Skip to content

Upwardly fertile: Space agriculture has Guelph roots

In this Cultivate feature we look up, way up at a technology developed to feed astronauts in space that is feeding people on Earth and helping save the planet

Vertical farming is revolutionizing the way we grow food on Earth not to mention its potential for space agriculture, and many of the systems, including the concept itself, were germinated by researchers here in Guelph.

“It all has spun out of our research in space exploration,” said professor Mike A. Dixon, director of the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph. “We started that space program in 1995 and our objective has been to address safe nutritious food production in highly controlled environments. Life support requirements for space exploration, which is high density plant growth, food production. That’s exactly what a vertical farm is, it turns out.”

Guelph continues to be fertile ground for the social and commercial growth of this technology and a good example is GoodLeaf Farms that has been operating a vertical farm in an industrial mall in the south end of the city since 2018.

“It is ideally situated near our customers,” said Juanita Moore, executive director of operations for GoodLeaf Farms.  “We are close to Toronto, and we have a great partnership with the University of Guelph in terms of research.  So, it’s a great area and the city itself was a really strong partner in getting us established and helping us get all the permits and things to set up here.”

Moore has an extensive background in food productFion and marketing having worked for Weston Bakery, Loblaws, No Frills and Greenhouse Juices before GoodLeaf. Her grandfather was a farmer, and she believes he would be impressed with this new farming technology.

“I don’t know quite what he would think of it but he was always trying to innovate,” she said. “I think he would definitely understand it and once he ate some of the product, he would be pretty excited.”

 A tour of the GoodLeaf plant reveals a fully automated, indoor farming operation that is remarkably different from what her grandfather or most people would consider a traditional farm.

“It all begins with the seeding side of it,” said Moore. “A lot of our seeds come from the US, but we have a fair number of partners we work with, and we are starting to see the seed companies actually focus on vertical farming so, they can develop seeds that work well in our environment.”

A GoodLeaf farmworker operates a machine that fills trays with soil before another part of the system plants the seeds.

“These are standard horticultural trays,” said Moore. “We grow in a substrate or a peat-based compound. You seed with different equipment depending on the type of seeds.”

The seeded trays are moved to a dark, humid germination room.

“Two days later you can see the sprouted plants,” said Moore.  “This is baby kale and it just started to sprout. It will go into the grow room where it will spend about 16 to 20 days then it will be ready for harvest.”

The large, multi-tier, vertical grow room, provides optimum growing conditions for the plants. 

“The water comes in from the bottom into the roots,” said Moore. “It’s an ebb and flood system so, they aren’t in constant contact with the water.  They are just given it when they need it along with the nutrients they need. All of the water, we recycle and re-treat so, we only use about five per cent of the water relative to a traditional farm.”    

The LED lights of the grow room emanate a soft magenta glow.

“The reason it is a kind of purple colour is that it is a mix of the red and blue spectrum and that is specifically what our plants need to grow,” said Moore. “It replicates a spring sun. We don’t have fruiting or flowering plants so that is why they want that spring sun as opposed to a summer sun. We just use the parts of the spectrum that we really need for the plants and that controls the electricity usage.”

The grow room also isolates the plants from weather conditions, pests, contaminants and any other growing impediments they might be exposed to outside.

“No one really goes in there,” said Moore. “The head grower goes in sometimes, but we just let them grow.”

Head grower Cesar Cappa started his career as an electrical engineer in his home country of Argentina then he returned to university to get a master’s degree in agri-business.

“Basically, I’m a farmer,” he said. “I have been working in horticulture and also, the wine industry. Finally, I ended up here and this is where I want to say.”

Many of the “farmhands” at GoodLeaf are university graduates and that is conducive to their collaboration and consultation with Dixon and professor Thomas Graham from the U of G and their students.

