Richard Groome, president and CEO of Pointe Claire, Quebec-based Urban Barns Foods Inc., is convinced his growing system will revolutionize farming around the world.
“Cubic farming uses no GMO seeds, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides to provide consumers and foodservice customers in urban centers with pristine, great-tasting products,” Groome said.
At the heart of the enclosed system, launched in June in Mirabel, just outside Montreal, is an automated machine 24 feet high that rotates like a ferris wheel, exposing trays of lettuce and herb plants to LED lights.
The system was launched in 2009 with a pilot project in Langley, British Columbia.
In its first year in Quebec, Urban Barns plans to focus on different types of lettuce, microgreens and herbs such as Thai and Genovese basil for its foodservice customers.
“We have a large list of vegetables in current research and development,” said Groome, who’s working with 13 scientists at Montreal’s McGill University to optimize the growing process and recycle as much water as possible.
“It’s such a new science. Our scientists are learning new things every day,” he said.
Spinach and kale are next on the list, he said. Since they require a cooler growing temperature than lettuce, those machines would have to be isolated.
While a regular farm can produce two plants per square foot per year and a typical greenhouse can produce about 20 plants per square foot per year, Groome said his system can produce 60-70 plants per square foot per year.
But he’s not stopping there. When the next generation of machines arrives in the coming months, he anticipates growing 297 plants per square foot per year, with almost zero losses compared to conventional farming.
Groome said one or two employees can plant and harvest the crops, which reduces handling and time to market.
“The response has been absolutely fantastic,” he said.
As production ramps up, Urban Barns expects to produce between six and 10 million plants a year, enough to supply chain stores with cut or living lettuce.
From there, he plans to take the technology to U.S. cities and to countries that can’t easily produce fresh, local food.
“It’s good to prove the technology in our own backyard, make modifications and test it before we export,” he said.