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The benefits of hybrid farming: Breeding indoors, finishing off outside

"Indoor and outdoor farming don't have to be mutually exclusive. There's no reason these methods can't work together. Both vertical farming and greenhouse production can significantly benefit the industry," says Erika Parente, owner of Vertical Valley Farms, a Hamilton-based family farm producing various kinds of crops. Erika is making use of vertical farming to propagate seedlings which are later on transplanted outdoors

Despite that there should be better collaboration between outdoors and indoors, Erika acknowledges the variability in equipment and focus, noting that vertical farming is not suited for traditional hay growers for instance. "It has to make sense."

Erika Parente with Ben Crowther from LettUs Grow

What are the benefits of this combination?
"Vertical farming is all about accessibility, making food more accessible and nutritious which is essential for the community. Starting early and utilizing indoor systems can significantly scale up production. Despite being a low-tech, manual process, it's very cost-effective and labor-saving. In the long term, I would envision us scaling up by integrating automated irrigation systems, enhancing efficiency."

"For us, it's been about exploring and learning from the vertical farming industry. My experience in managing operations at a vertical farming brokerage in Ontario has been instrumental to this. The idea captivated me, and the title of the farm became a goal, to have a vertical farm one day." Integrating CEA with traditional farming, particularly in propagation, Erika sees numerous benefits of this combination. "I can see healthier seedlings that are more robust and ready to take on the outdoor climate."

What equipment are you using to get the right seedlings? "Well, it's nothing high-tech really," Erika confirms. The LEDs she is using are highly efficient but not extremely expensive, and most importantly enable dense planting. Using an empty room in her old farmhouse, up to 3,000 plants fit into a single room. Despite the focus on hydroponics in general, Erika emphasizes the potential of soil-based systems. "Including soil-based growers in the vertical farming space, conversation is essential, even though it might be less efficient."

Before, Erika used plugs, however, that turned out to be quite expensive. Therefore, she turned to soil which she 'blocks' herself. A seed goes into these blocks, and the natural process will do the rest of its work. When the crops reach a "transplant" size they are ready to be moved outside.

Consulting indoor and outdoor
Given her experience, consulting is a significant part of Erika's work, helping corporations and startups enter the vertical farming industry. "I assist with market research, determining the best regions and crops for vertical farms, and developing systems for specific productions like strawberries," she says. Her consulting efforts extend to operations, team building, and process development for startups.

Vertical Valley Farms adopts a subscription-based business model, offering produce boxes that vary in size and contents. "We provide a variety of vegetables, eggs, and bread, meeting the demands of different family sizes. Customers receive recipes and growing tips, to expand their knowledge and encourage them to try new things," Erika explains.

Charging a premium?
Despite the challenges, Erika remains optimistic about the future of vertical farming. "I haven't had a single crop fail," she proudly states. By focusing on producing fresh, local, and high-quality products, Vertical Valley Farms aims to make a significant impact on the community. "We don't label our produce as organic, but everything is done organically, as well as our inputs, such as our self-made fertilizer."

Would that allow you to ask for a premium for your products? "We definitely could, but the price point has come down in North America. Depending on your product, we could charge about 2 to 3 dollars more. Though, it's more for us that everyone can afford healthy and local produce, so we're setting normal, but competitive prices for our produce."

For more information:
Vertical Valley Farms
Erika Parente, Owner and operator
1868 Jerseyville Rd W
Jerseyville, ON, Canada
[email protected]