( Courtesy We the Roots )

While Toronto lies under a blanket of snow, a jungle of greens flourishes under neon lights in an east-end warehouse.

Vertical farm We the Roots, a play on We the North, slogan of the Raptors basketball team, has been growing and selling greens including dinosaur kale, arugula, mizuna, red romaine and basil to top downtown chefs for the past year. 

“It’s been fantastic, we’re at capacity and completely sold out,” said chef Michael Rubino, founder and one of six partners, including his chef brother Guy, who’ve invested $1.2 million so far testing technology developed by the University of Guelph using LED systems created by Norwegian photobiology company Intravision Group.

Rubino said We the Roots produces the equivalent of 3,500 heads of lettuce a week with five employees. 

The group plans to double the size of its 8,000-square-foot enclosed farm this year and hopes to expand across Canada, particularly to the far North where fresh produce is scarce and expensive.

“With prices and climate change, we have people calling us every day,” Rubino said. 

“We started in the restaurant space because that’s where we’re from. We understand the challenges chefs face — lack of quality, consistency and price variance — and we know what products they want. We haven’t even scratched the surface when it comes to the retail market.”

Rubino said plants are propagated in peat moss in an automated tunnel for about two weeks and are ready to harvest three weeks later. 

The growing area mimics the low-pressure environment found on Mars, while a gravity-flow system lifts and moves the plants as they grow. 

A computerized hydroponic system delivers nutrients then filters and reuses 97% of the water used, he said. The team uses recipes for different spectrums of light developed by the University of Guelph to grow healthy, flavorful plants. 

“Our basil is so pungent you can smell it 10 feet away,” said the chef, noting that a lot of basil is being imported from Hawaii this winter, “and our arugula stays crunchy even when dressed; most hydroponic product has no texture.” 

Product is harvested with the roots on to maintain freshness and flavor and packed in 5-pound boxes. 

While items such as rapini require a different growing temperature, the urban farm can grow many types of greens, as well as custom-grow herbs for discerning chefs.

“At the end of the day you can use all the tech you want,” Rubino said, “but I’ve never tasted anything like this, and you can have it year-round, delivered the same day it’s picked.” 

 
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