As demand for food increases worldwide, we speak to local innovators that are changing the way we think about farming.
By Andrea Yu
Published: Wednesday 26th April 2017
It’s harvest day at Aqua Greens and urban farmers Pablo Alvarez and Craig Petten are reaping 2,000-odd arugula, kale and basil plants. But instead of industrial overalls and rubber boots, Alvarez and Petten are clad in white lab coats, latex gloves and hairnets.
There is no hoe, shovel or tractor in sight at the Mississauga farm. The most important tools are a simple pair of shears and an 18-foot-high heavy duty rolling ladder used to access the highest level of produce growing in the lofty indoor facility.
Aqua Greens, which sold its first crop of vegetables in 2015, is part of a new wave of urban farming concepts. They’re challenging traditional notions of food production, harnessing new agricultural technologies and discovering the most efficient ways to grow food. According to the UN, the world’s population will grow to 9 billion people by 2050, requiring our current food production rates to double. Alternative farming methods are part of the solution.
Upon first glance, Aqua Greens looks like your typical hydroponic farm. Plants float in foam boards with their roots submerged in nutrient-rich pools of water. But in either corner of the 3,000-square-foot farm there are large cylindrical fish tanks, each holding a thousand live tilapia.
By 2050, our current food production rates will need to double
“The fish are the engines of the system,” Alvarez explains. While they aren’t sold for consumption, their excretions provide the nutrients necessary for the plants’ growth through a system known as aquaponics, the origins of which date back to the Aztecs.
In Aqua Greens’ system, the waste water (that is, the fish poop water) flows into a holding tank where the excretions are aerated and broken down. The resulting water contains 12 of the 15 essential nutrients required to grow vegetables. Petten and Alvarez add small amounts of potassium, iron and calcium to the water. Then it’s pumped through four levels of greens-filled pools before it flows back into the fish tanks for the closed-loop system to repeat anew.
“We use 98 per cent less water than conventional agriculture,” Alvarez explains. And while traditionally farmed leafy greens may take up to 60 days to grow, Aqua Greens crops are ready for harvest after just 21 to 28 days. “Roots in soil are searching for minerals and nutrients. Here, the food is right at its fingertips, 24 hours a day.”
It didn’t take long for chefs and retailers to hop on board. Alvarez and Petten now supply greens to over 10 clients, including Pusateri’s and Cibo Wine Bar. Aqua Greens reached capacity – 17,000 plants – earlier this year and can no longer take on new customers.
But for another modern farming operation in Norwood, Ont., getting consumers to catch on is a bit more complicated. Using retrofitted chicken barns, brothers Jarrod, Darren and Ryan Goldin are at the helm of North America’s first and largest cricket and insect farm for human consumption.
Eating insects isn’t just a Fear Factor-type stunt. In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released a white paper advocating for the consumption of insects to help resolve global food security concerns. It was this paper that inspired Jarrod to persuade his two brothers, who were running a cricket farm for reptile feed, to convert their operation.
Since its 2014 launch, Entomo Farms has grown from 5,000 square feet to 60,000, and the Goldins are constantly fielding calls from companies wanting to learn more details about insect consumption.
The detriments of raising livestock are well known, from methane gas emissions to the treatment of animals to the incredible amounts of water and land required. Vegetarianism is increasing in popularity, but for many of us, cravings for meat persist.
In a population of omnivores, insects could satisfy our need for protein.
“It’s a full, whole, functional food that offers protein, fibre, B12 and other essential minerals and vitamins in higher concentrations and better bioavailability than traditional proteins,” explains Jarrod Goldin.
His virtues echo in my mind as I attempt to eat a cricket-topped salad for lunch. But after a few forkfuls, I have to pick out the bugs one by one before I can finish the plate. The taste experience of a singular cricket is pleasant: savoury with a satisfying crunch. Incorporating the insects into my regular diet, however, proved a mental challenge.
Entomo Farms addresses this stumbling block head-on. They’re hopeful that habits and impressions will change (Jarrod Goldin reminds us how repulsive the idea of eating raw fish was 20 years ago), but they’re skirting around the ick-factor by crushing roasted crickets into a protein-rich powder. Entomo Farms has over 60 wholesale customers using its cricket flour to manufacture a variety of packaged consumer goods.
Insects offer high amounts of protein and fibre
Among their clients are Exo – a cricket protein bar-maker that raised over US$4 million in funding last year – and Chirps, which makes cricket chips and cookies. In a recent episode of Shark Tank, Mark Cuban invested US$100,000 in the latter operation.
Canada is also home to several cricket bar start-ups, including Naak and Crickstart Food Co., both based out of Montreal. Incorporating the nutritious powder into familiar foods is a realistic gateway to making insect consumption the norm. I’ve eaten both Naak and Crickstart bars and they’re tasty, rivalling any other protein bar on the market.
