WELLAND — The technology behind vertical farming was originally developed with space travel in mind. Researchers, attempting to minimize the amount of real estate and materials needed for interplanetary travellers to grow food on long-haul trips, found that the tech could work on Earth. Despite the seemingly futuristic possibilities, vertical farming is becoming a practical reality in southern Ontario: a new vertical farm in Welland’s Industrial Zone had its first harvest last week. The facility, which opened in September, practises a high-tech way of growing food indoors that proponents say saves energy and will help improve food security and safety.
Whereas traditional farming involves planting across a wide area, vertical farms build upwards, stacking plants in layers. Run by Elevate Farms, a company that grows and sells produce in vertical farms, the facility in Welland is about 1,860 square metres, 465 of which is growing space. Plants are stacked 13 layers high (about 7.5 metres) and grow with their roots in water, rather than soil. They get their light from LEDs, which can be adjusted to produce changes in the plants’ colours and nutrients. According to Elevate’s chief strategy officer, Travis Kanellos, the farm’s goal, for now, is to produce and market leafy greens, such as lettuce, arugula and basil; eventually, it will branch out to more products. Kanellos says the farm should be able to produce an estimated 454,000 kilograms of greens per year: “That facility will have a capacity of 1 million pounds annually out of a 5,000 square-foot box. And that’s our quote-unquote standard facility.”
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McGill University professor Mark Lefsrud, an expert in food security and urban agriculture, says that, while vertical farming currently accounts for less than 1 per cent of all farming in Canada, within 20 years, “I’d expect it to slowly creep up to around 20 per cent of the total market.”
In a March report, Ontario’s Greenbelt Foundation identifies vertical farming as a priority to expand fruit and vegetable growth in the region and lists six vertical farms operating in Ontario (not including Elevate Farms): one in Kingsville, two in Guelph, and three in Toronto. All grow leafy greens, herbs, and microgreens (such as kale). The report notes that global investment in vertical farms is estimated at US$3.1 billion; about a third of that takes place in North America.
To Youbin Zheng, a professor and expert in controlled environment facilities at the University of Guelph, building more vertical farms in southern Ontario makes sense: “If you look at the Greenbelt and Golden Horseshoe, our land is limited, very limited, but our population has been increasing. If you grow vegetables in the field, there are only a few months in a year you can produce outside. If you grow inside with vertical farming, what you can get is just enormous.” The Greenbelt Foundation report states that, by building up, a vertical farm can produce the equivalent of more than 4,000 square metres of greenhouse space using just 185 square metres of floor space.
Proponents also cite the significant benefits of vertical farming when it comes to food security and safety. The farms can be close to major population centres, reducing the need for transportation. In the case of Elevate Farms, Welland’s easy access to transportation routes means lower transportation costs and fresher, more nutrient-rich food for the consumer. Closer monitoring of produce and the fact that it stays within one country’s border may also reduce the risk of contamination. Before the pandemic, Kanellos says, “we had numerous outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella in different products across the supply chain — and we're going to eliminate that.”
Despite the significant savings when it comes to land and energy, nobody is suggesting that vertical farms will replace traditional farms anytime soon. For Elevate Farms, Kanellos says, “the play is not to try and replace traditional agriculture” but to supplement the existing market with what the farm produces.
University of Guelph professor Mike Dixon is a leading expert in vertical farming who also works with space agencies including the Canadian Space Agency and NASA. Dixon leads the school’s Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility and advises Intravision Group, the research and development company behind Elevate Farms. “I've been long quoted as saying the next worst place after the surface of the moon to try to grow plants is a snowbank in northern Canada,” he says. While food-insecure communities such as First Nations in Ontario’s north could benefit from vertical farms, experts point out that building them is costly. Labour is expensive, and energy costs are high: lighting accounting for about 40 per cent of capital costs, as the Greenbelt Foundation notes. “First Nations communities have a hard time covering this without serious subsidies from the government,” Lefsrud says.
Another hurdle for vertical farms is diversifying what they produce. Josh Siteman, the Canadian managing director of Intravision Group, calls leafy greens the “tipping point for vertical farming,” which proved there was a market. Zheng notes that greens are relatively easy to produce and have short growth cycles, meaning that if something goes wrong, it’s not a huge loss to start over. But there are only so many greens a person can eat.
“I'm kind of sick and tired of people growing lettuce,” Dixon says jokingly. “Lettuce is not food until you add the ranch dressing. But everybody and their dog — I would say 95 per cent of the entrepreneurial ventures in horticulture [within] controlled environments — are growing lettuce or some variation on a salad green that has marginal nutritional value, in most cases.” Other popular produce, such as fruits and legumes, take more time to grow and require more nutrition, Dixon says, and harvesting them is more challenging and costly.
Lefsrud notes that there are companies working to produce berries and legumes in vertical farms, and Kanellos says Elevate Farms will eventually move in that direction. He also says the business plans to expand to more Canadian locations but declines to share which ones.
Dixon says that artificial-intelligence systems will be the next big game-changer for vertical farms, allowing growers to work more efficiently and precisely, thereby opening up more possibilities. “The imaging technology that we can bring to bear even now can detect nutrient imbalances, water stress, all kinds of abiotic and biotic stress responses in plants, and affect a management strategy to mitigate those problems long before you and I would ever know that there was a problem. Even a skilled horticulturist would not detect some of the kinds of nutrient imbalances,” he says. “We’ll evolve away from lettuce.”
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