Food, water, shelter—as far as we’ve come as the human race, it seems the very basics of day-to-day living are still on shaky ground, perhaps even more now than ever.
Climate swings are leaving some homes in ashes, others drowned out. Water is quickly becoming recognized as not necessarily an infinite resource. And food is itself now loaded with question: Where does it come from? How was it made/grown? How safe is it?
One of the biggest concerns is source: According to the David Suzuki Foundation, the average meal travels 1,200 km (750 miles) from the farm to plate, emitting massive amounts of greenhouse gases along the way, not to mention losing precious nutrients in its journey to your home.
Most people will agree that locally sourced food is better for you and better for the environment. Growing your own and choosing local farm-fresh fare can help mitigate matters, but what if you’re living in the space-challenged city? And what about Canada’s winters, which make it prohibitive to grow outdoors in much of the country for much of the year?
Two Ontario producers are betting everything they’ve got on a new, urban, indoor vertical farming model using aquaponic systems, which offer a more sustainable, accessible solution to traditional agricultural farming.
The future of farming
Mississauga urban farm Aqua Greens (aquagreens.ca) is one of the companies offering a blueprint for the future of farming and bringing fresh fare to our biggest, busiest cities.
“Local is trumping organic; people want a local product,” says Pablo Alvarez, co-founder of Aqua Greens, which provides nutrient-rich, locally grown organic greens and tilapia to grocery stores and restaurants across Toronto. “There’s no spraying; it’s a controlled environment. You’re supporting something local, and the local economy. Plus, anything grown locally will have higher nutrients.”
“When you buy strawberries from California, how long are they in a truck? By the time they reach the shelves, they’ve lost half their nutritional value. A plant receives 20 percent of its nutrients in the last days of its life, and yet they’re picked before their full harvest, then ripen on the way to the store, which is why they don’t taste as good,” explains Alvarez.
To grow its food, Aqua Greens uses an aquaponic system, which cultivates fish and plants together in a recirculating, closed-loop ecosystem. Instead of using soil, the plant roots are grown in nutrient-rich, highly oxygenated water fed by fish waste. Natural bacterial cycles are used to convert fish waste into plant nutrients, and plants in turn clean and filter the water that returns to the fish environment.
Not only does the indoor aquaponic model offer growers a way to get around increasingly volatile climate change conditions and grow food year-round, but it also offers a more sustainable, water-friendly solution to agriculture.
“We use 98 percent less water than traditional agriculture,” Alvarez says. “You have the issues in California. Ninety percent of our leafy greens are grown in Arizona—are we contributing to their drought? Water especially will be a huge issue in our futures. You can see it now.”
Alvarez and his partner, Craig Petten, had 25 years under their belts in hospitality when they decided to go back to school to study sustainability.
“We were both approaching 40 and had a common interest in sustainability and a passion for food. It’s what ignited this whole journey for us,” Alvarez says.
The friends started researching and honed in on sustainable food systems around the world, in particular urban farming. “We’re importing food from other places in the world and that isn’t sustainable; we need to grow food for ourselves, and indoor farming allows that to happen. Urban farming allows cities to provide food for cities,” Alvarez says.
In their research, they came across aquaponics, and the rest, as they say, is history. “Aquaponics is really the most efficient way to grow food, and the most economical and sustainable,” Alvarez says.
To prepare themselves for their new venture, Alvarez and Petten went to aqua grower seminars and surrounded themselves with mentors. “We visited about 10 farms to absorb as much as we could,” Alvarez says.
Still, their indoor farm came with challenges their homework didn’t prepare them for, including finding a property owner who would let them rent the space: many were concerned about humidity and what they might be growing there.
“We were also almost stopped by the City of Mississauga because they didn’t know what aquaponics was and because we didn’t fall into industrial, commercial or office space. They had to revise the zoning of the space to allow for agriculture,” Alvarez says.
In addition to the aquaponics-based system, another important feature of their urban farm is its stacked design. “What we do is vertical farming. With conventional agriculture, you’re using length and width; with vertical, we’re using length, width and height, so we’re maximizing square footage,” Alvarez says. For this reason, “Every acre of vertical farming is equivalent to 10 acres in conventional farming,” he adds.
