Automated Guelph vertical farm supplies retailers with local, leafy greens

The newly opened farm grows crops 40 to 50 per cent faster than traditional crops

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An automated vertical farm in south Guelph is now fully operational. GoodLeaf Farms has the capacity to produce 800,000 units of locally grown leafy greens for Ontario retailers — including Loblaw banners, Longo’s and Whole Foods — 12 months of the year.

“It’s really unique for Canada that we can grow 365 days of the year, and we can fill a gap in the market without going up against traditional farming,” said account manager Jacquie Needham during a tour of the facility on Sept. 15.

Why it matters: The pandemic has heightened demand for locally grown foods less dependent on sometimes fragile global supply chains.

GoodLeaf’s crops include baby arugula and baby kale, along with four types of micro greens: pea shoots, Asian blend, spicy mustard medley and arugula. While consumers are familiar with “baby” leafy greens, they’re less comfortable with what to do with micro greens, admits Needham.

“Micros are a learning curve for consumers, but they can be used to add nutritional elements to meals as garnishes, in salads or sandwiches, or as something you add to a smoothie,” she said. “People are cooking more at home right now and experimenting more.”

Vertical farming is an innovative process that naturally grows plants with hydroponics under specialized LED lights designed to maximize photosynthesis. In the GoodLeaf facility, carbon dioxide, water, nutrition, and light are carefully programmed and monitored for each specific crop.

Jacquie Needham, of GoodLeaf Farms talked about the company’s products during a recent tour at the facility. photo: Lilian Schaer

According to Needham, that makes their growth cycles an estimated 40 to 50 per cent shorter than traditional crops. From seed to store takes about 12 days for the micro greens and about 22 days for the baby leafy greens. That includes testing every crop for contaminants before shipping to ensure they’re safe — important at a time when North American produce recalls make headlines and can have far-reaching economic and health consequences.

Needham also pointed to the sustainability of vertical farming production. The GoodLeaf facility uses 95 per cent less water than a traditional farm, doesn’t use pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides, and has no run-off issues that could impact local water supplies. The production is not organic, however.

“We are not certified organic because our production does not use soil, but we feel we have a cleaner product than organic because in addition to being pesticide-free, it’s not exposed to wind or rain, for example,” she said. “It’s an education piece for consumers.”

GoodLeaf Farms was founded in 2011 in Nova Scotia by Gregg Curwin. That original Nova Scotia farm has now been converted into a research and development centre for the company.

The new Guelph facility employs about 50 people who work seven days a week and it’s the city’s research expertise and proximity to the Greater Toronto Area that brought GoodLeaf to the region.

The GoodLeaf building is located in an industrial area in south Guelph. photo: Lilian Schaer

“Ontario is a big hub for consumers, retail and food service, so we were looking for a place close to the market so we can get product to people as quickly as possible,” said Executive Director of Operations Juanita Moore. “And the University of Guelph has been a great help with research.”

Research conducted in controlled environments

GoodLeaf is working with university researchers on a number of horticulture and food safety projects, including studies on controlled environments and light spectrums. The company received $4.4 million in start-up innovation funding from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s AgriInnovation Program.

“I’ve been the mayor (of Guelph) for six years now and this is one of my “wow” moments,” said Guelph mayor Cam Guthrie following the tour. “Guelph is embracing the circular food economy and we are seeing it in action here. It’s a testament to what Guelph has to offer.”

Guelph MP Lloyd Longfield, who was also on the tour, pointed to vertical farming’s potential to help address climate change and food security issues in both urban and northern or Indigenous communities.

“This type of agriculture is consistent and gives predictability to the producers and it would be interesting to see if it could be used more widely,” he said.

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