Canadian container farming system aims to grow markets

Growing indoors can help extend the production season for produce farmers

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Updated Jan. 6, 2020

A container farming start-up from Ottawa launched into the Canadian market several years ago by bringing year-round fresh produce production to northern communities. And although that continues to be a successful venture for The Growcer, the company is now finding its business shifting to customers from more southern regions.

That includes fruit and vegetable farmers looking to extend their growing season and food service companies seeking ultra-local food for their clients.

Why it matters: The availability of locally grown produce year-round extends market reach for both growers and food suppliers and ensures consistent quality and supply.

The Growcer’s “plug-n-play” hydroponic containerized growing systems are available for Arctic, desert or urban environments. About 20 are already deployed across Canada, including with companies like Chartwells that provide food services to colleges and universities. Acadia University, University of Ottawa and Calgary’s Southern Alberta Institute of Technology have Growcer units that can grow produce for the same price as ordering from Mexico, according to co-founder and CEO Corey Ellis.

“We’re talking the 100-foot farm instead of the 100-mile diet when it’s less than 100 feet from container to cafeteria,” Ellis says.

For growers, the attraction lies with being able to diversify their crop offerings and maintain customers year-round while avoiding seasonality and weather risks. Optimized for around 140 cultivars of leafy greens and herbs, one Growcer container can produce the annual one-crop equivalent of two acres of land.

This leafy lettuce mix is one of approximately 140 cultivars that can be grown in a Growcer unit. photo: Morgan Hector

“There is always the opportunity to grow outside — we’re not there to take that out of the cycle but to offer diversification,” says sales manager Bill McMillan. “We are focused on a farmer that is very seasonal and wants to extend and where a greenhouse doesn’t make sense due to cost or because it’s too cold too soon.”

Abbey Gardens, a local food hub in Haliburton Highlands, added a Growcer system to its operations this past September, growing lettuce, spinach, kale and a variety of herbs as its first crops. Half of the production supports its Community Shared Agriculture program with the other half sold through its food shop and, hopefully soon, a few local restaurants.

“We’re always looking at new ways to grow local food. We don’t have anything here that we can grow year-round – this is part of our dream and to do it in an economically viable way,” says operations manager Heather Ried.

“People are impressed with the quality, it’s very tender product. Where we are, once we get into late November, the quality of what we can get up here normally isn’t that good,” she says, adding post-sales support from the Growcer team was very helpful in their system’s successful start.

That’s what Ellis says differentiates the company from other suppliers of similar technology. Growing plants in containers is still a fairly new field that requires some specialized knowledge and support in everything from plant health and system issues to business coaching.

“Even after the sale, customers can pick up the phone and talk to someone who can help them make more money from their existing equipment — we don’t just sell them a box that grows food,” he says.

Total project investments range around $200,000 depending on individual grower scenarios with an ideal weekly crop pegged at around 450 vegetable products. Infrastructure requirements are pretty simple: 200 amp electrical service and garden hose access to fill up the fully recirculating water system.

The Growcer also provides a year’s worth of seed to start and helps customers build a schedule so they know what tasks to do when. Growers can anticipate their first harvest six weeks after start-up.

The company’s online return on investment calculator will show potential customers what they can expect specific to their operation; an average payback is anticipated in four to five years with the equipment slated to last 20 to 30 years, McMillan estimates.

Future plans for the company include launching new crop varieties, boosting efficiency and reliability of their products and making improvements to increase grower returns.

“As we’re having more conversations with farmers, we are seeing more ideas come to life about where this can fit into traditional operations,” McMillan says. “People weren’t thinking about this five years ago; we are here to help them see what that future can be.”

Updated to create clarity around a customer named in the article.

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