Vertical farmers say they can play bigger role as Ontario farmland disappears. Critics aren't so sure

As the province loses farmland to development and urban centres continue to grow, vertical farmers say they can be a part of the solution. But critics say vertical farming is no substitute for traditional agriculture.

Province losing the equivalent of 1 average family farm per day, 2021 census says

Lenny Louis is the CEO of Vision Greens, which runs a vertical farm facility in Welland, Ont., and has plans to expand across the country. (Laura Pedersen/CBC)

Lenny Louis says when people visit his vertical farming facility in Welland, Ont., they're often surprised by how much produce comes out of that one squat, two-storey building.

But inside, things look very different. Stacked rows of lettuce, arugula and basil grow 365 days a year, and, Louis says, the produce travels less than 200 kilometres to consumers. 

"We're using five per cent of the land of traditional farming," the CEO of Vision Greens said.

Vertical farming is defined as growing plants indoors in a stacked formation and a controlled environment. Vision Greens is equipped to grow 700,000 pounds of food a year and its produce is available to consume within 24 hours of harvesting. While Louis recognizes there are still some products that can't be grown in vertical farms, he believes it's a big part of the food industry's future.

"This is the evolution of farming," Louis told CBC News. 

"This is about food safety, food sustainability and food security, which is what we need as Canadians," he said, adding their produce is grown without pesticides and herbicides. They're also not genetically modified, he says.

Data from the 2021 Census of Agriculture shows Ontario is losing 319 acres of farmland daily, equal to the loss of one average family farm. The province says it's encouraging municipalities to work with the Ontario government to identify and protect vital agricultural land. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture is pushing for more protection of farmland, and says buildings can't replace the output and environmental benefits of conventional farms. But those running vertical farms say they could be part of the solution. 

Shane Jones is the farm manager for the Barrett Centre of Innovation in Sustainable Urban Agriculture at Durham College. (Laura Pedersen/CBC)

Vertical farming isn't the only answer to all of our food needs, but it's a part of the puzzle, Shane Jones says.

"It's effective because not only can we take a small footprint of space and make it more productive than a single layer of farm, but also because we are able to control the environment to maximize the growth potential of any one plant," said Jones, the farm manager with The Barrett Centre of Innovation in Sustainable Urban Agriculture at Durham College's Whitby campus.

Jones says vertical farmers accomplish that by giving crops "the exact sunlight recipe, the exact nutrients, and bringing up the carbon dioxide to a point where plants can be super efficient."

He says costs and technology in the industry still have a way to go, but there are benefits to bringing farming back into urban spaces.

"Within a week period, we can turn out 700 heads of lettuce that go into our food production, our culinary program and food box programs," he said.

Derrik Stevenson, who runs a vertical farm facility in Oshawa called Mighty Harvest, says the pandemic put a spotlight on Canada's reliance on imported products.

Mixed greens are seen growing at Mighty Harvest's vertical farm in Oshawa, Ont. (Laura Pedersen/CBC)

"In the midst of COVID, there was obviously a lot challenges with supply chains," Stevenson said. He says he started Mighty Harvest to grow leafy greens closer to home.

"Leafy greens have a very short shelf life so shipping product from California, by the time it gets here, it only has a few days in your fridge." 

Stevenson says it is an energy intensive business, using LED technology to replicate sunlight, and that's where the cost comes in.

"There are possibilities for the government to further work with vertical farms to lower that cost, a lot of other agricultural sectors get subsidies," he said. He says if there were more vertical farms in the province, it would allow local farmers to offer competitive pricing, compared to produce coming in from the United States.

"That would be better for the consumer in the long run and better for our local economy."

In a written statement, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs says its been working with the vertical farming sector to provide supports in areas such as production and pest management issues, crop diversification and new technology. 

The ministry says it's also funding research designed to provide vertical farmers with a better understanding of which crops would be best for the domestic market.

The ministry also acknowledges Ontario's farmland is critical to the success of its agri-food sector. 

"In 2021, Ontario's agri-food industry contributed $47.6 billion in GDP to the provincial economy, an increase of 5.8 per cent from 2020," the statement reads.

Vertical farms not the solution: OFA

Crispin Colvin, executive director at the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, says the organization is very concerned about farmland getting lost to development, urbanization and factories.

"The problem is once you lose farmland, you lose it forever, and it never comes back," Colvin said. The loss has an impact on the environment as well, he adds.

Colvin says vertical farming uses a lot of energy, and "is certainly not a solution by any stretch of the imagination."

"It's fine on a small scale right now, the technology hasn't expanded. You also have to take into account the urban municipalities that require zoning bylaws."

Crispin Colvin, the executive director of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, says vertical farms are no substitute for traditional farmland. 'The problem is once you lose farmland, you lose it forever, and it never comes back,' he says. (Submitted by the OFA)

Colvin argues the facilities can't grow as much as a traditional farm,and they don't contribute to wildlife habitats.

"I see deer running through my fields all the time. We have some mitigation of climate change that is done through agriculture and all of that is lost when you have a building."

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture's current campaign, Home Grown, aims to help develop a plan to guide responsible development in Ontario, ensuring growth to provide housing and support local tax bases while also protecting productive farmland.

Colvin says vertical farms do have some advantages when it comes to local growth, but they can't replace what conventional farming does.

"It will never replace the loss of farmland. The solution is to protect our farm land. That's the ultimate solution."

But Louis believes both have a place in the future of food.

"There will still be the opportunity for greenhouses and traditional farming," he said.

"I don't think vertical farming is the only thing we should rely on, but I think you will see a big transition to vertical farming because we are losing a lot of arable land."


Talia Ricci is a TV, radio and web reporter at CBC Toronto. She enjoys covering offbeat human interest stories and exposing social justice issues. Talia is also an avid traveller and photographer. Her photography has appeared in various publications and exhibits. She lives in Toronto's east end where she enjoys reading and going on long walks to discover the beauty in the city.