Entomo Farms currently ships its products around the world to customers as far as New Zealand and Australia, where another Ontario-based agricultural start-up is also making its debut. Modular Farms designs vertical indoor farms where plants grow in towers of a plastic sponge-like medium, fed with nutrient-rich water.
Inspired by the shipping container farming concept, co-founders Eric Amyot and Eric Bergeron manufacture ready-made farms in a self-contained shippable module. In essence, it’s a farm in a box.
Aiming for a wide global reach, Amyot and Bergeron are in talks with entrepreneurs in over a dozen countries to license and manufacture Modular Farms. A Brisbane office opened earlier this year and is currently building its first farm.
The turnkey design makes it easy for anyone with $148,000 and a bit of land to start a Modular Farm. Many of Modular Farms’ customers have never worked in agriculture before, approaching their farm with an entrepreneurial spirit not unlike the launch of a new tech start-up.
The growing capacity of a 400-square-foot Modular Farm is equivalent to an acre of traditionally farmed land, roughly 10 times the box’s footprint. And since it’s equipped with an HVAC system, Amyot sees Modular Farms operating as far north as Inuvik. “We can sustain a constant temperature when it’s minus 45 or plus 45 degrees outside.”
Water consumption is minimal, equivalent to roughly two toilet flushes a week. But indoor farming’s biggest energy efficiency hurdle is electricity use. For the average Modular Farm, the utilities bill runs around $1,200 a month.
The system’s state-of-the-art lights are power hungry for good reason. “It’s not just a white, red or blue light which you would commonly see in a greenhouse,” Amyot explains. “There are different spectrums and we’re mixing a light recipe to get the highest yields and the best flavour.” A controlled environment allows indoor farmers to very precisely tailor their crops.
“If you request Thai basil with a specific aesthetic – maybe you want a very purple hue or a stronger licorice flavour – with light recipes and nutrient and temperature control, we can actually make those colours and flavours pop in the plant,” says Amyot.
Modular Farms is continuing to experiment with light recipes and energy technologies along with researching which plant varieties grow best in the conditions that indoor farms can provide.
But Evan Fraser, a University of Guelph professor and Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security, reminds us that these alternative farms shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a silver bullet solution.
“Will the bulk of our calories come from container farms? It’s hard to imagine growing wheat, corn, soybeans, rice,” Dr. Fraser says. “Those are going to be Prairie crops produced in breadbaskets and processed into flour. That system is not going to change.”
A significant amount of our vegetable production will come from these indoor, container, controlled-growth facilities, Dr. Fraser predicts
Instead, the future of food, as Dr. Fraser sees it, is one that incorporates elements of both the traditional model – vast fields of corn and hogs raised in barns – alongside innovative operations.
“People are still going to want their tomatoes in season. But a significant amount of our vegetable production, and probably our protein production, will come from these indoor, container, controlled-growth, hydroponic facilities,” Dr. Fraser predicts.
He believes that traditionally grown produce will become pricier and harder to find in the future, and that agricultural technology will increase the divide between “artisanal,” “farm-fresh” foods and produce from alternative farms.
“I think most consumers will interface with both systems and some consumers, based on finances or philosophy, will interface with the small-scale system more, but not exclusively,” says Dr. Fraser. You might grab a cheap cricket bar at the convenience store, but shell out for free-range pork chops from the farmers’ market for a special birthday dinner.
Farmers like Jarrod Goldin hope that alternative proteins become the norm in supermarkets, as opposed to the exception.
“You would go into a store like Loblaws and find the sustainable protein aisle to get cricket powder-infused pasta and protein bars for school,” Goldin says.
Eric Amyot’s vision for grocery stores of the future puts farming operations on-site.
“Instead of having a head of lettuce coming from Mexico or California, we can grow food where it’s marketed,” he says. “We can put farms on rooftops, parking lots or inside their stores.”
We’re entering an exciting era where agriculture and technology, two fields that were previously isolated, are intersecting in the future of food production. It’s only a matter of time before more operations like Modular Farms and Aqua Greens start popping up on city corners.
“There will be ample opportunities in the market for entrepreneurs to help meet the rise in demand for food,” Dr. Fraser says.
These producers represent just a few of Ontario’s up-and-coming innovators. Campbellford is home to Canada’s first indoor shrimp farm, which raises shrimp nearly waste-free out of converted hog barns. In Toronto, Living Earth Farm is Ontario’s first certified organic vertical farm. Meanwhile, the University of Guelph just got its biggest donation ever – $20 million – specifically for research in food and agriculture.
With demonstrated demand and interest in these operations, it seems the future of farming is closer than we think.