Goodleaf Farms transforming indoor commerical agriculture

No presticides, fast growing cycle year-round




SaltWire Network

Truro News

BIBLE HILL - A small Bible Hill farm, where a national agriculture brand was born, continues as a hub for the company’s research and development, investigating how to grow healthy food indoors without pesticides. “It’s super exciting because we are breaking ground on a lot of technology … (we) have a pulse on what the consumer and the foodservice industry want from our products to be able to provide them,” said Najja Gallion, a head grower with Goodleaf Farms. Precision placement of seeds is critical to the crop’s growth, quality, yield and shelf life. Goodleaf uses imaging technology to study placement strategies, taking pictures of every tray that enters the automation line and collecting data. “For example, we know that changing the spectrum of the light can influence some really interesting characteristics in the plant,” said Shawn Woods, farm manager and senior systems specialist. “We can change the morphology of the plant or the way the plant looks, the way the plant tastes. We can change the colour of a crop just by changing the light.” All kinds of enticing vegetable greens are grown – Lettuce, sweet sugar peas, anise (tastes like black licorice), arugula cilantro, blends of mustards, peppery micro radishes and more. Water floods below the trays, plants take what they need and the water recedes and disinfects. And spinach has been a recent green of excitement. Goodleaf is one of just a few vertical farms in the world attempting to grow it indoors. Many cultivars for this leafy green in the industry are more suited to outdoor agriculture with a much longer growing cycle, taking 20 days to germinate. Their spinach crop germinates between two and four days, with a growing season of eight to 20 days. Goodleaf, a subsidiary of Bedford-based Truleaf, was born after founder Gregg Curwin discovered vertical farming in Japan. The pilot farm was established in Bible Hill in 2015, filling a former schoolhouse with leafy and microgreens. Since 2018, the Bible Hill farm has scaled back production and continued as a research and development facility, vetting dozens of different cultivars to determine what would grow best in their commercial environment in Guelph. “We realized we could bring more value to the organization by providing support services and working to optimize our product and process,” said Woods. “We work very closely with the commercial team in Ontario to understand what would work in the market.” Woods grew up in Onslow and had “no idea” the level of innovation happening in the Truro area until he returned for work. Most leafy greens consumed by Canadians are imported into the country, usually spending a week in the truck before arriving. “The Genesis was really, because you can do this indoors, you can do it without pesticides, and you can do it year-round … you’ve got food that’s grown in a near clinical environment. And it’s not only incredibly delicious, it’s incredibly healthy because it’s so fresh.” The operation expanded in 2018 with the construction of a large-scale, fully commercialized vertical farm in Guelph. It grows 10 times the amount of the original pilot farm, selling microgreens and baby greens to Ontario retailers. Last April, a $2.5 million deal with Toronto-based data firm Adastra to develop an artificial intelligence was announced. The computer technology an d robotic handling offer rigorous automation to ensure the short growing cycle is optimized. And they are expanding rapidly, with farms being constructed in Calgary and outside of Montreal. What it takes to grow the product is often lost on the consumer, but the taste and quality are highly evident, said Woods. “We’re trying to take advantage of some really interesting technology that allows us to interrogate our process in real-time, to have a very deep understanding of what we’re doing and how small changes can lead to big impacts,” said Woods. He said early on, the company moved from the idea of growing food people could eat to food people wanted to eat. He shows their lettuce with seeds imported from the Netherlands as “incredibly crunchy,” even a month out from its harvesting date. Safety is also important, especially for immunocompromised individuals, testing samples for listeria, E Coli and salmonella before it hits the market. And food labelled as organic still often uses organic pesticides. “This is just an unadulterated, beautiful product,” said Woods. “Mother Nature’s doing a heavy lifting here. The result is just incredibly delicious, nutritionally dense product that’s free of pesticides ... you can taste the difference.” Gallion takes various readings like temperature, humidity, water conditions and substrate temperature to evaluate how crops are growing and how they respond to different inputs. He interprets why a crop may be growing at a different rate than its counterpart and how it can be optimized, such as creating a nutrient formulation for the water. The cycle is reflective of an industry transformation. The facility recycles 95 per cent of its water, providing a model that works anywhere on the planet despite water scarcity. “It is grown properly, it is grown effectively, we’re not harming the environment – which is not a downplay on conventional agriculture, that’s conventional agriculture. And we are meant to be supplemental agriculture,” said Gallion, who started working at Goodleaf after graduating from the nearby Dalhousie University Agricultural Campus. “It shows where the world is moving, where we’re taking more interest in our food security, because we are caring where our food is coming from and (is) grown properly.”