a persons hand wearing a rubber glove holds up a seedling with its roots shown

Factory of the future

The automatic farm

Photography by Nathan Cyprys
Written by Judith Pereira
Published October 1, 2018

There are now seven billion people on Earth. By 2050, the planet’s population will have grown to 10 billion.

Meanwhile, the amount of arable land will have decreased significantly – we lose about 100,000 square kilometres of fertile land each year due to factors such as pollution and erosion. And since it takes about 500 years for 2.5 centimetres of crop-worthy topsoil to be created, we need to come up with another way to address the world’s growing demand for food.

That’s where the University of Guelph’s Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility (CESRF) comes in. CESRF is home to the Space and Advanced Life Support Agriculture program, which has been at the forefront of trying to grow plants in a variety of hostile environments without an atmosphere—think of The Martian’s stranded astronaut, Mark Watney, growing potatoes using a complex hydroponics system.

The Guelph facility started off testing the kind of warm lights used by greenhouses, but then it began experimenting with LED systems created by Intravision Group, a photobiology company based in Norway. Intravision founder and CEO Per Aage Lysaa studies how plants respond to various wavelengths of light spectrum and intensity, and how changes in light could affect a plant’s nutrient or medicinal properties.

Intravision was able to modify and perfect the complex light formula by using CESRF’s hypobaric research chamber, which mimics the kind of low-pressure environment found on Mars. The result was the company’s gravity-flow system, which combines a lift system that moves plants through their stages of growth; boxes that incorporate feeding formulas and lighting to essentially grow plants in a controlled environment without the sun.

The first commercial application of Intravision’s system is at Toronto-based agriculture startup We the Roots. The company, formed by CEO Amin Jadavji and six fellow foodies in 2017, had a simple mission: to grow high-quality herbs and salad greens such as kale and arugula for five Toronto restaurants. Typically, this kind of delicate produce is shipped north from California, a cross-continent journey that takes four days.

We the Roots revamped an old Second World War warehouse in the city centre that once manufactured tanks and rigged up the gravity flow conveyor system.

Although the ceilings aren’t high, the system is still 45 feet long and nine feet wide, with seven layers of plants.

Shining down on each tier are nine-foot-long lamps equipped with 60 LED lights. Those lights are a specific combination of light (cool white, green, deep red, ultraviolet, far red), depending on the plant being grown.

It looks less like a farm and more like something out of sci-fi movie. Besides giving the plants a boost, the lights are 10 times more energy-efficient than LEDs from 2004, reducing electricity bills. The bulbs themselves are also far cheaper—back in 2004, they cost US$8 apiece; today, they’re around 20 cents.

Since launching in April, they haven’t been able to grow enough greens to keep customers satisfied. So the company is planning on expanding into other Canadian cities next year. Jadavji says the true test of its business plan will come this winter, when restaurants will have to rely on greens being shipped from the south. He’s hoping they’ll turn to We the Roots instead.

Meanwhile, Intravision is setting up a gravity-flow system in New Jersey—this one with 10 to 12 layers of plants—with hopes to expand to China and the Middle East.

CREDITS: Writing by Judith Pereira; Photography by Nathan Cyprys; Graphics by Murat Yukselir; Timelapse photography by Patrick Dell; Presentation by Jeremy Agius; Photography editor Clare Vander Meersch;