While indoor farming is something anyone can do anywhere, making it an exciting option for growers the world over, it does require a significant financial commitment. “The initial cost is huge, but after that it starts paying off, especially as it becomes more popular and the light technology becomes more affordable,” says Alvarez, who welcomes a rise in urban farms and indoor growers even if it means more competition. “There were a handful of farms when we first started and now we see a lot more. If we had something to do with that, that’s great. Our mission is to inspire others to do it themselves,” he says.
Today, the 3,000-square-foot Mississauga facility grows approximately 20,000 plants a month, including lettuces, spring mixes and basil. “We have 4,000 fish in the system. They’re the engine of the system,” says Alvarez. The company retails to Whole Foods and a handful of independent stores.
“The goal is to disrupt the flow of food coming in. There’s room for all of us to flourish and showcase what vertical farming can do. It’s really exciting. You can see this wave of pride going in the city,” says Alvarez. “It’s an important movement to keep going, not just for our business but for the planet.”
Growing up is good to do
“Most of the herbs sold in stores are coming from foreign countries, thousands of miles away,” says Bob Legault, senior business development manager of Back40growers (back40growers.ca). “By the time we get the product, it’s two to three weeks old. By the time it’s on our plate, the nutrient level is down significantly. Sure, we can grow here in the summer for a couple months, but with us, you’re getting 100 percent local year-round.”
Legault explains that the Burlington warehouse is home to 7,500 square feet of growing area, and each square foot produces 17 times more than the traditional farm, thanks to its innovative vertical layout. The crop growth cycles, too, are significantly reduced due to optimal conditions, he says. “We will be able to produce half a million pounds of produce per year.”
“There are two ways of vertical farming: shelves that go as high as possible in warehouses, but you need scissor lifts, and that can be a bit dangerous. Also, people need to be trained and certified, which is an added cost. Instead, we use towers that are eight feet and grow the produce out of the tower,” explains Back40growers president Scott Byers. “It might sound unconventional—produce growing sideways—but it works quite effectively, and our people can do everything standing on the ground.”
Plants are tucked into towers filled with a recycled plastic bottle medium, which allows more oxygen to reach the roots and provides a habitat for beneficial micro-organisms. A wick runs all the way down, carrying water from the top of the tower to the bottom, where water is collected, UV treated, filtered and recirculated. As for the aquaponics system, it’s made up of 11 tanks and 6,600 fish.
“Running an aquaponic system is expensive now—the startup costs are high—but it will be cheaper to operate in the long run,” says Byers. “We’ll use less than two percent of the water a normal farm our size uses. We also came up with a system that uses 50 percent less electricity for lighting.”
Right now, the company is growing a number of items for retailers and local restaurants, but packaged herbs and microgreens is its main focus for retail—that and portion size. “Food waste costs Canada $30 billion a year. Portion sizing helps with food waste and people throwing out what they don’t need or don’t use. Our portion-size bag helps with food waste,” says Legault.
For now, Back40growers retailers include some smaller chain stores and independent businesses. The team includes a head grower, John Hattingh, who specializes in organic farming, and an aquaculture specialist, Michael Pfundt. Both come from the University of Guelph. “There’s no program on indoor vertical farming with aquaponics, so we’re trying to affiliate ourselves with the university and might start an apprenticeship or co-op placement program in the future,” says Byers.
While the growth of the cannabis industry has delayed the arrival of some materials, “The biggest issue we have right now is selling live fish,” says Legault, who explains that there aren’t many buyers who can take live fish, as they don’t have the room or the ability to process the fish. “After a fish gets a certain size, we have to get rid of them. Eventually, they stop producing a good amount of waste. They also get too big for the tanks.”
Down the road they plan to have a hatchery, but right now they are buying their fish from an organic fishery called Sandplains Aquaculture in Mossley, Ontario, approximately one hour from the farm. “We try to buy everything local,” says Byers.
With the opportunity to have locally grown produce that offers a tastier, more nutritious product year-round, it’s no wonder producers are getting so excited about indoor urban farming. From vertical growing to aquaponics, the industry is just getting started, and we, for one, can’t wait to see where it goes.
An editor with 15-plus years in the publishing business, Catalina Margulis’ byline spans travel, food, decor, parenting, fashion, beauty, health and business. When she’s not chasing after her three young children, she can be found painting her home, taming her garden and baking muffins.