There’s a popular vision among academics and executives in the agriculture world that involves windowless warehouses outside every city, each growing commercial amounts of fruit and vegetables indoors with LED lamps. It apparently isn’t so bizarre to imagine a Canadian supermarket stocked, in the dead of winter, with fresh produce grown locally at a vertical farm, rather than thousands of kilometers away in a field in California or Mexico.
Many industry experts say this vision of a thriving controlled environment agriculture sector, as it’s formally known, is not only a nice idea, but necessary, especially if climate catastrophes start to pose more and more challenges for field crops.
Despite the stakes, however, the growth of Canada’s nascent indoor farming sector is lagging behind other countries, amid concerns that major investors and governments here haven’t fully bought into the promise of vertical farming, or the technology that enables it. Without that support, the sector might not become the sort of global powerhouse that could export indoor-farming hardware, software and intellectual property.
Vancouver-based CubicFarm Systems Corp. is one of Canada’s indoor agriculture technology firms, selling a system that grows salad greens, and another one that grows livestock feed. Chief executive Dave Dinesen said a prospective indoor farmer would need access to roughly $25 million in capital and about five acres of space for one of the company’s systems.
It makes the most sense to build such facilities on agricultural land because that’s the cheapest kind — and one of the main goals is to compete with lower-priced field-grown crops. But some jurisdictions don’t recognize indoor farming as, well, farming, so getting approval to put a facility on land zoned for agriculture can be complicated.
“There’s often not a box to tick for permits,” Dinesen said. “Why aren’t we going all-in on localizing as much food production as possible, with policy, grants, incentives?”
Indoor farm operators can build facilities on more expensive industrial land, which might make sense to some, but Dinesen said the idea of a farm in the middle of an urban area just isn’t viable. “It’s another one of these romantic notions that have to be dispelled,” he said. “This is still farming. You want to find the least expensive agricultural land, put up buildings for as low a cost as possible.”
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