Aquafarm, Aquafarm, Aquafarm: My Experience

Just got back from Aquafarm 2018 in Pordenone, Italy. It was wonderful. Here’s a quick recap of my experience of these few days.

The Beginning: Wednesday, February 14

Wednesday afternoon the adventure started. I met Zjef Van Acker at Charleroi airport. It was good to see him again, the first time since Brussels. We flew to Treviso and then made our way to our Airbnb in Pordenone. During this time Zjef outlined some of his plans for future projects. We also discussed life lessons, philosophy, and seduction, as is inevitable with Zjef but always engaging.

That evening we met up with Seppe Salari and his business partner Jason Kiem. Seppe and I had been in contact through a few emails. I had heard about his awesome project, growing black soldier flies to feed an aquaponic system with food waste in his own apartment. Although he studies in Wageningen, this was the first time we met in person. He and Jason are starting a company called SmartCrops, which will be building an upscaled version Seppe’s hobby project.

Left to right: Zjef, Seppe, Jason, and me.

After some walking, we finally found a place for some pizza and got to know each other over some Italian wine and grappa. Lots of talk about crops, as well as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch and the future of human civilisation on Mars.

Aquafarm, Day 1: Thursday, February 15

The next day, the actual event started.

I met Tom Zöllner for the first time since the Brussels workshop. I also finally met Yanni Garcia Postigo, who recently joined the AVF and was here to represent his company, PlantHive. His colleague, Vasileios Vallas, had soldiered on with me to finish the Abattoir white paper. Unfortunately he couldn’t make it, so Yanni and I would present the next day.

Most of the event was about aquaculture, but thanks to Zjef and his seduction skills, vertical farming was also represented through the link of aquaponics. I will cover some of my favourite presentations in more detail later, but some of the noteworthy speakers that day were:

  • Peter Jens (PuraNatura, Koppert Biological Systems) – Peter was in Brussels last year as well and had some fascinating examples of biological mechanisms in ecosystems that could be applied to agriculture.
  • Tom Zöllner – on comparing apples to apples when it comes to comparing the certification of organic produce to that of post-organic produce.
  • Paolo Bray (Friend of the Earth) – about certification. Sustainability is a must, organic is a plus.
  • Dr Marco Meneguz (University of Turin) – on insects as a way to process food waste. Marco outlined the different species being used as well as which are currently approved by the EU for animal feed.
  • Seppe Salari (AVF, SmartCrops) – on aquaponics, mushrooms, and insects. Pretty awesome stuff. There are so many combinations and ecosystems possible. Some of these possibilities were highlighted in other talks.
  • Matteo Benvenuti (Vertical Farming Italia) – on some of the vertical production systems he and his company had designed.
  • Mark Horler (The Soya Project, Re-growth.org) – the Soya Project wants to explore growing soy in a vertical farm. Soy cultivation is an environmental disaster, and the Soya Project aims to learn plenty. Great to see people looking further than leafy greens and microgreens.

That evening the gang of Zjef, Seppe, Jason, Mark and I went out for dinner. We discussed some ideas related to today’s talks, including the potential of decoupled AMI systems.

There’s Mark on the left.

Aquafarm, Day 2: Friday, February 16 (obviously)

Some of the speakers on the second day were:

  • Massimo Lucchini (Idromeccanica Lucchini) – talked about his company and the various projects they are working on in Italy. Greenhouses, but also tower systems and vertical farms under artificial lighting.
  • Yanni Garcia Postigo and yours truly – we talked about the progress of the Brussels Abattoir white paper. Essentially, how much can we grow using an AMI (aquaponics-mushrooms-insects) system fed by 21 tonnes of fruit and vegetable waste per week, and how profitable is it?
  • Zjef Van Acker – on the power of the commons seen in projects such as GroeiNEST, the 12 Steps to Becoming an Urban or Vertical Farmer, and his new idea, ViVeFarmLab.
  • Saverio Panata (Carlo Ratti Associati) – Saverio showed some engaging ways to grow food in cities, including a system where people can follow the seed they planted and some examples of greening in Singapore.
  • Marco Gioacchino Pistrin (Ferro Group) – on integrated multi-trophic aquaculture systems (IMRAS). Reminded me a lot of what Onhand Agrarian are doing in Singapore. Really interesting and something I’d like to explore further.
Presenting the Brussels Abattoir white paper with Yanni.

The gang of Zjef, Seppe, Jason and me enjoyed some of the wine that was left behind in the exhibition centre. After that, we had dinner and made it a relatively early night for our next day:

Trip to Venice: Saturday, February 17

Zjef and I left from our Airbnb apartment to meet Seppe and Jason at Pordenone station. By chance we met a new acquaintance of Zjef’s and took the train together to Venice.

What a sight. Quite a building in the background as well.

We had three hours to ‘do Venice’ before leaving. In this time, we did a comprehensive power-walk through most of the place, walking around like locals with our slices of pizza. Venice is absolutely stunning, but it feels like a theme park, so I thought three hours was perfect. Still beautiful though. Nevertheless, Seppe was more interested in the marine life of the area and spotted many animals including a school of fish and a tiny lobster.

Seppe rescues the lobster from the underworld and then sets it free.

After saying goodbye to Jason and Seppe, Zjef and I got to our flight from Treviso airport. Since we were well on time, we exchanged ideas for ViVeFarmLab, which Zjef sketched on one of the blank pages of a book he was reading.

Closing remarks

Those were some eye-opening days. Looking at vertical farming with the perspective of aquaculture taught me a few new things, as did the other presentations and conversations. Expect another article on some of this.

Many thanks to Zjef, Tom, Vasileios, Mark, Yanni, the Aquafarm team, and everyone else who made it so great!

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