Farming up the city
Nestled aside the attractions and eateries at 100 Kellogg Lane, an ag-tech operation is out to prove the viability of vertical farming
Photo: Farmia Agritech co-founder and COO Mohamed Zayed (story photos by Mary Levykina)
THE 100 KELLOGG Lane complex has certainly done a lot to establish itself as Canada’s largest entertainment complex — there are restaurants, a brewery, distillery, retailers, attractions and (soon) a spiffy new Hard Rock Hotel.
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But deep in the heart of the former cereal plant, the facility is harkening back to its agro-industrial past as it has quietly become home to one of Canada’s largest vertical farming operations. And perhaps not a moment too soon, as food prices grow more volatile, and global supply chains more fragile, by the day.
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The tenant, Farmia Agritech, has taken up residence in the former storage area of the complex, transforming it with up to 11 levels of largely automated, hydroponic vertical farming infrastructure, with leafy greens fanning out of futuristic growing towers.
“It’s been growing at a phenomenal rate,” says Mohamed Zayed, co-founder and COO of Farmia. “We started this project in December 2020, after seeing the effects of Covid — the catalyst that allowed us to finally push this project into fruition.”
But if you ask Zayed, Farmia is no mere produce grower, but a large-scale demonstration of the viability of new modes of agricultural production. “We’re technically a food security company,” he says. “We’re not a produce company — we provide solutions to problems.”
Standard-issue tech lingo, but what does it all mean? Applied to food production, it’s actually an important distinction. Farmia sees its product not as the produce their operation outputs, but the technological solutions that make it possible. And that matters quite a bit for how it could fit in the wider Canadian agricultural conversation.
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The availability of fresh fruit and vegetables has declined in Canada over the past decade. We’re feeding more people with less farmland and declining soil health (and importing labour to do it). The pandemic, meanwhile, has caused persistent disruptions in the global supply chain and exaggerated the negative effects of food insecurity.
From Zayed’s perspective, it’s ripe turf for new modes of agricultural production. Vertical operations like Farmia, with low labour inputs, represent one potential answer, one potential direction for the industry to take.
“We’re technically a food security company. We’re not a produce company ― we provide solutions to problems” ―Mohamed Zayed
“We tackle these issues in areas that are not capable of growing certain crops, or of providing food security for the people,” Zayed explains. “We converted [the Kellogg plant’s] storage area to a vertical farm, solidifying our plug-and-play solution. We can grow anywhere — we have no problem growing produce anywhere.”
That, above all, is the path Zayed sees Farmia taking: an easy-to launch production strategy that can be deployed just about anywhere, from industrial areas to the cold North to urban food deserts. It’s low-impact on the land, low-impact on water use and has low operating overheads, Zayed says.
“Our solution is very capital-friendly,” he says. “We can create a Farmia farm in any viable location. It allows for labour efficiency at a very high rate, and a yield that is very productive in comparison to fields — more than 30 times what’s coming out of the field, depending on the footprint.”
Right now, Zayed can more or less run the farm himself, bringing in more help when it comes time to harvest. One square meter of traditional farmland might produce four or five heads of lettuce per year, for instance. “I can grow 80, and I can harvest them every 18 days, consistently, year-round,” Zayed says. “From an efficiency standpoint, it makes a lot of sense.”
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Zayed sees a future in which vertical farming is an integral part of the domestic agricultural puzzle. It’s an inevitability to him that new, more decentralized food production models like this are the future for a country like Canada that has for decades depended on global markets — now understood to be far more fragile than expected.
“It’s very apparent that the world is not, right now, what it used to be,” Zayed says. “The idea of free trade is not as reliable as we all hoped, so we need to strategically source our food locally.
“With vertical farming, we’re able to import significantly less and we’re able to significantly reduce our reliance on foreign imports. This is something that’s not only here to stay — it’s here to take over.” Kieran Delamont