertical Farmer”.
We’ve released the first product at the end of March 2017, but we quickly had to pivot when things went wrong. Now we’re working hard on a different format to release the series (so watch out for more on this later).
In any way, we still made this awesome marketing video to show off.
So yes, I’ve been busy, I’ve been very busy presenting, getting a lot better at story telling and enjoying the rushes of adrenaline flowing through my body. And hopefully soon, I’ll be able to show you some more video’s with even better stories and presenting skills.
When I know where I’m going but I don’t really know where I’ll end up, that’s when I’m truly enjoying my walk.