In Paris, as in many European cities, the number of cars is declining, which is leaving a vast amount of underground car parks empty. With its start-up project called “La Caverne”, Cycloponics is reclaiming these urban territories and using them as a way of growing plenty of organic vegetables. EURACTIV France reports.
Although growing 200 kilos of organic vegetables every day to deliver to local grocery stores within Paris would seem like quite a challenge, Jean-Noël Gertz and Théo Champagnat have already taken it upon themselves since 2017.
At Porte de la Chapelle in Paris, the two have set up a 3,500 m2 urban farm located underground, in a former car park.
But it was in Strasbourg that the young man first had the idea of using underground facilities. “There are bunkers everywhere. I started with a 150 m2 room there. But the people of Strasbourg were a bit reluctant to give up their car parks, ” explained Jean-Noël Gertz, one of the two founders of Cycloponics.
Gertz and Champagnat, therefore, responded to call for tenders from Paris, whose empty car parks were squatted by consumers and crack dealers. It’s been more than two years now since ‘organic has replaced crack’, and about fifteen jobs have been created.
An autumn climate all year round
This project was made possible by the particular skills of the two founders. Gerst is a thermal engineer by training, while his partner, Champagnat, is an agronomist.
“We need very precise temperature conditions to control diseases and grow organic vegetables. So in a car park, it’s mainly about climatic engineering. You have to reproduce autumn all the time: a lot of humidity, but also reinforced ventilation,” explained Gerst, while showing a series of ventilation pipes added to the second basement of the “cavern”, where oyster mushrooms and shiitake mushrooms bloom.
Small packets of water-soluble, sterilised and packaged straw are hung from floor to ceiling, and the mushrooms grow through tiny holes. Everything is calculated to ensure their optimal growth. The air is saturated with moisture, the endives grow in the dark, and the mushrooms get a few LED lights.
But the car park has definite advantages over the limestone cavities usually used to grow mushrooms, as there is a permanent and precise control of the weather, as well as better thermal stability.
This is why the vegetables do not grow in the first, but in the car park’s second basement, where the temperature remains stable in the event of a heatwave or extreme cold.
Farming in car parks also makes it possible to better resist the climate crisis. Parasites and other insects, for instance, are rather rare in the subsoil, even if endive tubers and straw bought outside can also be vectors of diseases, such as sclerotinia, which destroyed part of this year’s endive harvest.
Another advantage of vegetables grown in cities is that they do not breathe the same way and are not sensitive to micro-particles like animals.
Unused car parks all over Europe
Cycloponics is also one of the few Parisian start-ups to have too much space rather than not enough. It, therefore, hosts other structures in its huge premises, such as a Norwegian fishmonger’s aquariums of sea urchins hand-fished in the Arctic, as well as other projects that also grow plants using the hydroponics method.
It has also just won calls for projects for two other large car parks in Paris’ 19th arrondissement.
“In Paris, as in many European capitals, people no longer have cars, there are too many parking lots, especially in the poorest districts. But we also visited unused car parks on the Champs-Elysée. It would be possible to do something about it!” according to the entrepreneurs.
His project has, in fact, already aroused the interest of other European capitals, but for the moment Cycloponics, which is currently raising €500,000 on the responsible investment platform Lita, is rather aiming to expand towards Bordeaux and Lyon, still to make organic mushrooms and endives.
“We would do many other things, but the organic regulations are strict and some countries prohibit this. Spain, for example, definitely doesn’t want the Netherlands to be able to grow strawberries,” the entrepreneur emphasised.
Except for start-up aid for young farmers, the farm receives no aid from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) but applies the EU’s new “from farm to fork” strategy to the letter, as there is no getting closer to consumers than by setting up under their feet.
The company delivers organic groceries every day, thanks in particular to a fleet of 20 cargo bikes.
This market also allows the company to benefit from higher prices, thanks in particular to the Biocoop network, which offers a premium to local produce. But this premium is also rather secret, as France has seen the number of its endive cultures go from 4,000 to less than 500 in twenty years, and from 300 mushroom farms to less than 30.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]