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Calgary’s indoor urban farms breaking down barriers, eye expansion of local food production

The seeds of Calgary’s commercial food industry have been planted, but conditions aren’t yet ripe for the city to harvest the full rewards of urban food production, local producers say.

Former oil and gas engineers Paul and Ryan Wright, along with Dan Clayholt, launched NuLeaf farms, a hydroponic agriculture operation in a southeast Calgary garage.

“We really wanted to find something where we had some passion and where we could apply our skills to really solve some problems,” said Paul.

“Agriculture stood out like a sore thumb.”

They saw an opportunity to use high-end tech they’d been exposed to for the development of more sustainable and efficient year-round food production in Calgary.

“That led to the beginning of us not only developing something that was environmentally sustainable, but we wanted something that was economically sustainable,” Paul said.

They have a proprietary software that optimizes climate conditions and nutrient delivery, light conditions and amount of CO2. It’s allowed them to build a vertical growing system that produces 180 plants per square foot annually, enough to allow them to sell to smaller grocery stores and Calgary restaurants.

Now they’re scaling up. They have a module designed – similar to the size of the garage – but they also have plans for a full-sized manufacturing operation.  

While headway’s been made in the adoption of land-uses for indoor commercial food growth in Calgary, Paul said accessibility to programs to help them scale up is a challenge.

(From left) Ryan Wright, Paul Wright and Dan Clayholt with NuLeaf Farms, a hydroponic operation based in southeast Calgary that grows basil. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

“A lot of (granting) agencies are looking for innovation, but the parameters for grants aren’t tailored to anything like this. They seem pretty closed-minded to anything that far out of the norm,” Paul said.

He added that when setting up operations he’s cognizant of the business tax regime in the city and how it compares with jurisdictions like Rocky View County.

Kristi Peters Snider, sustainability consultant with the City of Calgary’s CalgaryEATS! Food Action Plan, said indoor commercial food operations are new in Calgary, with the city seeing mostly outdoor “spin farms” and other  smaller urban farms over the past decade.

Peters Snider said the city’s land use bylaw amendments coupled with Calgary Economic Development’s saying agri-business should be an area of focus has boosted efforts to modernize Calgary’s food rules.

“There’s some work to do, and the role the city can play is in enabling more food distribution pathways to help these growers,” she said.

Paul Shumlich, founder and CEO of Calgary’s Deepwater Farms, an aquaponics operation in southeast Calgary, said it’s early days in all this and any movement forward should be done in consultation with the growers.

“If they go ahead and start implementing things, or drafting policy or bylaws without input from industry, they’ll screw it up. Or they’ll make hurdles that don’t need to exist,” Shumlich said.  

“They (the city) need to understand what we need and then reverse engineer as if we’re the customer.”

Shumlich’s operation, which he started a number of years back, grows plants without soil and feeds the plants with water whose nutrients come from the waste of edible sea bass they’re raising in the same operation.

They’re at one-third capacity and will be expanding in their current space through 2019, also with eyes on a new facility. They’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign to push the production forward.

He said it’s been a challenge being a pioneer locally, as they’re paving the way through the civic bureaucracy.

“We’ve definitely been pioneering a lot of it in terms of getting through all the permitting, land use and through all the inspections,” said Shumlich.

“Everybody that we deal with, from a permitting perspective, has no idea what they’re looking at or how to deal with us, so that’s been a bit of a headache.”

Peters Snider said the city’s working on the development of an urban farm that will not only allow them to test a model of city-owned land used for food production, but also to help inform them on best practices for approaching things like permits and approvals.

She said they have a 17-point action plan that will help break down some of the barriers new operations face – including creating new pathways for the sale of urban farm products.

They piloted pop-up LRT markets for the sale of fresh produce and will continue to build out that program. They’re also hoping to open up more markets on city-owned land. More changes to land use are expected in 2019.

“There’s lots more work. I feel that each area of focus helps achieve that goal of producing more local food,” she said.

That’s the goal. Both NuLeaf and Deepwater Farms are committed to the safe, environmentally-friendly and sustainable growth of local food. They both want to scale up and push the boundaries of their business to deliver fresh produce (and in Shumlich’s case, sea bass) to the Calgary and Alberta market.

“We’re trying to supply the big guys,” said Paul from NuLeaf.

“We’re trying to eliminate as much imported product as possible.”

While there are some hiccups, Shumlich said that’s normal when breaking new ground.

“More than anything it’s exciting and fun because there’s no playbook, so what we’re doing is novel,” he said.