Edmonton

'It's a blizzard outside and we're growing lettuce': Busby area farmers grow vertical

A couple near Busby, Alta are using vertical farming to grow leafy greens year-round in a warehouse made of shipping containers.

A unique farm has opened near Busby growing leafy greens in fabricated shipping containers

Greens are expected to grow at Swiss Leaf Farms out of 14 different shipping containers. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

An indoor farm near Busby, Alta. is harvesting leafy greens in the middle of winter using a system called vertical farming and fabricated shipping containers.

David and Alyssa Pfaeffli of Swiss Leaf Farms have been growing lettuce, microgreens, and herbs in a 9,500-square-foot warehouse for the past couple of months. The system they are using will allow them to grow year-round.

The growing machines are developed by a company in Langley, B.C.  and an irrigation system waters each tray as it rotates past a water spout. A single row of growing lights sit on the top of the container.

A heating and cooling system ensures the plants grow at the right temperatures.

A Busby, Alberta farmer uses a vertical farming system to grow leafy produce all year round. 2:43

Within the warehouse, there are 14 growing machines that grow different varieties of leafy greens. Each container holds 4,000 heads of lettuce, with each head of lettuce taking a month to grow. The microgreens are harvested every six days.

The farm just had their first harvest last week and have delivered greens to grocery stores in Westlock, Barrhead and Edmonton.

"We can provide the same produce that's fresher, tastes better, it's healthier and there's zero pesticides. It's better for the planet," said David Pfaeffli. "You're not driving a diesel rig all over North America to deliver lettuce."

Alyssa and David Pfaeffli of Swiss Leaf Farms started the vertical farm a few months ago. Their 14 shipping containers have the capacity to grow 4,000 heads of lettuce per container. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

The couple say they're able to grow a lot within a small space, as a traditional garden will take up a lot more land. Within their building, they can also control the temperatures with a heating and cooling system.

"This system allows us to do that here now, whereas before in Alberta where would you be able to do that? It's a blizzard outside and we're growing lettuce." said Alyssa Pfaeffli.

The cost of vertical farming

Financing the vertical farm was the biggest challenge for the couple, said David Pfaeffi. Without large farming equipment, he didn't have a lot of collateral if things dried up.

"Agricultural lending outfits weren't too eager to lend a large sum of money on equipment like this because they'd have a hard time recouping their costs. It's not a combine," David said.

The Pfaeffli's are excited about their new farming venture, but at the moment they're trying to not get too ahead of themselves.

"We want to grow not only plants but we want to grow the business. We want to keep adding on phases of growing machines. I'd like to see 50 acres of growing containers eventually," David Pfaeffi said.

Their greens are sold in grocery stores like Freson Bros. in Stony Plain. The Swiss Leaf Farms product fills a void of locally-produced lettuce in the winter months.Their latest order sold within 24 hours.

"We try to have an Alberta item everywhere. As soon as we get something like this, there are [consumers] willing to pick it up and try it," said Dan Pazder, Freson Bros. produce director.

Busby is approximately 71 kilometres northwest of Edmonton. 

@Travismcewancbc

​Travis.mcewan@cbc.ca

About the Author

Travis McEwan

Videojournalist

Travis McEwan is a video journalist who has not won any awards. Originally from Churchill, Manitoba, he's spent the last decade working at CBC Edmonton. Email story ideas to travis.mcewan@cbc.ca

With files from Trevor Wilson

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