Vertical thinking

An eco-friendly urban farming system might help combat food inflation.

Imagine a customer picking up a package of leafy greens and herbs in the produce section that just happen to be grown in your store's backyard–in this case the warehouse. It's not far-fetched. A company in Vancouver named Valcent has created a vertical growing system for salad crops, vegetables and flowers that it's pitching to supermarkets. The company says it's closing a sale with a distributor that supplies Whole Foods.

Valcent thinks its system, called Verticrop, can help the world's food supply. Simply put, current farming methods won't be able to keep up with the exploding population. Verticrop could be the next big thing after rooftop gardens, which are popping up on some stores. BrightFarms, a builder of such gardens, recently signed a deal with eight supermarkets in the U.S. to design and operate rooftop hydroponic farms.

So what exactly does the Verticrop structure entail? A capital cost of about $1 million gets you the technology of a fully automated, closed-loop conveyer hydroponic growing system. "It's got lighting and movement and an assembly line–type operating procedure that has computer-operated environmental controls for room temperature, lighting, irrigation, fertilization and recapture of the water being used," says Christopher Ng, Valcent's chief operating officer.

In a 50-foot by 75-foot space, Verticrop produces as much food as a 16-acre farm. In addition, it promotes local food consumption, cuts transport miles and allows produce to stay on the shelf longer (because vegetables don't spend time in trucks and warehouses). The only drawback: VertiCrop can't grow long crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. "It's a very consistent way to growing leafy green vegetables," says Ng. "You'll know it'll cost this much and prices won't fluctuate based on supply and demand."

Ng says that a $1-million capital investment in the system should yield about $1.3 million worth of crops a year. Half that would get eaten up by operating costs, so earnings before taxes would be 50 per cent, he calculates. Seems like a grow (op)portunity!

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