This interview details Vertical North Canada, a leading indoor farming company developing a new format of vertical farming in Canada. The interview is with Bob Legault, Founder and CEO at Vertical North Canada.
What is your background?
I first got into vertical farming in 2012, and before that spent time in California with a company called Taylor Farms. I had actually seen a vertical farm for the first time in China all the way back in 2007. Fast forward to 2017 and I helped build a vertical farm from scratch, which ended up closing down. I spent time with Cubic Farms in Vancouver also.
As a result of this experience, I have seen all types of different vertical farming methods. Most recently we have taken over a facility here in Toronto and are building Vertical North, and investing heavily into building a first class operation that has good unit economics.
What is unique about the Toronto market as a vertical farm?
There is a huge culinary scene here in Toronto. We hold an event every year where we do a “chef battle” with celebrity chefs who utilize our crops in their dishes. Located here in Toronto is the George Brown culinary school, which is a globally recognized culinary school where many aspiring chefs come to study, and they end up staying in Toronto. We did a survey of chefs and found that herbs is the number one item that they throw out, and so that has guided our strategy to vertical farm herbs in the future at Vertical North.
What are some differentiators of Vertical North?
As noted, we have a very experienced team that has been in the vertical farming space for many years. We have seen how to be successful and not successful in vertical farming. We are approaching some unique markets that pay a premium price such as the kosher market. Other vertical farms have tried this market and have not quite captured it fully, so we see an opportunity. Our farm design is unique in that we have 9 total grow rooms that are each a more compact design, 50 x 60 feet and 18 feet high.
This compactness is key because it allows for better environmental control while still achieving scale. Most vertical farms are up to 14 tiers high and this results in problems like temperature differentials at different tiers. For example the top tier can be as much as 34 degrees Celsius while the bottom is 18 degrees Celsius. We are able to avoid this problem with our design. There is 40,000 square feet of production space and we have the ability to cycle different rooms at different times to have consistent supply. Four workers can still be in each room working at one time at the current individual room size.
Finally, we are utilizing a floating bed raft system (3.5 lbs per raft) that so far is showing about 17-22% higher yields than our previous raft system. In total we are forecasting about 1M lbs of production and have LOIs signed already with major Canadian retailers.
What are some misconceptions you are seeing in the current vertical farming industry?
One major problem I am seeing is farms trying to fully automate. Turnkey systems are being overstated. You still need some people to walk the farm. You still need to feel and taste the crops yourself. Another is farms trying to be too large. You have issues fully controlling the environment as stated before, and when you use lifts for harvesting that is when challenges like injuries can occur.
As many people have talked about there is a lot of greenwashing in the industry and overestimation of yields. The ROI data being touted by many farms is not accurate. ROI estimates are being calculated without key information like the final location of the vertical farm and the true cost of inputs like electricity that is local to that area. I know of one vertical farm that was expecting 1M lbs of yield but in reality only reached 150k lbs in their first year, for example. Finally people are not fully accounting for the costs of setting up and operating their farm. For example not everyone is factoring in: electricity rate increases, facility rent, depreciation.
Another misconception is that greenhouse growing is similar to vertical farm growing. Many head growers from the greenhouse industry come to operate vertical farms and there is still a learning curve.
Finally regarding crop mix, people do not realize different leafy greens are different. Microgreens for example require more labor than other leafy greens and therefore need a higher price point to the customer, however many people in the industry refer to the crops interchangeably and have similar or the same pricing.
What are you looking forward to for Vertical North and the industry at large?
I expect there to be consolidation in the industry, and ultimately we will prove that the vertical farming model can make money with experience operators and the right farm design, strategy, and location.
As far as Vertical North, we are planning to open our first R&D room in May of 2023, four additional grow rooms in October of 2023, and the final four grow grooms in January of 2024. If anyone wants to look at the new farm setup, just contact me and we are happy to discuss a visit and tour.
How Can People Learn More About Vertical North?
Visit https://verticalnorth.ca to learn more.
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