Marco Tidona, Inventor of the aponix.eu vertical barrel concept, tells us about the emergence of urban farming, and describes how important and easy it is to build green areas and grow edibles even from the comfort of your own home.
When I finished my Masters in Business Administration in 1999, I started as a software developer and have been working on a freelance basis ever since.
When I had my family, I wanted to put my free time to good use, and contribute to the greater good, after sitting in front of a screen all day. It all began by setting up and running my own aquaponics farm. I delved more into sustainability and horticulture and ended up developing a horticulture product, the vertical barrel / 3D-NFT.
We’ve continually improved this over the last four years and are now on Version 3. We have also added a bunch of innovative accessories such as a reusable net pot (we call this the PlugPot) that provides an optional metal trellis insert to grow fruiting crops. This is something that’s very expensive to do in artificially lit indoor farms using stacked racks.
We design and provide horticultural infrastructure components that are used to set up the actual grow spaces in urban farms. Our overall mission is to help the planet to transition to a more sustainable regenerative mode, growing more plants in smart cities and helping to interconnect raw materials in a more sustainable, circular, way.
So far we’ve developed two products. The vertical barrel provides a soilless grow space. It works like a nutrient film technique (NFT) or gutter system in 2D horticulture to grow mainly leafy greens. It’s modular and, due to its shape, it can use natural sunlight. With Version 3, it’s also being used for many other, sometimes exotic crops.
This is exciting to see, because this is how modularity was intended to work. Once you understand the modularity you start to see different possible combinations of the equipment to set up very creative urban farms. Starting with just one unit, you could even set up a herb and lettuce forest.
The second product is a novel living WallSystem. It helps to plant and cover unused vertical spaces indoors and outdoors, by providing modular growspaces backed by professional horticultural engineering. Usually, felt-based vertical living walls become hard to maintain after 1-2 years. The new aponix WallSystem tries to avoid this and other issues with clever engineering and modularity.
Take a look at our website www.aponix.eu or book a personal video demo with me (Marco), to see how these systems work.
Urban farming has developed in various ways. My vision is for it to become more ubiquitous and accessible. There’s a very wide spectrum of urban farming, from community soil gardening or edible city initiatives, to more technical and also commercial projects like plant factories under artificial light (PFAL).
You can find a lot of inspiration and projects by simply googling “urban farming”.
Larger cities are adding a lot of lighthouse projects and sustainability innovation hubs. These initiatives receive funding and support from the government and the wider public and this is fantastic! We need all these initiatives to become the norm.
Urban farming is a broad term and people understand it differently. I understand it to cover the whole range of how people grow any sort of plants in an urban area, even if it’s ornamental, for shade and air quality, city council organized, or in any other form for business.
We need to counterbalance urbanization by building a jungle. There are also farms which grow edibles or other sorts of crops. This includes algae, mushrooms, insects, fruiting and leafy crops. There’s a whole range of possibilities, such as growing for profit or in cooperation with a supermarket, or community supported agriculture (CSA). This is a sector that needs to be intensified and developed.
Currently under 1% of edibles are grown this way. Depending on the location and situation, we should aim for 5-20% hyperlocal coverage. I would say we have the necessary components and technologies, and also the knowledge. We now need to combine them in intelligent and regenerative ways.
From my perspective, it’s now up to politicians to set the scene with the right incentives, in a very rigorous way to kickstart the actual transformation.
Our aim is not only hyperlocal production of greens. There are many complementary technologies that need to be transformed in exactly the same way, like slaughter-free meat; regenerative agriculture for big calorie production like wheat, corn, rice and soy; energy; mobility; health; and less waste etc.
Our competition is practically any other convenient vertical farming horticulture equipment which sets up grow spaces, wall systems or even home appliances. The area is still very fragmented and users need to take a very close look at the properties and engineering of the equipment and solutions. They’re very diverse and it’s even difficult for more experienced growers to choose one over the other without actually testing them out in parallel for comparison.
Equipment that still needs to prove its viability or only works well in a certain type of setup is common. Local conditions such as climate conditions, electricity consumption, water scarcity, convenience etc. always restrict choices around a suitable system. These influence the planning of farming layouts and equipment selection.
We manufacture our equipment in Germany and play the “made in Germany” card. So, apart from functional engineering, we use the highest quality materials from the beginning and focus on clever design and function. The vertical barrel ring segment element, for example, is made of ASA, the highest uv-resistant thermoplastic material found here. It’s even unusual in the urban farming space because it’s expensive.
On the other hand, we only use pure and intentionally valuable materials that we declare and regard as raw material even during their longest possible productive lifetime. We also take into account the cradle-to-cradle principle that defines ideal materials for the technical cycle. They can be recycled over and over again as long as users don't throw them away after use. We print this reminder on every part.
The parts are not pricey at all since we, as manufacturers, sell the components directly to the actual users, to individual larger projects, or to our product partners who use the components in their own products and services. Other solutions use multi-level-marketing schemes.
Aponix components aren’t comparable with these or the super cheap equipment made in China where, most of the time, the price and image on the ad are the only attractive properties. We’re glad they exist and attract new users who’ll eventually get more selective with their growing skills.
People and the planet!
Even if you’re new to growing plants, I can promise that it’s a powerful journey that will teach you a lot. Most people don’t know how ridiculously simple and cheap it is to grow microgreens during the winter season in their kitchen in flat trays with just a spray bottle and some kind of compostable substrate mat.
If you google the nutritional content of broccoli sprouts for example, you’ll be amazed and will want to start growing right away. And it’s dead simple, so you can then start to discover the other hundreds of varieties. Once you start to grow plants, maybe even in shared spaces with others, you’ll start to learn quickly about seasonality and a lot of other potential crops, stages the plant needs to be guided through and the conditions required.
You learn how you can continuously harvest via cut-and-come-again. Then you start to think about how to compost and reuse the materials locally.
Many communities offer cheap or even free compost. You can focus more on a plant-based diet. You understand there are gazillions more varieties than those you see in your supermarket and when freshly harvested, they taste delicious and provide fantastic nutrition for your body.
So then you sign your first membership in a cooperative or CSA to support local production. When you understand more where your food comes from and how it should be grown, you’ll eventually start to change your consumption behaviour and start voting with your wallet every day. You can start today.
Yes, we ship globally to anyone who’d like to test a small setup and start on soilless plant production or who has a wall they’d like to plant. We also ship globally to individual lighthouse projects and a lot of research institutions and schools. And of course, we ship to our product partners, who are the ones who engineer and market their local solutions and services independently in their territories. Testing equipment can be packaged very compactly and is shipped in standard boxes via UPS/FedEx.
We’ll see many more green areas, together with local production of edibles in urban areas, and more citizens participating actively in the maintenance of this jungle. There are so many advantages for people and the planet in densely populated areas – it captures carbon, provides fresh and healthy plant-based food, teaches people how to grow food, offsets closed surfaces and provides new spaces and routes for biodiversity.
It provides purposeful work and endless opportunities for social exchange that will lead to many new forms of collaboration and projects. I’m very positive in that regard, because I can see so many friends and energetic champions engaging in these new spaces, pushing sustainability forward multidimensionally, and more and more consumers changing their way of living.
Let’s do this! The best time is now!