The indoor harvest

For Randy King, the argument for indoor farming in Canada is just common sense.

For one, Canada is a northern country with long winters.

Two, during those long winters almost all fruit and vegetables in Canadian grocery stores are imported from Central America, Mexico or California.

Three, wouldn’t it be better if Canadians grew their own fruits and veggies?

“I think this is the way of the future for growing produce in northern regions,” said King, co-owner of West Grow Farms, a company with plans to build an indoor farm near Edmonton.

“In order to gain food sovereignty, we need to step out of the box and revolutionize how we approach growing produce…. Relying on other countries to feed us in the winter time, I’m not certain that’s going to be sustainable.”

In 2016, King and his business partner, Jim Philpott, signed a licensing deal with Indoor Farms of America, a company from the United States, to its technology.

Indoor Farms of America has developed a proprietary method to grow fruits and vegetables inside based on a technique called aeroponics.

Plants are grown without soil in aeroponics. The suspended roots are misted with nutrient-rich water.

Proponents of aeroponics say it can grow greens such as kale and spinach, or herbs like basil and sage, without the use of pesticides.

Large scale indoor farms, or vertical farms, are already growing produce in cities across North America.

  • This year AeroFarms of Newark, New Jersey, built a 70,000 sq. foot vertical farm in a former steel mill. When fully operational, it will likely be the largest vertical farm in the world.
  • The word “vertical” is used to describe indoor farms because trays of plants are typically stacked inside the building, reaching toward the ceiling.
  • Chicago may have the most vertical farms of any major city in North America. It’s sometimes described as America’s urban farming capital.
  • In Canada, dozens of companies are planning to construct or are building indoor farms, but it’s difficult to know how many are in operation.

King, who operates a couple of construction companies, became aware of the concept when a client asked him to design an indoor farm.

The project may have stalled, but it sparked King’s interest.

“You look at the nutritional value of a head of lettuce that’s been in transit for a couple of weeks, it’s probably diminished to the (point) where we’re eating straw,” said King, who grew up on a farm near Edmonton.

Supporters say vertical farms may revolutionize agriculture because plants grown indoors mature more quickly and can be harvested 10, 15 or 20 times annually, rather than two or three times a year for outdoor crops.

True believers go further. They say indoor agriculture will save the world.

“If vertical farming in urban centres becomes the norm, then one anticipated long-term benefit would be the gradual repair of many of the world’s damaged ecosystems through the systematic abandonment of farmland,” said Dickson Despommier, author of The Vertical Farm and host of the Urban Agriculture podcast. “The re-growth of hardwood forests could play a significant role in carbon sequestration and may help reverse current trends in global climate change.”

But environmental groups say vertical farms use an incredible amount of energy on artificial lights.

“Producing America’s annual vegetable crop (not counting potatoes) in vertical systems under lights would require well over half of the electricity this country generates every year,” wrote Stan Cox of The Land Institute, a group that supports sustainable agriculture, in Salon magazine.

King confirmed that lights are the biggest cost and challenge of indoor farming. Optimizing lighting for maximum growth is complex and the cost of LED lights can run into the millions.

But if growers get the lighting right, indoor farming can produce a huge quantity of leafy greens and other vegetables.

“We can get 157,000 plant sites in 3,200 sq. feet,” King said.

Based on West Grow’s trials, plants can reach maturity in about 22 days. Which means 15 growing cycles per year.

Once he has a handle on the lighting, King hopes to begin construction of the indoor farm early next year, in a warehouse in the Edmonton area. The 12,000 sq. foot facility will also have a store, so customers can buy produce at the site.

The plan is to start out with leafy greens and herbs. Then, expand into tomatoes, cucumbers and other veggies.

King is convinced that Albertans want to buy locally grown veggies year round.

“Talking to our potential customers … the grocers, they’re extremely excited,” King said. “They’re more than committed to buying local, fresh produce, 365 days of the year.”

King hopes the indoor farm will be producing greens and herbs by June of 2017.

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