Calgary's large indoor veggie farms aim to match the price of California imports

·5 min read
Ryan Wright, co-owner of NuLeaf Farms, shows off the purple basil plants lining the walls of the company's grow room in southeast Calgary. (Elise Stolte/CBC - image credit)
Ryan Wright, co-owner of NuLeaf Farms, shows off the purple basil plants lining the walls of the company's grow room in southeast Calgary. (Elise Stolte/CBC - image credit)

It's called "field parity" — when the price of growing produce in a local, high-tech warehouse edges down low enough to rival the California imports.

NuLeaf Farms hit that target with basil and thyme. They're close with lettuce and kale. The dream is ripe strawberries; the company is working on that in the test garden.

"Imagine fresh, local strawberries in January," said co-owner Ryan Wright, before giving CBC News a tour of the company's new southeast Calgary grow room.

The floods in B.C. and increases in gasoline prices have put the fragility of Calgary's food supply system in sharp relief.

WATCH: How vertical farms are using inner-city warehouses to grow and produce food locally:

Food costs have increased dramatically over the past year. These indoor crops won't help families scrambling to fill the fridge today, but some insiders believe farms such as NuLeaf are part of the long-term solution.

Kristi Peters, who heads up the city's food strategy, says Calgary now has three new large-scale facilities, plus several small ones, and is seeing interest grow.

"It's a piece of the food resiliency strategy," she said. "I don't think we can ever replace our dependency on imported food, but the indoor farm sector offers more predictable, more stable year-round yields."

Elise Stolte/CBC
Elise Stolte/CBC

The size of two semi-truck trailers

At NuLeaf, Wright celebrates the fact his team has not had to increase prices for produce yet.

Since early this year, they've been selling it to local restaurants and direct from the farm, which is near the Deerfoot Casino just off Barlow Trail in Calgary's southeast. They're hoping to scale up with more locations in the city and in isolated rural communities. He is in talks with several First Nations.

From the outside, the grow centre is nondescript, easy to drive right past without noticing. That's because it's designed to be a building built inside another building, in this case an old engineering office.

But walk through the heavy door into the back of the warehouse and there's no doubt you've arrived. You're hit with a wave of warm, moist air smelling like sage, thyme and oregano. Those highly perishable, quick-growing crops are the easiest to start with.

Elise Stolte/CBC
Elise Stolte/CBC

The grow room itself is the size of two semi-truck trailers put side by side. Plants grow in rows up the walls, fed by a dripping hydroponics system. It's loud and windy because of the fans circulating air with three times the normal level of carbon dioxide. That increases growth up to 50 per cent and acts as a carbon sink.

Wright says the place gets 15 crops a year, growing as much as one could on an acre and a half of land in California. It's all highly precise and automated, except for the harvesting and packaging, which employs two people nearly full time.

Wright is a former oil and gas engineer who loves data and boasting about how much this facility can reduce energy use and water. They collect water from the humid air to reuse it, and don't need pesticides in the sterile environment.

Elise Stolte/CBC
Elise Stolte/CBC

"For our operation, we're basically reducing water use by 99 per cent. We reduce the farm use or land use by about 98," he said.

For transportation, they're delivering herbs and leafy greens an average 27.3 kilometres, compared with 3,000 kilometres from California. They see less food waste, too.

"We always harvest the same day that we deliver to our customers," he said. "And by doing that, we're extending the shelf life of the product to our clientele, depending on the crop, again, anywhere from two to 600 per cent. And this really makes an impact."

Most herbs are $2 to $3 for a small package. A clamshell of kale mix is $4.50.

New climate change goals

At the City of Calgary, it's been 10 years since officials adopted the food policy aiming to increase the supply of locally grown food. Peters says they've had some success changing bylaws to support local agriculture, including these indoor vertical farms, and boosting opportunities for farmers in the region to sell direct to Calgary residents.

Elise Stolte/CBC
Elise Stolte/CBC

But Peters wants to review the strategy in light of new climate change goals, and she says indoor farms will likely be a key part of that.

"It's certainly not the whole answer but we're seeing the sector grow," she said. "This technology is really interesting, and these entrepreneurs, they're sophisticated, all of them. They're super tech savvy and brave."

Calgary's first large-scale indoor farm opened in 2019, raising sea bass in an aquaponics system with leafy greens.

Owner Paul Shumlich says Deepwater Farms is now producing 1,500 pounds (680 kg) of greens a week for Calgary Co-op, Safeway and Sobeys and is re-tooling its operation.

Shumlich says supply chain issues mean it's been more difficult to get some parts and supplies but, like NuLeaf, his company has not had to increase prices on produce.

The newest Calgary facility was built this summer.

InFarm is a German-based company with farms in 10 countries. In July, it opened a Calgary facility and plans to keep expanding next year, even adding tomatoes and mushrooms. Vice-president Daniel Kats says the facility is supplying 50 Sobeys stores now and hopes to expand to hundreds within in the next few years.

The company is bringing in a system based on rows of towers that each create a micro-climate to enhance growth for the specific crop inside.

"We want to create a luxury product that tastes really good," Kats said. "Lots of flavour and good texture — but with affordable prices."

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