Indoor riding arena

Growing up –

Vertical farms give farmers precise control for optimal growth.

About nine years ago, Sturgeon County farmer Bob Holm looked up at the roof of his converted two-story ride and had an idea.

Holm worked for John Deere and built condo warehouses on Circle Drive in St. Albert in the early 2000s. Seeing a housing crash coming and noticing that food was the next big thing, he started straw man farm in 2011 to grow local food for him and his family.

“My motto is feed your family and sell the difference,” he said.

Holm said he started growing forage for his bison in his farm’s converted riding arena around 2013, thinking it would be cheaper to do so than paying $200 a bale. He soon realized that these fodder trays were all at ground level – the two floors above them were empty, wasted spaces.

“We heat the whole building. Why don’t we use this? Holm said of his thinking at the time.

Thus began Holm’s journey into vertical farming – an emerging farming practice in Alberta that sees farmers growing crops on tall indoor acreages instead of vast outdoor fields.

Today, he and his crew of 10 and numerous bumblebees grow up to 270 kilograms (600 pounds) of strawberries, arugula, spinach, beets and other fresh greens in rotating trays suspended from a hundred two-story metal towers. in this carousel.

“It is snowing but we are growing strawberries! Holm said.

diehard farmers

Vertical farming refers to indoor farming where plants are grown in a vertical system, said Nick Savidov, a senior researcher at Lethbridge College who studies such farms. This can include living towers and walls, and can involve hydroponics (plants grown in liquid instead of soil), aquaponics (where plants float in water and have fish swimming beneath them), and l aeroponics (plants grown with exposed roots fed by sprays).

Vertical farms are still very rare in Alberta, Savidov said — he estimates there are fewer than 10 commercial-scale farms in the province.

One of them is NuLeaf Farmsa 10,000 square foot facility that began operations in Calgary just months before the 2020 pandemic. Co-founder Ryan Wright said he and his team have a background in oil and gas, industrial automation and agriculture, and saw vertical farming as a way to diversify the economy.

Vertical trusses come in many shapes and sizes. Wright said NuLeaf’s system secures plants in a mesh and grows them perpendicular to the ground, and uses LED lights, sensors and computers to control the amount of water, light and nutrients delivered to each plant. . Swiss leaf farms near Busby places its plants in rotating, lighted racks housed inside air-conditioned shipping containers.

Holm said he started growing crops in truck-length pipes attached to large wooden A-frames. It was a pain to use without a ladder, so he switched to a commercial system made by sky greens out of Singapore in 2019.

Holm’s farm now consists of 100 two-story aluminum towers housed in the aforementioned converted riding hall – a warm, humid place infused with whirring fans, flowing water and yellow light from high-pressure sodium bulbs. Each tower has a dozen plant trays and a number of LED grow lights. The facility’s approximately 68,000 plants rest in a proprietary soil blend that contains biochar – a charcoal-like substance that acts like a lightweight sponge for nutrients.

Powered by an on-site natural gas generator (which Holm uses to reduce its electricity costs), the farm pumps water through waterwheels hooked to the towers to rotate the trays up and down throughout the day, ensuring even light exposure and airflow. The water then flows into the channels of each tray so that the plants can drink. Domesticated bumblebees pollinate plants and workers in lab coats harvest crops.

Why grow?

Vertical farming has been around since around the 1970s and came from Japan as a way to reduce the amount of land used for farms, Savidov said.

“We can’t stretch the surface of our planet any longer,” he said.

“To maximize your yield per square meter, you need a vertical system.”

Holm said vertical farms allow greenhouse operators to grow more produce in the same space. A typical greenhouse handles up to 12 plants per square meter, he said, citing research from the University of Florida’s horticultural science department.

“We get 216 plants per square meter,” he said.

“That’s how you make money.”

Holm said vertical farms give the farmer precise control over how much light, water and nutrients the plants receive for optimal growth, which means better yields and less waste from runoff and to evaporation. He said he could get about 10 crops a year with his towers, compared to maybe two a year in a greenhouse, for about 75% less water and fertilizer and 70% less labor. less.

There are also potential environmental benefits. Savidov said vertical farms can reduce energy consumption through transportation by bringing crops closer to their customers and can improve biosecurity by isolating crops from most pathogens. Indoor farming means Holm can grow her crops without pesticides, relying instead on sticky traps and other non-chemical controls.

Wright said NuLeaf uses an HVAC system that captures and recycles 90% of the water exhaled by crops, reducing their water needs.

“We always harvest and deliver our food the same day,” he added, which means a fresher product with a longer shelf life.

Vertical farms can enhance food security. Holm and Wright said vertical farms allow Albertans to grow crops year-round and can break our reliance on long and fragile supply chains. Savidov said these systems can be a boon to remote communities, allowing them to grow nutritious food they would otherwise have had to airlift at great expense.

Alberta once had tons of gardens but now imports almost all of its fruits and vegetables, Holm said.

“They’re stopping the border because of COVID, we’re eating cereal,” he said.

“We have to get our food back to our own country.”

Still to enter?

Cost is the main reason vertical farms have yet to take off in Alberta, advocates say The Gazette.

It costs a lot more to grow a plant in a vertical farm than a greenhouse or field because you don’t get free light and water from the sky, Savidov explained. You also have to deal with the often considerable heat and humidity created by your plants and lights – Holm said the sodium lamps on his farm are warm enough to heat his facility all winter. Most vertical farms therefore cannot compete with greenhouses on cost, unless they are targeting niche markets.

Another obstacle is the initial investment costs. Holm said his operation cost several million dollars, while Wright said many US vertical farms are between $50 million and $60 million — you have to sell a lot of lettuce to recoup that kind of investment. You also need considerable knowledge of food safety, instrumentation, electrical engineering and plant science to operate the equipment, which not all farmers have.

Savidov said provincial subsidies and regulations could help more farmers get into vertical farming.

Holm called on the province to promote vertical farms as a way to diversify the economy.

“Every gas plant we shut down should have a greenhouse producing food for Albertans,” he said.

Holm said he hopes to add more towers to his farm in the coming days, as well as renewable energy and a CO2 recycling system from his generator to boost plant growth. For now, he is enjoying the benefits of growing and eating his own food.

“Our family eats on our farm and you can see the difference in our health,” he said.