The Great Indoors
Guelph – Are skyrocketing land prices preventing you from starting your own farm business? Don’t fret, because crops can be grown in old industrial buildings too – legal crops at that.
Vertical farming – a comparatively new agricultural system – offers some promise for producing crops in novel ways and novel places.
For Oliver Lauzon, a Guelph entrepreneur and past renewable energy professional, vertical farming also offers a chance to continue an environmentally-focused career.
Lauzon and his father, Paul, opened Molly’s Vertical Farming in June 2017. The business, which is named after Lauzon’s Great Dane and based out of a disused 4,000 square foot auto body shop, will produce hydroponically grown Boston and Romaine lettuce for both wholesale and direct local markets.
The lettuce will be grown using LED lights on two separate tiers thorough the facility – essentially doubling the available growing space.
“We place seeds in a propagation chamber, then move them to a seedling cart until they are ready to be planted in the vertical towers,” says Lauzon. “We are also trying to be as green as possible.”
Because Lauzon decided to work in an otherwise unnatural agricultural environment (i.e. not in a field), creating a green business has required a fair amount of extra planning.
Lighting, for instance, can draw a fair amount of electricity; considering the potential for better growth and Ontario’s energy prices, Lauzon naturally gravitated to LED lighting.
On top of that, he plans on keeping the lights off during the day – and on at night – to make use of cheaper rates.
A water system is also needed, but irrigation and recirculation systems like those used in modern greenhouses are very expensive.
Consequently, Lauzon employs a “do it yourself mentality.” In practice, that means designing and building his growing system from the ground up.
But it’s all economy of scale. The medium-term goal for Molly’s Vertical Farm, says Lauzon, is expansion.
Part of his short-term plan includes focusing on higher-value markets. That means striving to grow produce using organic methods – something which a sterile, indoor environment should assist with – and selling locally as often as possible.
“We hope to eventually get bigger, more efficient, and drop prices. Our goal is to produce food for everyone, not necessarily just specific market segments,” he says.
Lauzon also hopes to develop an “R & D” wing. Here, he can test different crops within their system (e.g. herbs and berries), and fine-tune his business into something that can be replicated elsewhere – particularly in colder climates.
In the meantime, Lauzon says he and his father are focused on starting their first crop in October.
“We will need a couple full-time employees as it is, plus more for harvest periods. We’re starting to look into partnerships, and potentially an internship program, with the University of Guelph as well,” he says. “That in itself will be a big step.”
Photo source: Chantelle Collier, AgInnovation Ontario