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Eat Vancouver: Local Garden, North America’s First Vertical Farm

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Update: May 2017 – Local Garden closed due to high overhead costs. We were sad to see the project go!

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At my childhood home in Calgary, there were always rabbits in our backyard, nibbling on our veggie patch. These rabbits would settle their chubby bums amongst our rows of carrots and lettuce and enjoy the luxury of our homegrown produce.

Though it’s always exciting to hear “local” in the foodie realm, you can’t help but notice the varied geographical radius this word encompasses. Depending on where you are and what you are referring to, “local” can extend from 100 miles to your whole province.

Yet, I think of “local,” and think of the bunnies in my backyard, ravishing the joys that (literally) surround them. In a metropolitan grid like Vancouver, achieving the same meaning of “local” seemed near impossible…until last year, when Local Garden became North America’s first VertiCrop urban farming system.

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Seated on top of a parkade in downtown Vancouver, Local Garden is quickly and quietly changing the sustainable food farming and food production landscape. When you make it to the top floor of the parkade, the tented greenhouse has an almost comedic presence. It’s deceivingly simplistic at first glance, but as I ventured through the cavernous expanse of greenhouse, I was floored, humbled, and deeply inspired.

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120 racks, each holding 24 trays of 24-39 plants are suspended from the ceiling. Over 30 types of produce circulate on a track, receiving water at four points. As the towers of greenery made their calm, measured circles around me, I was at a loss for words. It was as if I had stepped into a futuristic world to witness a complex operation that I had no idea could ever exist. But here it is, North America’s very first farm of this kind, thriving in the concrete mass of our own city. In a mere 6000 sq. ft. space, Local Garden is producing the equivalent of a 5 acre farm…regardless of the weather. This makes “eating local” very achievable.

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It’s a never-before-seen concept, so there was so much to learn from and marvel at. With piles of notes to choose from, I’ve put together a list of the most interesting facts I gleaned from my time at Local Garden:

  • The “transition” process from farm to table is this: the plants spend 21 days growing in the greenhouse. They are packaged on-site, then driven down 9 floors of parkade, onto Richards Street, and straight to grocers like Urban Fare and Whole Foods. When you consider the grief we go through to get products from Mexico, California and China, the simplistic chain of events at Local Garden is truly remarkable.

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  • Plants at Local Garden grow for only 21 days. Because of this, fibres in the plants will not fully mature, meaning the produce has less carbohydrates and is sweeter, more tender, and easier to digest!

  • You know how you get the “mixed greens” at the store? Local Garden has two blends: the Rooftop Blend and a brand new Vancouver Special. I assumed that all the elements were grown separately and combined in the box, but Local Garden actually grows the whole blend together in one plant! To harvest, the entire plant is separated from it’s growing pod, rinsed, and is ready for the box! It doesn’t get any fresher that that.

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  • Local Garden is using custom, sodium halide lights that give off the ideal amount of lumins (rays of light) in the correct spectrum for plant growth.

  • They play music to the plants. Apparently they’re exclusively into classical and reggae.
  • Local Garden doesn’t use any pesticides or herbicides! If the little buggers do make it into the greenhouse from one of the two entrance points, “integrative pest management” techniques are employed. To illustrate this, if aphids are sighted, ladybugs are released!

  • The watering system is really fascinating. It has the same appeal as the rolling ball display outside Science World…you could watch for hours. The water comes from four points in the ceiling, and trickles down from tray to tray, until it reaches the troughs in the floor. It’s then drained to P9 (we’re in a parking lot, remember?), sand filtered and UV treated, and used again!

  • They’re growing the newest product in the produce section. Think about that for a moment. When was the last time a new product found it’s way between the apples and tomatoes? The microgreens from Local Garden are still alive in the box – you can eat them straight, or open the lid, put it in your window at home, and keep them growing!

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  • You can find Local Garden’s ultra-fresh produce in restaurants like Fable and Boneta, but about 95% of their business is focused on “feeding the people” who want to eat Vancouver’s locally grown produce. It’s a luxury to go out for dinner in Vancouver. Local Garden focuses on getting the product to you, such that you can enjoy this simple pleasure every single day.

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When Local Garden started it’s journey just over three years ago, the technology for vertical-farms already existed. If the technology was already understood, my question was, “why isn’t everyone doing it?” Though it was initially difficult for Marketing Manager, Rae Abbott, to pinpoint the exact barrier to entry for vertical farming, I realized that everything – every process, every product, every day – is a challenge. “Everything we do here is a try,” Abbott admits, but there is a clear tone of excitement in her voice. Because they are pioneering the concept in North America, Local Garden must approach businesses and suppliers to stretch beyond their regular means to meet the needs of the greenhouse. Every step is a serious undertaking and no corners can be cut to achieve what Local Garden aims for.

In a world where we are confronted with documentaries like Food Inc., which expose the intense corporatization of the food industry without a glimmer of optimism, this little parkade greenhouse shines like a beacon of hope. How inspiring to know and see people, in our own city, working resiliently and tirelessly to create change, despite the odds. It’s a power we cannot underestimate. In the next ten years, Local Garden hopes to have a total of five vertical farms in Vancouver. The next time you’re trudging down a busy street, stuck in traffic, or waiting for a bus downtown…look up. Something amazing is growing close by.

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Joyce Chua

About Joyce Chua

I’m fascinated by food and its impact on culture, especially in an increasingly globalized world. I love how Vancouver’s multicultural food scene opens doors to history, culture, and understanding. Here’s to a life of eating and learning!

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