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

Growing for Alycia van der Gracht means producing up to 900 heads of lettuce per month in a classroom at the University of the Fraser Valley in Chilliwack, British Columbia.

She grows shelves of lettuce, cilantro, and bok choy in a space of just two by four meters in a highly controlled environment under LED lights, regardless of the season or time of day.

“You use less water, you use your own sunlight, so if it’s shady or cloudy or in winter, the plants still get everything they need,” van der Gracht said of his farm vertical, called QuantoTech, which does not use any pesticides, fungicides or herbicides.

Vertical farming in British Columbia is a growing agricultural sector known as agritech. British Columbia’s Ministry of Agriculture said there are currently 150 agro-tech companies in the province, which produce microgreens, leafy greens and herbs using fewer resources such as water.

QuantoTech grows lettuce, cilantro and bok choy from its vertical farm in Chilliwack, British Columbia. The business grows to serve rural and urban communities. (Baneet Braich)

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

“It’s really important to have something scalable and local that you can grow and not get cut off,” she said.

Experts say the futuristic way of growing food is a way to tackle climate change and food insecurity. They also say, however, that vertical farmers like the one in van der Gracht face challenges as to where they can operate.

ALR favorable 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 start-up and operating costs, and the Navigating government policies, such as the rules that govern British Columbia’s Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) lands.

ALR protects approximately 4.7 million hectares of arable land in British Columbia and, according to the Regulation respecting the use of agricultural land reserves, the construction of a structure for indoor or vertical agriculture is only allowed if the total area from which the earth is removed or the backfill is placed is 1000 m² or less.

“It’s hard to do vertical farming on the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). It’s possible but… there are a lot of caveats to that,” Newman said.

Experts say British Columbia should allocate up to 0.25 percent of reserve land from agricultural land that is unsuitable for traditional farming to agro-industrial use like vertical farming. (Baneet Braich)

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

“Industrial land is costing millions of dollars more, there is a near zero vacancy rate for industrialists,” Newman said.

A provincial Food Insecurity Working Group Report 2019 presented several recommendations to help increase food security in the face of climate change in British Columbia.

Newman wants the province to speed up implementation of these recommendations that she says could help vertical farmers.

“It’s been two years so we’ve been missing the bus a bit. It actually makes me quite angry, that we’re still sitting around and waiting to see what’s going to happen,” said Newman who added she was hopeful. that progress be made. .

CubicFarms sells its technology directly to farmers to grow and sell produce. (Gian Paolo Mendoza / CBC)

Van der Gracht also hopes the province will change the rules to allow larger vertical farms on ALR land.

“We would be a lot more productive on this land. And we don’t need any of this beautiful land,” she said.

Newman and his colleagues have said that a significant portion of British Columbia’s farmland 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% of ALR land with low quality soil, poorly suited for agriculture, should be allocated. at agritech.

The Agriculture Department says it is continuing to study the task force’s recommendations, with an update coming in spring 2022.

This CubicFarms module harvests around 9,500 heads of lettuce per month. (CBC News)

Dave Dinesen, CEO of CubicFarms in Langley, said he hopes changes will come to BC’s agro-tech sector to allow it to grow quickly.

His company sells modules, valued at $ 150,000 each, that fit in shipping containers and can grow up to 300,000 leafy, herb or micro-green plants each year.

Dinesen says the technology dramatically reduces water requirements. One pod can grow as much lettuce as it does on a field the size of a football field.

Mods also use about a liter of water to grow a head of lettuce. The same head of lettuce grown in a field would require 24 gallons of water, according to Dinesen.

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

“There isn’t much more vulnerability than the food supply,” he said. “And we’ve seen this kind of panic in stores when borders are closed or roads are washed. [out]… We see all these problems.

About Keneth T. Graves

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