It starts with a couple of seeds, sown into some soil and resting upon a conveyer belt.
For about 24 days, that bundle of seeds and soil will be guided around a large greenhouse by robotic machines until it’s a full-grown head of lettuce. Then, it will be tossed off its cozy conveyer belt spot, harvested, packaged and sent to market.
Grown using “smart farm” technology, this lettuce might not feel the touch of human hands before it becomes a salad on somebody’s plate. It’s the innovation that Jay Willmot, president of Kinghaven Farms, hopes to use in his proposed 18,700 square metre fully-automated greenhouse.
But first, he needs the approval of King Township, where the farm is located. Under King’s new Countryside Zoning Bylaw, Mr. Willmot’s commercial greenhouse is not permitted as proposed. The new bylaw, created to broaden permissions for agricultural uses and protect environmental land within the Greenbelt, redefines Mr. Willmot’s greenhouse from an “agricultural use” to an “agriculture-related use.”
Indoor farming is exploding across Canada, and pushing into new areas such as urban buildings and, in Kinghaven’s case, green space. According to the 2021 census of agriculture, farms with food crops grown under cover, excluding mushrooms, increased from 824 to 1,254 in Canada between 2016 to 2021. Experts say this type of farming is becoming more of a necessity as populations continue to grow and extreme weather events that affect outdoor agriculture are becoming more common because of climate change.
Another consideration is the price of imported iceberg lettuce, which rocketed higher last fall – reaching $6 or more on many supermarket shelves amid a shortage from the United States. Prices have since come back down to around $4, but some experts say another increase is likely in the coming months.
Canada was the world’s second-largest importer of lettuce in 2021, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, with the majority coming from the U.S. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, 87 per cent of the state’s lettuce exports were to Canada in 2020 and 2021. But intense rainfall in March led to flooding in the Salinas Valley, Calif., where iceberg and romaine lettuce are two of three main crops.
In response, farmers such as Mr. Willmot are trying to increase the volume of local vegetable production in order to boost reliability of supply and keep prices in check.
“Everything we buy in the stores has already been sitting in a refrigerated truck or different distribution centres for a month. It’s been in transit for a long time,” he said. “And there’s just no capability within our province to produce that crop on a 12 month basis. It’s very hard to grow lettuce in the snowbank.”
Canada’s winter climate means its ability to grow produce in the winter is extremely limited. However, in a facility like the one Mr. Willmot wants to build, lettuce can grow year-round.
He estimates production from his year-round facility will be upward of four million kilograms of leafy greens a year. In addition to distributing to local grocers, he plans to deliver product to Loblaw’s main distribution centre in Oshawa – a short 35-minute commute.
“We want to be the source of local lettuce for people in Toronto,” Mr. Willmot said.
He said grocers will dictate the retail pricing of his product, but estimates it will be comparable to or cheaper than imported lettuce.
If approved by the township, Kinghaven will join only a handful of other farms in Ontario’s Greenbelt currently using indoor hydroponic, otherwise known as soilless, farming techniques. A soilless plant production system, of which one example is hydroponics, is when plants are grown in something other than soil such as a nutrient solution or rock wool.
Chris Voorberg, chief executive of Foothill Greenhouses in the Holland Marsh, said his family’s cucumber farm has been using hydroponics since the 1980s. Producing almost eight million cucumbers a year, his 15-acre greenhouse can output seven to eight times what a farm in a field on the same acreage would produce, in Mr. Voorberg’s estimate.
This is just one of the many advantages University of Guelph Professor Youbin Zheng said comes with indoor, soilless farming. Controlled environments that are predictable and protected from the impacts of extreme weather events is another advantage.
“When you talk about agriculture, people say, ‘Oh, that’s dirty and hard.’ And that’s why loads of people don’t want to do agriculture any more,” Prof. Zheng said. “But then for indoor farming and soilless production, the working environment is fantastic because they control it. Not too hot, not too cold.”
However, Prof. Zheng said there are some crops such as wheat or corn that don’t necessarily fit the greenhouse setting and, in his opinion, don’t really need to. They can be grown, dried, stored and shipped without being affected the same way fresh produce is.
It’s the fresh vegetables that are important for human health that he’s most worried about in the future.
“If you have pandemics, wars, all of these events are probably going to limit or restrict our transportation. For food security and for our well being, we need fresh vegetables supplied locally, year round,” Prof. Zheng said.
There are disadvantages to soilless farming, he said, such as the amount of energy required to operate a greenhouse. But farmers such as Mr. Voorberg and Mr. Willmot are working to mitigate these effects.
At Foothill Greenhouses, using a cogeneration engine – a natural-gas-fired engine coupled with a generator – to simultaneously produce heat and power for electricity maximizes efficiency by generating these two types of energy together, and it can result in a net reduction in carbon emissions. Burning wood-chip waste from construction materials also maximizes the efficiency and diminishes the ecological impact of the greenhouse. And at Kinghaven, Willmot plans to offset almost half of the power required to run the facility with a solar-panel installation.
Mr. Willmot said he’s hoping to meet with council in May to get final approval for his greenhouse; then, he hopes to break ground this summer and be authorized for production by the summer of 2024. He looks forward to seeing the indoor farming industry continue to expand within the Greenbelt and the province to help support its growing populations.
“We desperately need it in Ontario,” he said, stressing food insecurity. “We could find ourselves in a position where we just don’t have access to what we need to feed a quickly growing population.”