A perfect storm in 2015 caused the price of cauliflower to skyrocket — cold weather and a drought in the cauliflower-growing region of the American Southwest, combined with a weak Canadian dollar, put the beloved Canadian staple out of reach for most consumers.
Canadians had experienced food shocks before, but with the price of a cauliflower shooting to $7 or more, awareness of our dependency on global food supplies was brought to the forefront.
“The fact that we rely on food from distances so far away, and food practices we don’t understand and control, is unreasonable. There are so many failing points,” says Eric Amyot, CEO of Modular Farms, an indoor vertical farming business headquartered near Ottawa.
Amyot is part of a growing industry of high-tech farmers — entrepreneurs, often with skills in software design — who are trying to reduce Canada’s dependency on food from faraway places. Because of our short growing season, indoor farming might be our best bet.
Greenhouses are part of this movement to provide year-round produce, but their flaw is that they require sun, which means they have to be laid out horizontally, taking up space. Though Canada has no shortage of land, feeding ever-expanding urban populations economically requires farms to be located closer to cities — where land is prohibitively expensive.
Amyot’s solution: a vertical, scalable, modular, portable, and self-contained farm that can eventually be taken off grid.
So what does that actually look like?
Based out of Dalkeith, Ontario, Amyot’s farm is a shipping-container-like box (or module) that he has designed to connect to others like it in order to grow vegetables vertically — everything from kale to strawberries.
The key piece to this indoor-farming concept is Amyot’s Primary Module. It’s the mothership to which all the other modules link — modules that can act as a climate barrier, refrigerate produce and, eventually, support all energy needs.
“Walking up to the [Primary Module] is very unexciting,” he explains about the white box. “But when you open the door, the light and warmth and smells pour over you. It’s like stepping into a farm, a rocket ship, and a bunch of childhood memories all at once.”
After the eyes adjust to the glow of LED lights, one sees rows of vertical walls stretching far into the container, each lined with bunches of vegetables growing from floor to ceiling. Rather than traditional farming that sees plants growing alongside each other horizontally, this system stacks individual plants vertically.
Growing vertically means less space is required, and using LED lights to grow plants freed Amyot from dependency on the sun.
“In the simplest terms, we use LED lights to feed the plants and heat the container farms, and specialized heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems to provide a consistently ideal environment for the plants.”
The space is tight — there’s no doubt about that — but there is room for a stainless steel table for working with, say, seedlings or preparing veggies for distribution. As the control centre for the farm, the Primary Module also provides farmers with real-time data via an app — the same app that gives farmers the ability to control the module’s devices remotely. (Maybe, finally, farmers will be able to take a vacation!)
Importantly, Modular Farms has, according to Amyot, achieved “yields twice as high as most other farming systems we’ve seen to date.”
“Not only can we expedite seedling-to-harvest times, but we can extend harvest times,” he continues. Amyot gives the example of kale. “At our Toronto farm, the kale are almost 11 months old and they’re still providing the same yield that they did when they were five months old.”
Another example comes by way of the cherry tomato plant. “They grow abundantly, quickly, and really long. Traditional life spans are three to five months. We were just over nine months when we ended our trial, and the cherry tomatoes were still yielding as much as when they were three months old.” Adds Amyot, “We’re providing the plants what they need at every step of their life cycle, 24 hours a day, which you can’t do outside.”
So far, Modular Farms has grown an array of vegetables, including lettuce, strawberries, quinoa, hops, wasabi, and peas.
In talking about the indoor vertical farm, Amyot uses a phrase that seems more suited to software engineers: he calls it “the ultimate hack.” Because when it comes to feeding people in an efficient and sustainable way, his farms are a shortcut.
“[Modular Farms] aren’t so big that they can’t be deployed quickly and in spaces where farms typically can’t exist and not so small that they can’t feed many people. And because of its scale and size, we can make broad, sweeping changes that will allow us to quickly leap ahead of existing practices — something traditional agriculture simply cannot do.”
That said, Amyot is aware that his farms won’t solve the world’s food-supply problem.
“As proud as I am of the technology that we build, we’re only a small piece of the puzzle. The tone, generally, in my industry is that technology will eventually replace traditional agricultural practices. And while that may be the case in a dystopian future, it’s not going to be the case in my or my children’s lifetime. The fact that we believe that any one solution will fix everything is a problem.”