Vertical Farming Operation Takes on Challenge of Providing Local Food to Urban Communities
January 17, 2013 | Melonie Magruder
In a world where climate change continues to wreak more and more havoc on growing seasons and arable land becomes increasingly scarce and expensive, viable farming alternatives are the Holy Grail of sustainable agriculturists.
Local Garden of Vancouver, BC, a subsidiary of the vertical farming technology company Alterrus, is the latest challenger to the intractable problem of providing local fresh produce for future urban communities.
The company (they only launched production three months ago) is using the VertiCrop™ growing system created by Alterrus to raise baby greens, arugula, basil, spinach, kales and bok choy in a system that cultivates 10 times the amount of crops as traditional agriculture in the same amount of space, but uses 90 percent less water and terrain. And it does so on top of a parking garage in the middle of downtown Vancouver.
“Vancouver has a municipal mandate to become the Greenest City on the Planet by 2020,” Local Garden Marketing Director Rae Abbott said. “So the city has been very supportive of our efforts. Our idea is to provide all the green produce local restaurants and stores need, so our current customers are all within about 10 miles of our facility.”
That’s fresh. And the fact that all produce is packed on-site and delivered to customers from large, electrically powered, tricycle-type vehicles lowers the company’s carbon footprint even further.
It’s not just the sustainability of the project that Vancouverians embrace. Abbott said there is a strong local food movement that means high patronage of mom-and-pop eateries versus chain cafes, and a community garden ethic that has seen a thousand raised beds sprout on public parklands lining local riverbanks.
British Columbia’s microclimate allows for abundant agriculture June through November and the area is known for tree fruits, corn, strawberries and squashes. Temperatures can reach 110 degrees in the summer and plunge into deep freeze in the winters. Local year-round produce could go far to eliminating the carbon impact created by fresh vegetables shipped north from Mexico and California.
Local Garden and its parent company Alterrus aim to change that paradigm by using the VertiCrop™ system, a hydroponic vertical farming technology that consists of stacked growing trays, some 18 feet high, which rotate on a conveyer to capture the optimal amount of sunlight. Their hydroponic system uses about 10 percent of the water required for soil-based agriculture and eliminates the need for pesticides. Key nutrients can be added in specific dosages and there is no run off, as with land-based agriculture.
And the fact that such systems are installed in what is typically unused urban real estate makes the equation that much more palatable. Local Garden effectively built a 6,000 square foot greenhouse on the “top floor of a car park that never really saw much action,” said Donovan Woollard Strategic Advisor at Alterrus. “So it’s making sustainable usage of real estate in a densely populated area. The city is our landlord and it’s a straight business relationship with them.”
And while the city of Vancouver offers modest tax incentives to businesses that locate there, sustainable agriculture businesses are not necessarily coddled with governmental support in Canada yet.
“Our provincial agriculture minister visited us recently, but basically, we’ll live or die on our technology,” Woollard said. “Fortunately, it all seems to be working well so far.”
While Woollard hedged on describing what it would take financially to launch a similar venture, he said that Local Garden should be operating at full-scale capacity very soon and achieve profitability within three to four years.
As for the challenges he faces as a corporate entity, he said public expectation is perhaps the greatest hurdle.
“There are a lot of eyes on urban farming,” Woollard said. “Everyone’s looking for that commercially viable shining example of sustainable agriculture. We have to live up to that. Our technology is our advantage.”