Think of it as a sanctuary for leafy vegetables. That’s how GoodLeaf’s Barry Murchie describes the company’s 100,000-square-foot vertical farm operation that he predicts will eventually produce 900,000 kilograms of veggies a year.
The company’s president and CEO says it’s one step toward increasing food security, possibly leading to lower prices for home grown food and a smaller carbon footprint compared to veggies that are trucked in from the United States.
“We are creating an alternative, a domestic alternative to deal with Canada’s food sovereignty,” said Murchie.
“But our intent is to be an option to replace imports and to have as high a per cent as possible of domestically grown produce.”
The giant warehouse represents an investment of $50-$60 million, according to Murchie. The Government of Alberta contributed $2.7 million toward the project.
The baby greens and micro veggies are grown hydroponically in hundreds of trays stacked 12 metres high in a climate controlled environment.
The irrigated plants are given a carefully timed dose of water to maximize the various stages of growth. The water is drained, filtered and used again. The condensate from all of the humidity is also captured and pumped into the large trays.
Within such a tightly controlled environment, the veggies grow remarkably fast, going from seed to package in two weeks or less, depending on the variety.
The setup is a carefully guarded secret — so much so that Murchie would not allow CBC’s cameras to take any pictures inside the growing area.
“We’ve got an enormous amount of intellectual property in all the foundational elements of our farm and we want to protect that,” he said.
It’s not the first indoor, vertical farm in Calgary. The city’s food action plan supports “a sustainable and resilient food system” to improve access to local and healthy food.
“To promote a more supportive environment for agricultural activities at all scales to happen within our city,” said Kristi Peters, Calgary’s food system planner.
She says there are about a dozen indoor farms operating in Calgary, but only a few, including GreenLeaf, are large-scale operations.
Some experts believe the large-scale models can be successful when located in close proximity to large centres and are able to sell their goods in major retailers and restaurants.
That’s something that GoodLeaf and another local indoor operation, Deep Water Farms, have done.
Stuart Smyth is a professor in the department of agricultural and resource economics at the University of Saskatchewan. He is also the Agri-Food Innovation and Sustainability Enhancement Chair.
He says these local operations could reduce our reliance on veggies imported from California and Arizona — and the timing could be ideal. He says recent water restrictions in Arizona affected the amount of leafy greens that could be planted.
“The challenge down there is that they’re facing droughts and reduced water availability for irrigation,” said Smyth.
As GoodLeaf gears up toward full production, it’s already looking ahead to expansion. The current site has enough room to double capacity.
“Think of it as the Salinas Valley of the north, as we can sort of create a situation to generate an enormous amount of produce for Canadians by Canadians,” said Murchie.
Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.