On a small plot of land 10 minutes west of the Island of Montreal, the future of strawberry growing is taking shape.
Here, in a specially built chamber lodged in a greenhouse behind a recently closed garden centre, Yves Daoust is rewriting the book on cold-weather fruit cultivation, with a technique that had previously been used almost exclusively on leafy greens such as lettuce.
He is growing strawberries upward, in a hyper-controlled environment with artificial lighting. The strategy reduces the need for farmland and generates yields much larger than those produced by traditional methods. Less than 1 per cent of his berries are deemed unsuitable for sale.
The company Mr. Daoust founded, Winter Farm, operates on an acreage his family used to own. They have been farming for generations.
He has new investors, proprietary technology that includes a sensor-saturated monitoring system and an exclusive supply contract with grocery giant Sobeys Inc., which runs IGA, Safeway and other chains.
The near-term goal: Produce one million kilograms of strawberries a year by the end of 2023, or about 0.8 per cent of the 130 million kilograms Canada brings in every year from places like California and Mexico.
And there is also a longer-term goal: Replace 10 per cent of those imports – both through the company’s own growing operations and by licensing its intellectual property to other farmers.
It’s an ambitious effort supported by governments and consumers alike, at a time when the pandemic has exposed the cracks in global supply chains and climate change has wreaked havoc on southern agricultural lands. If what is happening here is replicated on a wide scale elsewhere, Canada could be on a much clearer path to year-round food autonomy.
“It’s a revolution. It’s using technology for feeding people, cleaning up the planet,” said Mr. Daoust, an electrical engineer by training and the company’s chief operating officer. “But you know, if you really want to scale this thing, there’s no way we can be the sole producer.”
Walking into one of the company’s vertical farms is like entering a high-resolution wonderland. A visitor’s eyes are immediately saturated with colour. Bright green leaves dotted with red stretch six metres high toward the ceiling. Fourteen vertical layers of strawberry plants sprawl over 11 identical corridors – a library of fruit-bearing greenery that overwhelms the senses.
Each corridor has a row of thin, water-cooled LED panels that cut across the room, all designed by Mr. Daoust and his team to fit the purpose and save on costs compared to what is commercially available. Each panel is set in a pre-calculated position that, when combined with ventilation, enables it to deliver the optimal amount of light, heat and air to the plants.
Everything is done indoors. There is no need for natural daylight. The facility’s waste energy is used to heat adjoining spaces that can be used for other kinds of cultivation, lowering the cost of a capital-intensive operation, in a capital-intensive industry.
When Mr. Daoust started the company in 2018, he explained, he thought there would be off-the-shelf technology he could buy. “We all thought that the technology would be okay, that we would integrate stuff. But actually there was nothing that was able to produce strawberries; everything was designed for leafy greens.
“The design came from discussions with bankers, discussions with growers,” he said. “We control the conditions, the microclimate of the plants, very very precisely to get exactly what they need.”
Winter Farm currently has about 97 strawberry plants per square metre of space, nearly 10 times the density in a traditional greenhouse, Mr. Daoust said. That allows for much higher production on a much smaller real-estate footprint. An 850-mililitre basket of Winter Farm strawberries retails at a nearby IGA store in Hudson, Que., 7.5 kilometres away, for $5.99.
Earlier in December, the company announced it had raised $46-million to scale up its production and add six new 600-square-metre farming chambers to the two now operating. Among the funders was the Quebec government, which added to its existing investment in the company. Desjardins Group, Farm Credit Canada, Financière Agricole du Québec and two private investors are providing new financial backing.
Vertical farming is much more developed in Asia, Europe and the United States than it is in Canada. It is typically used in places where land and resources are limited. Still, there are several other Canadian producers determined to use the technique to shorten the distance from farm to table.
Guelph, Ont.-based Goodleaf Farms, which calls itself Canada’s first and largest commercial indoor vertical farm operation, announced in December that it had closed a round of financing worth $150-million to fuel expansion. McCain Foods and Power Sustainable Lios, a specialized agri-food private equity unit of Power Corp., are backers of the leafy greens producer.
Quebec Premier François Legault’s government has been pushing to improve the province’s food autonomy. It put in place a strategy to this effect in fall, 2020, and is now roughly halfway to its goal of doubling Quebec’s greenhouse cultivation capacity to 246 hectares.
The government is encouraging Winter Farm in its plans to co-operate with other growers, with a view to developing what Quebec Agriculture Minister André Lamontagne calls “an agro-industrial network” of year-round fruit and vegetable production.
“We need to increase our food security in Quebec,” the Minister said in an interview. “Beyond that, though, every time we produce, transform and consume things here, it’s colossal sums that are reinvested in our communities.”
Alain Brisebois, a former senior executive with Metro Inc. and Alimentation Couche-Tard, began investing in Winter Farm years ago and became its chief executive in 2020. He said the company is now out to prove it can be profitable at industrial scale with its planned eight growing chambers.
Expanding its growing operations beyond that will depend in part on how much additional power it can secure, beyond what has already been committed by Hydro-Québec, he said.
A potentially bigger opportunity is in licensing the company’s know-how to growers across Quebec and in other provinces and nations, he added. In that sense, Winter Farm is setting itself up to be as much a technology company with a grower’s sensibility as a purely agricultural one.
“We’re not the only country that’s asking itself, what can we do for the future in nourishing the population, with issues of climate change?” Mr. Brisebois said. “We believe we have a pretty unique solution that fits everywhere.”