We were in Holland and our group stood in amazement at the growing capabilities of Koppert Cress.
Owner Rob Baan, a policeman’s son turned world entrepreneur, was emphatic that neither soil nor light is needed to grow food — only heat. And all of those components could be provided by technology, he said.
In a large glasshouse Baan grew microgreens in cellulose under LED lights. In the vast kitchen on site, we tasted the bounty and I remember it still: an absolute bursting of flavour and texture exploding on the palate.
The business plan was simple.
Take the product to the chef first, ask them what they liked, disliked, and were looking for in food trends. Go home, turn on some LED lights, and grow what the chef wants. Baan’s global empire (Koppert Cress distributes microgreens across Europe and has a U.S. division) is proof that fresh food can be grown inside. It is the ultimate urban farm.
Later, in a cooking class in Canada, I noted that chefs had microgreen boxes or microgreen appliances in the kitchen. Again, no natural light and no soil were present, and the greens were grown in stacked trays. But it made a huge difference to a dish when that fresh green top was pruned off the tray from the inside of that black box. A variety of these are now available for home kitchens. Retail stores in the U.K. introduced living vegetable aisles where the food was grown on site and the customer picked it from the vertical display.
- More with Brenda Schoepp on the Alberta Farmer: Chicken industry takes wing on some very creative marketing
And in travel, I’ve found hotels now boast rooftop gardens and restaurants are quick to highlight their little herb patch. That’s good news because it means we have a movement to grow food that has been unmatched in recent history. How far we go is really limited only by imagination. We can grow food in a field or black box, and both will metabolize similarly.
European scientists have long been curious about food produced in a black box. Their quest for perfection demands vegetables and fruit be fresh and without blemish. Not only must the shape and colour be right, but so must the degree of ripeness. Just as the Chinese form the square watermelon in a box, growing food in black boxes allows for the perfect product every time.
Why is this so important to traditional farmers? And why is it a threat?
While it is true that farming is truly evolving on many technical platforms, the idea of food production indoors and without soil or light is leaping ahead in the area of vegetable and biomedical production. The yield is 20 to 30 times that of a conventional field, variety dependent, and the crop is not under weather distress as the environment can be remotely controlled. Lufa Farms, headquartered in Montreal, started the rooftop movement now popular around the world. But it was Vancouver that got folks thinking about filling the space on every floor with food all the way to the roof. Canada started thinking about going vertical.
As cities develop, food policies and municipalities enacted bylaws restricting chemical usage, the natural progression has been to move farms in and up. Touring the Delta area of British Columbia and the Golden Horseshoe in Ontario are jaw-dropping farming experiences. The agricultural output is staggering.
Vertical farming goes a little further and takes those huge flat areas often seen in greenhouses and tiers them with suspending boxes that grow food, particularly leafy greens. These products are often organic, or at least chemical free, saving that production cost while responding to consumer demand.
Some of the designs I researched took advantage of the moderate climate and were glass structures that allowed for natural light. None used soil and either had a growing medium or were hydroponic. A new structure in Canada based out of Truro, Nova Scotia is a closed system based on LED lighting that was built on the premise of food that is nutrient dense, fresh to use in the culinary world, and the structure itself can be built almost anywhere.
One of the challenges in this vast nation is the development of a delivery system that can get perishable, nutrient-dense foods to rural and remote communities. Vertical farming offers a solution to these issues — and creates jobs for the local people, attracts local distributors, and makes good food affordable.
A sack of seed could feed a village and that is an important consideration as we move forward in food policy. Another area of interest for me is the biomedical component as it complements natural health and there is an assurance of purity that we cannot confirm from imported product.
Vertical farming does not threaten agriculture, but it does change it. New technologies will continue to enhance farms in Canada, secure food in urban spaces, and allow our nation to be a world leader in terms of technology and health.