Vertical indoor factory herb farming is here and some traditional farmers don’t like it
By Hank Daniszewski
and Nelson Zandbergen
GUELPH – A huge warehouse bathed in pink LED light and filled with 10-metre high stacks of trays is maintained largely by robots.
For Halifax-based GoodLeaf Farms, their new vertical farm in Guelph is the next frontier in agriculture. The produce is small in size but high in nutrients – tiny micro and baby greens including pea shoots, arugula, kale, radish and spring mix.
Manager Shawn Woods says the 45,000 sq. ft. facility is really more of a factory than a farm. A big grow room at the heart is surrounded by other departments such as seeding, germination, harvest, packaging and shipping. “We don’t tend to compete with local farmers in Canada. Our competition is the big factory farms in California, Arizona and Mexico,” he said.
But some conventional farmers are not amused. Jo Slegers has operated Slegers Greens near Strathroy in Western Ontario since 1987 and produces lettuce, herbs and microgreens.
Slegers said produce is a “dog-eat-dog” industry and the new GoodLeaf facility is “definitely” a direct competitor for his farm and a network of similar small businesses scattered throughout the province. “Vertical farming in general is bad news for a lot of farmers,” he said.
Slegers said he does not believe vertical farms are sustainable in the long run because they do not generate the profits expected by investors. He said that several in Canada have already failed.
Slegers’ produce is certified organic, and he believes there is no substitute for produce grown in natural sunlight and real soil. He said new businesses such as GoodLeaf get a lot of attention because of the novelty factor. But he is confident that established growers like himself will survive. “We have got the experience and people like me don’t just roll and take it. We come back swinging,” said Slegers.
Dentz Orchards and Berry Farm co-owner Cathy Dentz, near Iroquois, did not take the same combative view.
“Personally, I don’t think it is a threat because I think anything that will promote made-in-Ontario — and local — is a good thing,” Dentz, who operates the 63-year-old family business with husband Calvin, told Farmers Forum.
She offered that domestic vertical grow facilities would only serve to strengthen the Ontario brand on grocery store shelves by supplying fresh produce beyond this province’s traditional growing season, ultimately benefiting traditional growers during those times of year when their superior-tasting crops are available.
While the Dentz farm is known especially for its strawberries and raspberries — many of which are retailed through grocery stores — Dentz said her view would be the same if GoodLeaf turned its attention to growing berries. They would still be Ontario-grown and thus closer to the consumer and better eating than the California alternative, once again bolstering the provincial brand.
“So if people are used to buying Ontario and buying local, if it has to be trucked less, it’s better for the environment, and you obviously don’t have to worry about border and currency issues,” she observed.
It’s the consolidation of grocery chains and food safety requirements, in Dentz’s estimation, which pose a bigger threat to smaller and conventional growers “because it is very difficult for the smaller farmer to get in.”
However, she pointed out that if the pandemic has taught the food industry anything, it’s that large, centralized production facilities are a risk to supply, and that food retailers would do well to source their produce from multiple farms to mitigate that risk. GoodLeaf could be just one of those sources.
The Guelph-based Goodleaf operation opened in 2019 but did not reach full operation until late last year. Manager Woods said GoodLeaf is planning to expand nationally with the goal of offering a local alternative to imported produce.
Woods is based in Halifax but is able to control the entire Guelph operation remotely. Seeding is done automatically using standard plastic horticultural trays filled with substrate. The batches of trays are picked up by robots and placed on racks in the dark, humid generation room before they are transferred to the grow chamber where the microgreens are flooded with a nutrient solution and mature in 6-18 days depending on the variety.
GoodLeaf is a subsidiary of TruLeaf Sustainable Agriculture which established its first pilot vertical farm in Bible Hill, Nova Scotia, in 2015. TruLeaf picked up a deep-pocketed ally in 2018 when McCain Foods invested $65 million in the company making it the dominant shareholder.