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France Agriculture: Here rooftop farms give you vodka and the fish grow plants

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On a chilly Wednesday afternoon, our driver slows down and parks along Haussmann Boulevard in the 9th arrondissement of Paris.

As the door slides open, the warmth inside the van is replaced with some gashing cold air as we prepare to once again fight the freezing weather.

We are outside Galeries Lafayette, one of the many shopping malls in the City of Paris where according to our program; we would be meeting some urban farmers.

It is warm again inside the mall as we await our hosts as well as get our passports entered into the visitor’s system.

What we do not know is that this warmth is short-lived as our elevator journey lands us on the roof of the mall.

Our tour is on the roof where temperatures have dropped to six degrees with darkness set to engulf the Paris skies within the hour.

Unlike other rooftops that we can see from here, this particular one has a lot of greenery and you can smell the various flavours of edible plants here.

Our host, 31-year old Marie Dehaene, kicks off the tour by asking us why a mall such as Galeries Lafayette has allowed her team to put up what looks like hanging plants on their roof.

We make several guesses before she explains that they approached the mall with the idea of putting up a rooftop farm as part of giving Paris some green spaces.

“In 2013, we worked together to design and think about how it would work because it was the first time in France that there was a commercial rooftop farm,” Marie says.

She added; “They were concerned about things like; Are you going to bring dirt into the department store? Are you going to flood the roof? Are you sure these things will not fly away? Real technical things.”

Marie is an agronomist engineer and a founding member of sous les fraises (under the strawberries) startup that has not only moved farming into the city but is greening the rooftops of Paris highrise buildings.

We learn that the start up has dressed Galeries Lafayette Haussmann, where we are standing, with a green roof that houses more than 150 varieties of edible plants.

On the more than 1,200 m² of this surface, they grow more than 18,000 plants, including strawberries, raspberries, edible flowers, aromatic plants, cabbage and even produce honey.

“Here for instance when we put the tomato plants they each give at least five kilos of tomatoes. This means five tonnes of tomatoes per year for just this garden,” Marie says adding that they have a total of 14 gardens.

She promises to take us to one of the other farms on Friday, a day before we finalise our France trip.

As we walk around the rooftop, Marie explains the use of the different plants that we can see and how they are grown without the use of too much soil.

She explains that they use sheep and hemp wool membrane, with a little soil, compost and water.

We do not see a lot of produce as the last harvest is done in October just before the cold season checks in which Marie and team use to plan for the next year.

Nonetheless, we get to learn about some of the plants we can see which they pick and sell to various restaurants around Paris.

“Most of these are used for salad dressing. Some of these we distil and make gin and vodka (which some members of our entourage got to taste later) with it,” Marie says.

She adds; “We meet the distiller and agree on the recipe and then deliver the plants and three months we get the gin and vodka. The alcohol captures all the flavours.”

Marie says that the projects are important to them because they have a low carbon footprint and create local jobs now having a workforce of 15 full-time employees.

“When we started, we were just three people,” Marie says.

Galeries Lafayette Corporate Communication Officer Eva Perret told the Star that they allowed the project because of the unique opportunity it gives to empowering customers.

“For us, it is a first step towards talking to our customers about sustainable consumption,” Perret said.

Before we leave, we sample some of the products that are produced from the plants grown on this rooftop farm as we agree on the Friday trip.

So on Friday afternoon, which is a bit warmer than the previous days, we set out to Farmhouse Aubervilliers nestled in the heart of the business park ICADE Porte de Paris.

While the plants are set up in a similar fashion as those we saw on the rooftop of Galeries Lafayette, here sous les fraises use techniques of urban agriculture Aquaponics – breeding fish in symbiosis with growing plants.

This particular farm accommodates some 6,000 fish, which are sold to various restaurants, and more than 8,000 plants.

“Here we grow fish basically because the fish poop feeds the plants that we have while the plants clean the water for the fishponds,” Marie explains.

For irrigation, the farms use a closed robotic water circuit can feed all plants according to their needs and the weather by analyzing data via sensors on the plants.

Marie says that the system sends an SMS alert to them in case there is a problem.

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