Mike and Becky Newhook first took an interest in local agriculture nearly 20 years ago, during a visit to the Philippines where most of the people they met were farmers. When they visited the region 18 years later, those same people were still farming.
One thing led to another, and the couple began working with the locals over Skype to set up two aquaponic farms and begin producing 20,000 heads of lettuce, which isn’t otherwise produced in the region. While those aquaponic farms are locally owned and operated, Mike and Becky continued in their pursuit of local food systems back home in Tofield, Alberta. That is how, at the beginning of the pandemic, Vertical Roots Canada was established.
Vertical Roots is a hydroponic farm founded in 2020 by Mike and Becky Newhook as well as their partners Brent and Evelyn Harley. While the farm began in the Newhook’s garage, it has expanded to Brent and Evelyn’s property in Beaver County, Alberta. It currently runs out of a 600 sq-ft building, although only 386 sq-ft is currently used for production. At this point, the major challenges to production are limited amperage and the limited access to potable water, requiring that water be trucked in. Vertical Roots hopes to expand to 1,500-2,000 sq-ft with all operations occurring under the same roof, from plant propagation to growing, testing, and harvesting.
While the vertical farming industry typically prides itself on high levels of automation, Vertical Roots is taking a different approach that doesn’t rely on technology and automation. The farm focuses on hands-on growing and relatively small-scale production. But according to Mike, that hasn’t hurt their business in the slightest as the company is expanding within a year of its establishment.
“We’re not about producing in warehouses and supplying major companies. People seemed to say that if you aren’t producing 20,000 heads of lettuce, then you’ll be left behind. But that hasn’t been the case at all,” says Mike. Vertical Roots sells its greens through subscriptions, to the Mayfair Royal Golf Club, and to local restaurants. The interest in local food has never been higher, according to the Newhooks, as consumers have flocked to the farm and maxed out the supply.
“When people are ordering from larger suppliers, the quality is lower. They are paying the same price or lower for a product that they can only use half of. We’ve learned that people are willing to pay more for a head of lettuce if it means that they can use all of it rather than only a portion of it,” says Becky.
Throughout the Newhooks experience, they’ve found the hydroponics community to occasionally be difficult to collaborate with, as the industry tends to keep its cards close and not share its experiences. They also struggled with having consultants make technical recommendations that didn’t ultimately make sense for their business. According to Mike, this lackluster knowledge sharing in vertical farming is part of why many vertical farms have failed.
As such, Vertical Roots is committed to being a transparent company that welcomes people and questions. The company has also developed a prototype system which it plans to commercialize by autumn 2021, which will be complemented by educational resources and consulting also provided by the farm. Vertical Roots already has 3-4 growers pursuing them to build a farm once the systems are available for sale.
“Our product is where we want it to be; we just need to keep repeating it. We want to master all four seasons before beginning to sell. While you are growing indoors, the season does impact climate control inside the farm,” explains Mike. In the future, Vertical Roots hopes to explore opportunities in northern Canada, as the rates of food insecurity and food prices are exorbitant throughout the region.