“The commercial scale is very definitely an advantage for students to see and appreciate the challenges of scaling up some of the technologies we dabble with at the bench,” said Dixon. “Tom has a student looking at the disinfection requirements for the recirculated water and I have a student looking at alternative substrates for growing because peat is not a particularly sustainable resource. We also have another student looking at the options for making use of the spent substrates once they are done with it.”

GoodLeaf have an arrangement with a local landscaper to take the spent substrates until a suitable alternative is found.  It is a small problem relative to the benefits of vertical farming.

“We don’t have pests, so we don’t have to use pesticides,” said Moore. “It also cuts down the growing time because they get more light than they would outside. In terms of land use, we have more grow cycles, more height, so, more growing per square foot. We are also able to grow every day of the year.”

That makes Canadian consumers less reliant on food shipped from California and other sources in the south, especially during the winter. People have access to locally grown, nutritious, fresh food year round.

“This isn’t in direct competition with traditional or field farming,” said Graham. “We are decades even centuries away from growing massive amounts of wheat indoors. So, I hope it is not seen as competition. It is complementary for sure.” 

The high-tech nature allows a broader segment of the working and academic population to take part in the farming industry.

“When these companies are opening, yes, they are looking for head growers and horticulturalists, but they are also looking for mechanical engineers, HVAC specialists, computer programmers,” said Graham. “This is high-tech agriculture as is field agriculture now. We are open to any and all collaborations that will advance the science and improve our food production systems.” 

Graham recently accepted a challenge from NASA and the Canadian Space Agency to develop a vertical farm operation that is literally out of this world. 

“I am co-chairing what is called the Deep Space Food Challenge,” said Graham. “I am co-chairing the jury with Chris Hatfield. The goal is to build a plant production system for the moon, but the real broader focus is Earth-looking. Like I said, if you can develop technology to do it on the moon, you can have immediate impacts on Earth and that is the goal, the challenge.”

Companies such as GoodLeaf have invested a great deal of time, money and resources into growing and improving their systems so, they are understandably reluctant to share proprietary data, technology and other hard-earned information with potential competitors, but the opposite is true of another Guelph-based vertical farm business GR365N.

“We had a meeting with an incubator in K-W and the guy told me I was crazy because I wanted to give all the information away for free,” said GR365N co-founder, Dan Atkinson. “He said, ‘How are you going to make money like that?’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about the money. It will come.’  He was mortified.”

Atkinson and GR365N co-founder Colin McVicker have been working on a prototype for a home system that will allow anyone to grow produce in their home year-round. 

 “We’ve taken all the problems with everybody’s else’s systems – got rid of them and developed our own system,” said Atkinson. “It is very, very simple. Anybody can grow. You have it standing in your kitchen on a wall somewhere. You can pick some fresh basil for the sauce you’re making.  How cool is that?”

The systems show growing potential for feeding people in the north and desolate areas with fresh, nutritious food while reducing the environmental footprint of agricultural production across the planet.

“In space there is no waste,” said Graham.  “So, the research we do for space, the technology developed to completely close those resource loops have immediate impacts on Earth in terms of just doing things more efficiently and more sustainably and you can do it next door. You don’t have to ship it from California. You can do it in a snowbank in the arctic and help some of these communities that are incredibly food insecure to manage their own food security.”

Even though they are GMO-free and grown without pesticides, GoodLeaf is unable to get organic certification for their produce in Canada.

“In the US and overseas they actually are able to certify vertical farms as organic,” said Moore. “Some the of the regulations in Canada take quite a while to change but personally, I think we are beyond organic. Because it is a much cleaner product. There is nothing that can interfere with it really.”

Graham believes it is only a matter of time before the full benefits of vertical farming are recognized and regulations adjust accordingly.

“COVID for example just laid bare our supply chains and our vulnerability so, that alone is worth the investment in bringing more year-round production to Canada,” he said.  “OMAFRA has stated that as a stated goal too is to build up our capacity to feed ourselves. Like I said, the science is the easy part. The marketing, the legislative changes, the mindset of the regulatory bodies, that all needs to change and that is a slow-moving wheel, but we will get there.”