Greens grown in a warehouse? Vertical farming a growing trend in Ontario

Seasons don't matter and growing takes place 365 days a year. Proponents say it's a positive step for food security and carbon reduction. CBC food columnist Andrew Coppolino takes a look at vertical farming.

With vertical farming, seasons don't matter: growing takes place anytime, anywhere

This photo was taken inside We the Roots vertical farm in Toronto. Wired with LED lights, the hydroponic facility can grow up to 20000 leafy green plants at a time. (Yan Jun Li/CBC)

It's a plain building in an industrial complex in Guelph, a few minutes from Highway 401. Inside is 4,000 square metres of high-tech "vertical farm" operated by GoodLeaf Farms, a Halifax-based company. 

In the course of 12 months, GoodLeaf grows, harvests and packages 360,000-kilograms of pea shoots, mustard medley, Asian mix and arugula microgreens as well as baby kale and baby arugula. The growing room is a couple of storeys high with trays of microgreens settled into a peat moss-based substrate.

Vertical farming maximizes crop output in a limited space; the seasons don't matter: growing takes place anytime, anywhere. 

The facility uses no pesticides, fungicides or herbicides. A blend of red and blue LED lighting casts a pink glow on the produce, which is helped in its growth with computer-controlled hydroponics. Nutrients such as nitrogen are added through the irrigation system. 

"A vertical farm is where technology and traditional agriculture come together. We grow leafy greens vertically in stacks in an indoor controlled environment," said Jacquie Needham of GoodLeaf. 

There are a lot of computers, so in a way it's farming with data. In this relatively new industry, "controlled environment agriculture" (CEA) uses technology that allows for the precise control of variables such as ventilation, light, heat and humidity to grow fresh greens and get them to market quickly and efficiently and without worrying about variables like drought, flooding, insects and frost. 

Would you eat microgreens grown in a warehouse? Many people do. It's from technology called vertical farming. Food columnist Andrew Coppolino visited GoodLeaf Farms' Guelph facility recently to learn about this growing opportunity for farming. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

From seed to grocery stores

GoodLeaf, which built its first pilot farm in Truro, NS, in 2015, has been in the commercial market for about a year now. Its microgreens are available at Loblaw stores and Fortino's, and Needham says they hope to be in Longo's and Whole Foods soon. 

GoodLeaf employs 70 people, whose goals, aside from producing good flavour, are efficiency and sustainability, which make it a part of the City of Guelph's vision to be Canada's first "circular" food economy.

"In a controlled environment, we can recycle 95% of the water we use," Needham said. 

Seeds are planted in trays of peat substrate (later recycled as garden compost) which are loaded onto decks and rolled into a dark germination room, at about 85% humidity, for two days. They then head to the towers of the pink-light growing room, held at 21-degrees C., for a growing cycle between six and 20 days. 

At harvest, the microgreen leaves from the miniature plants (these are not "sprouts") are quickly sliced by a machine, packaged and chilled. In the grocery store, they have a shelf-life of over two weeks. As for price, GoodLeaf products are roughly in line with organic greens. 

The facility is strictly controlled, in all aspects, to ensure food safety; to protect intellectual property, no photography is allowed. Visitors must remove their jewlery, wear a hairnet, cover their footwear with disposable shoe covers and don a Tyvek anti-microbial lab coat. They then individually enter an air-lock and take an "air shower" before entering the production area. 

Predictability in farming

The GoodLeaf facility is one of few state-of-the-art vertical farms in the country and collaborates in research and development with the University of Guelph.

According to Sylvain Charlebois, professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, the technology represents a new wave of farming. 

"Controlled environment agriculture is part of the future for Canadian agriculture. If we want to grow our food all year round, there is no other way. We need to think about these technologies, which will evolve and become more efficient," Charlebois said. 

Predictability and farming do not go together. Charlebois says that CEA could be part of a solution for Canada, a country which imports most of its produce – a fact that makes us vulnerable. "Covid-19 got a lot of provinces and the country to think differently about food and producing food all year round."   

He notes that the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie is currently working with Quebec and New Brunswick on food security projects. "A lot of those projects have to do with controlled environment agriculture," he said. 

Is it sustainable?

At the other end of spectrum is traditional outdoor farming, such as that done at Pfenning's Organic Farm in New Hamburg. Jenn Pfenning sees such vertical farms as "a supplement" to our food supply, though she wonders about the input side of such an energy-intensive operation. 

"There's nothing wrong with vertical farming with specific crops, but how do you keep them healthy and growing without taking up too many resources in terms of having to heat it and light it? We struggle to produce greenhouse crops year-round as it is," says Pfenning. 

She says microgreens are one thing but maturing a head of lettuce or kale, and moreso tomatoes or peppers, is quite another. "It requires more than we can provide through artificial light." 

GoodLeaf believes they have the technology to make nutrient-dense greens while acknowledging that it does require a lot of energy to keep the plant operating 24/7 and 365 days. They add, though, that their carbon footprint is less than conventional farming with energy emissions significantly reduced by the fact they use no fertilizers and the produce does not require long trips in vehicles in order to get to market. 

Proponents of controlled environment agriculture like Charlebois say "it must be part of the future of Canadian agriculture." Around the world, the amount of arable, nutrient-rich land has diminished and demand for healthy foods has increased. 

Vertical farms can also coincide with urban renewal planning that includes retrofitting old factories, which could help rejuvenate a city's core — if the capital is there — and be a local source of fresh food. 

A worker checks on some microgreens at a GoodLeaf Farms facility. The company has a vertical farming facility near Guelph. (GoodLeaf Farms)

A growth opportunity

While a lot of our produce for much of the year is trucked in many thousands of kilometres from Mexico and the southern United States, these microgreens are local. 

Charlebois says that as these technologies evolve, and if a vertical farm can be financially viable and sell its products at a competitive price, it could be a future model for allowing different markets in Canada to grow greens and give retailers an opportunity to sell fresh local produce. 

"Think of the north," said Charlebois. "This is the type of technology you need to make sure communities in the north become food secure."   

Whether or not vertical farming is a supplement and hybrid-type of farming, and despite the energy and capital required, GoodLeaf has that growth opportunity in their sights, Needham says. 

"They're growing fruits and vegetables in other countries, and we will follow suit because we have heightened awareness of food security when it comes to fruit and vegetable production in Canada." 


Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

CBC-KW food columnist Andrew Coppolino is author of Farm to Table (Swan Parade Press) and co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare (Greenwood Press). He is the 2022 Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer-in-Residence at the Stratford Chefs School. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewcoppolino.


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