Ontario’s first vertical farm produces local herbs

Herbs have proved more profitable for the company than growing salad greens

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An unobtrusive warehouse in a commercial-industrial area of Burlington houses Ontario’s first year-round supplier of locally grown herbs.

Back40growers is also Ontario’s first vertical farm. Vertical farming is an emerging production system – plants are grown entirely indoors without sunlight and everything from temperature and humidity to light, irrigation and nutrients is precisely controlled.

Why it matters: As climate volatility grows, vertical farming could offer production guarantees and food security as well as lower agriculture’s environmental footprint.

“The main advantage of vertical farming is full control over the production process and you can produce huge yield on a single layer independent of whether the soil is good or not,” said Prof. Leo Marcelis, chair of Horticulture and Product Physiology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “What is also important is the guarantee that on a specific day of the year I can grow that many kilograms of a specific quality – prediction is easier than in open field.”

Back40growers started its operations in 2018 with a state-of-the-art facility that recycles 98 per cent of its water, collects transpired water from the air with dehumidifiers, uses a sophisticated air-management system to create a pathogen-free environment, and follows organic plant-growing principles.

“We use less than two per cent of the water that a conventional farm does, and we’re 17 times more efficient per square foot than an outdoor farm,” said senior business development manager Bob Legault. “And (the food’s) travel miles are down because we are local, all of which contributes to the sustainability of what we do.”

Back40growers uses a tower-based growing system. Plugs are planted in a soilless growing medium made out of recycled bottles and towers are placed vertically side by side in rows inside the facility. A single tower’s capacity varies according to the crop, holding 30 chive or 12 basil plants, for example.

Production includes basil, mint, cilantro, thyme, sage, rosemary, oregano, chives, parsley and tarragon.

“This is where the demand is. We wanted to do lettuces, but selling herbs is more profitable,” says head grower and manager of farm operations, John Hattingh. “We mimic the natural growing cycle and we optimize every plant as it should be for sun, water, and nutrients. We don’t have drought, rain or bugs.”

Herbs are available in small packages, which back40growers says reduces food waste as few people ever use a whole clump of herbs as they are traditionally available in a grocery store.
photo: Courtesy back40growers

Software helps manage crop scheduling and traceability, as well as conditions inside the facility; if the system detects an abnormality, such as a spike in humidity, Hattingh receives a text message so he can address the issue before it causes a problem in the crop.

“If we see disease in a tower, we can take the whole tower out, which limits any major outbreaks,” he added. “And because we control humidity and airflow, it makes it harder for pathogens to establish.”

Herbs are sold under the Sprigs Premium Herbs brand at Rowe Farms, Denningers’, Commissos and most recently Longo’s, who’ve just launched the product in Burlington, Oakville and Mississauga.

Most fresh herbs in Canada are currently imported and sold in plastic clamshell packages or fresh bundles. Sprigs, however, are sold in small eight and 11 gram packets, which Legault says was done very deliberately to meet market demand.

“Food waste is a big problem and most people buy herbs for just one dish – but a clam holds 40 grams, which is too much, and most consumers don’t need that big fresh bundle,” he explained.

The company spent months perfecting its packaging, settling on micro-perforated bags of recyclable plastic that allow the herbs to breathe. This provides up to 17 days of shelf life per package, according to Legault, although the average is in the 10- to 12-day range depending on conditions, handling and herb varieties. Herbs go from cut to store in about 72 hours.

Back40growers is partnering with University of Guelph start-up FloNergia, developer of airlift pump technology that aerates and circulates water simultaneously and uses 50 to 70 per cent less energy than conventional systems, for a new aquaponics venture where waste from farmed fish is used as food for plants that then cleanse the water for re-use.

They’re starting with tilapia and are currently looking for a partner to buy the market weight fish.

“We’re a farm first, but aquaponics is the engine that will drive it,” Legault said. “What we’re doing is the future of farming – local and sustainable.”

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