Is vertical farming winter’s answer to the high cost of imported produce?
Vision Greens Vertical Farms | David Israelson |
IMAGE: Vertical farms like Welland, Ont.-based Vision Greens require less land or water than open air farms and use low-energy, artificially lit warehouses to produce non-pesticide leafy green vegetables. VISION GREENS
Vision Greens, a vertical farm in Welland, Ont., believes it has a solution to the high cost of green vegetables in winter-bound Canada – grow up.
Vertical farming proponents say these farms can supply greens all year to Canadians at prices that compete favourably with foreign-grown products, helping to keep grocery costs stable and making the country less reliant on imported food.
At a time when agricultural property prices have risen more than 20 per cent since 2022 and Ontario alone is reported to be losing some 319 acres of farmland every dayto development and sprawl, vertical farms don’t need much land or water, using low-energy, artificially lit warehouses to produce non-pesticide leafy green vegetables.
“Our current 4,000-square-feet growing footprint produces an amount of food equal to what you could grow on 12 and a half acres,” says Lenny Louis, chief executive officer of Vision Greens.
“We built one vertical farm module to see if we could get price parity with produce trucked in from California, and we feel we’re there. So now we’re in the market trying to raise funds to expand to four times our current size,” he says.
The company raised $7-million to start its farm in 2022 and is now looking for about $25-million more, which will likely require sharing some equity in the company, Mr. Louis says. Vision Greens is one of several vertical operators across Canada that believe the sector is ready to take more farming inside.
“We have been building one of the largest vertical farm operations in the world, quietly, right here in Canada,” says Barry Murchie, president and CEO of GoodLeaf Farms, based in Guelph, Ont.
GoodLeaf has a research and development facility in Truro, N.S., as well as a farm in Guelph, which is about 50,000 square feet of growth space. It also has a new farm in Calgary and another in Montreal with 100,000 square feet of growth space each.
The Calgary farm started shipping produce last November and the Montreal facility is set to begin shipping at the end of this month, Mr. Murchie says.
Maybe you can’t raise a herd of cattle in a building, but growing leafy vegetables and micro-greens vertically makes sense in Canada, says Bahram Rashti, co-founder and CEO of UP Vertical Farms in Pitt Meadows, B.C.
“More than 97 per cent of all leafy greens [lettuce, kale, spinach, etc.] in North America is grown in California and Arizona fields,” Mr. Rashti says. “Canada imports more than 90 per cent of the greens we consume, and that’s just wrong.”
According to Mr. Rashti, one acre of vertical farming can produce as much lettuce as 350 acres can on an open-air farm because “we shorten the life cycle of the product, we grow 12 levels high and, because the LED light we use to grow is controlled, we eliminate the competition among the plants for sunlight.”
Mr. Louis says it’s not hard to locate sites for vertical farms.
“You can fit one into any typical warehouse box. We grow lettuce in stacks of up to 12 levels and we’re planning to go up to 15, but it’s still just 25 feet high,” he says.
“The key for vertical farm properties is to locate close enough to major centres for distribution. In Ontario, our produce is in Metro and Food Basic stores, which is important because it shows that we can compete with imported produce in regular-priced and discount groceries, not just the premium ones,” he says.
There is some government support for vertical farming in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec, says Murray G. Coleman, partner and co-head of agribusiness, food and beverage group at Bennett Jones in Calgary. For example, the Sustainable Canadian Agricultural Partnership (Sustainable CAP) is a multibillion-dollar, five-year agreement between the federal, provincial and territorial governments that provides funding which includes support for adaptions of robotics equipment used in vertical farms.
Vertical farmers still have to contend with a range of regulatory and environmental issues before they can set up, he adds.
“There are land use rules, local laws and regulations, and zoning questions, such as whether a vertical farm should have to follow the rules of a typical high-occupancy development,” he says.
“Another important issue is energy consumption,” Mr. Coleman says. Unlike greenhouses, which rely more on natural light, the vertical farm crops showered with light from LED bulbs may be energy-efficient, but they still require electric power.
Mr. Murchie says GoodLeaf’s facilities have about 50 per cent less of the carbon footprint of open-air farms that grow the same amount of produce.
It would be nice to see more government support for vertical farming, Mr. Louis says, but government funding is not a “make-or-break” proposition.” He and Mr. Murchie agree that the sector is growing, but Canadians shouldn’t expect a massive expansion of vertical farms across the country.
The interiors have to be built to precise specifications, he says, “and when we do that, it works. In Calgary this month it was minus 38 outside and in our growing area inside we didn’t even have to turn on our backup heat.”