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Cultivating Sustainability

A look into the future of farming


The work Elijah Goerzen does as a farmer conjures times past. His Deep Roots Farm, set in Maple Ridge, BC, is small by modern Canadian farming standards. The eight-acre parcel near Vancouver is worked by hand rather than machine, resulting in healthy, nutrient-rich soil that’s fertile ground for vegetables to grow and for beneficial organisms, such as earthworms, to thrive.

Goerzen doesn’t spray his heritage lettuce, microgreens, and vegetable crops with toxic pesticides or infuse them with chemical fertilizers either. Instead, he chooses to nurture biodiversity by planting flowers between his kale to attract hungry ladybugs that keep any aphid infestations in check or to serve as beacons to pepper-propagating pollinators.


The future of farming?

Really, though, the regenerative agriculture methods he uses to tease crops from his soil every growing season—and microgreens in a sunroom off the side of his house every week—are considered by some to be the future of farming.

“I try and partner with nature as much as I can. I have found a lot of success not spraying, not tilling, and just growing as naturally as I can and building my soil,” Goerzen says. “It’s a little counter to what mainstream agriculture would do, but it’s worked well for me.”

It works out well for the planet, too. Unlike conventional agriculture, regenerative farming is rooted in harnessing the power of natural processes to produce food rather than dominating them with human-made inputs and interventions.


UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

Regenerative agriculture is critical to meeting 12 of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and has been identified by the UN’s Environment Programme as “one of the most effective ways to make food systems more sustainable and to build a safer, cleaner, more inclusive post-COVID world.”

Although he eschews spraying and tilling in the name of agroecology, Goerzen also sees a role for other types of food production that channel a more modern era to help him scale operations and feed the growing community around him, all without forgoing his MO of growing high quality, local food sustainably in a small area.

He practically trills when talking about the possibilities that container farming, aquaponics, and vertical farming could hold for Deep Roots Farm.

“I’d be silly not to look at it because, in the past, there was this idea you need all this acreage to produce a lot of food, and it’s just not the case anymore,” Goerzen says.


The sky’s the limit

Vision Greens, a vertical farm in Welland, Ontario, is proving him right. Set in a southern Ontario rust belt city abutting Niagara’s shrinking tender fruit belt, Vision Greens is putting stock in growing up rather than out to help meet a demand for food that the UN projects will increase by 60 percent by 2050.

All the while, it’s disrupting the imported lettuce market with its controlled environment agriculture that marries continuous food production with sustainability.

Vision Greens’ headquarters in an industrial park is filled with towers of hydroponic trays loaded with organic seeds grown by a computer-controlled system that regulates LED lighting, organic nutrients, reverse osmosis water filtration, air flow, and carbon dioxide levels to meet crop needs. The result: perfect, nutrient-dense lettuce harvested every 26 days, winter, spring, summer, or fall.

Those crops are perfect because they aren’t exposed to insects, disease, or weather fluctuations, eliminating the need to spray, explains Karen Gold, head of marketing at Vision Greens. Energy comes from clean sources provided by the city, she adds.

Harvests, sold in major Greater Toronto Area grocers such as Metro and Food Basics, are delivered to a warehouse, often on the day they’re picked, 76 km away. Meanwhile, most conventional and organic romaine sold here has to travel more to than 4,300 km from California’s Salinas Valley, where growing and shipping conditions vary and make produce vulnerable to dangerous bacterial contamination.

The very nature of their production and transport methods means Visions Greens lettuce will never have to be pulled off store shelves in the name of safety, Gold says. And with plans to build one-acre vertical farms elsewhere in Canada that have 60 times the growing density and 135 times greater crop yield than field lettuce, the company is poised to play as significant a role in building secure local food systems as Deep Roots Farm.

“If you follow what’s happening in California: they’ve had wildfires, they’ve had flooding, they’ve had weather issues,” Gold says. “With a growing population and issues with land availability too, we can produce more in less space, and we can supply it all year long without disruption.”


Room for everyone at the table

That’s the kind of thinking that excites Goerzen about the future of farming and the role Deep Roots can play in the food production of tomorrow.

“Vertical farming, container farming, aquaponics—there’s a lot of different things you can pursue, from a technology perspective, to really grow a decent amount of food,” he says.

Rather than take an “us versus them” stance as the independent, small-scale grower up against a corporate farm like Vision Greens, “there’s something to be learned from everyone,” Goerzen adds.

“The future of farming is going to be local businesses working together to ultimately create these thriving little ecosystems in their communities. The more we can come together, it’s only going to move us forward.”


Reducing farming’s footprint

Farms in Canada generate 8 to 10 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change. Well-managed agriculture, be it through regenerative agriculture or precision farming using machine learning to reduce inputs and emissions, means greater resilience in the face of climate change and biodiversity loss.


Farming grows up

Swapping fields for high-rise structures to grow food might seem futuristic. But vertical farming is really more old-time space age.

NASA has worked on growing food in closed systems without sunlight, open air, and abundant water since the space agency’s early days. It’s all in an effort toward self-sufficiency for astronauts when doing lunar exploration or travelling to Mars.

Although NASA contributed to developing this technology, industry has found a way to commercialize it as vertical farming.

The technology used by Vision Greens, a vertical farm in Welland, Ontario, was informed by NASA research and developed by Norway-based Intravision Group. Both Intravision and the space agency research and test plant-growth technology that’s shaping the vertical farming industry at the University of Guelph’s Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility, about an hour west of Toronto.

After piloting the technology on a small scale in 2017, Vision Greens built the first full-scale system in 2020 using Intravision’s technology based on NASA research.


This article was originally published in the June 2024 issue of alive magazine.



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Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD