Vertical farming on the rise in B.C. but facing challenges for land, say advocates

·4 min read
Rows of herbs and lettuce growing in vertical farming machines at Cubic Farms' facility in Pitt Meadows, B.C. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC - image credit)
Rows of herbs and lettuce growing in vertical farming machines at Cubic Farms' facility in Pitt Meadows, B.C. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC - image credit)

Farming for Alycia van der Gracht means producing up to 900 heads of lettuce a month inside a classroom at the University of the Fraser Valley in Chilliwack, B.C.

She grows shelves of lettuce, cilantro and bok choy in just a two-by-four metre space in a highly controlled environment under LED lights, no matter the season or time of day.

"You use less water, you use your own sunlight, so if it's shadowy or cloudy or winter, the plants still get everything they need, " said van der Gracht about her vertical farm, called QuantoTech, which uses no pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides.

Vertical farming in B.C. is a growing sector of agriculture known as agritech. B.C.'s Ministry of Agriculture said there are currently 150 agritech companies in the province, which produce microgreens, leafy greens and herbs using fewer resources such as water.

Baneet Braich
Baneet Braich

Growers like van der Gracht say vertical farming combats food insecurity, especially in rural or northern communities.

"It's really important to have something scalable and local that you can grow and not be cut off," she said.

Experts say the futuristic way of growing food is way to combat climate change and food insecurity. They also say, though, that vertical farmers like van der Gracht's are facing challenges over where they are able to operate.

ALR friendly to vertical farmers?

Lenore Newman, director of the food and agriculture institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, said vertical farmers face challenges such as high startup and operational costs, and navigating government policy, such as rules that govern B.C.'s Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) land.

The ALR protects approximately 4.7 million hectares of arable land in B.C. and according to the Agricultural Land Reserve Use Regulation, constructing a structure for indoor or vertical farming is allowed only if the total area from which soil is removed or fill is placed is 1000 m² or less.

"It's difficult to do vertical farming on the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). It's possible but … there's a lot of caveats to that," said Newman.

Baneet Braich
Baneet Braich

She and others want to see provincial rules changed to make more ALR land available to budding vertical farmers, considering that finding space in industrial areas is difficult and expensive.

"Industrial land costs millions of dollars more, there is almost a zero vacancy rate for industrial," said Newman.

A provincial 2019 Food Insecurity Task Force Report outlined several recommendations to help increase food security in the face of climate change in B.C. They included more space for growing food, better transportation systems and allowing farms to be closer to processors.

Newman wants the province to move faster on these recommendations that she says could help vertical farmers.

"It's been two years so we're kind of missing the bus. This actually makes me quite angry, that we're still sitting around waiting to see what's going to happen," said Newman who added that she remains hopeful progress will be made.

Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC
Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC

Van der Gracht is also hopeful that the province will change rules to allow bigger vertical farm operations on ALR land.

"We'd be much more productive on that land. And we don't need any of the nice land," she said.

Newman and her colleagues said a significant portion of B.C.'s agricultural land reserve is unused or underutilized. The task force report said that while the most fertile land should be protected for agricultural production, up to 0.25 per cent of ALR land with low soil quality, ill-suited for farming should be allocated for agritech.

The Ministry of Agriculture says it is continuing to study the task force's recommendations, with an update to come in the spring of 2022.

CBC News
CBC News

Dave Dinesen, CEO of CubicFarms in Langley, said he's hopeful changes will come to B.C.'s agritech sector that allow it to quickly expand.

His company sells modules, worth $150,000 each, that fit in shipping containers and can grow up to 300,000 leafy green, herbs or microgreen plants each year.

Dinesen says the technology dramatically reduces the need for water. One module can grow as much lettuce as is produced on a piece of land the size of a football field.

The modules also use approximately one litre of water to grow one head of lettuce. The same head of lettuce grown in a field would require 24 litres of water, according to Dinesen.

Dinesen also said vertical farming made possible with technology, which his company supplies, produces local food and reduces the need for complicated and vulnerable supply chains.

"There's not much more vulnerability than food supply," he said. "And we've seen these types of panics in stores when borders are closed or roads are washed [out] … we're seeing all of these problems."

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