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Alberta Yield: Things turning up green for West Grow Farms

Jim Philpott took a circuitous route to being a farmer.

He spent years in corporate finance later migrating to construction, mainly oilfield construction. Along the way, Philpott honed a skillset of building things.

After a few boom and busts in the energy sector, Philpott figured it was time to do something new. At first, a group approach him to build a facility for an indoor vertical farm.

A vertical farm is one that’s built upwards instead of outwards.

“Quite frankly, I had no idea,” Philpott said.

“But I said, ‘if you give me enough time, I’ll figure it out.”

He spent three months travelling across North America looking at different farming operations and how those buildings were constructed.

“When I came back I said, ‘OK, it’s time to go,” Philpott said.

“And they said, ‘well, we don’t have any money.’”

Philpott wasn’t about to waste that time, energy and knowledge and not put it to use. After seeing hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics, he settled on aeroponics for a vertical farming operation.

Today’s it’s West Grow Farms based in Acheson, Alberta.

The aeroponics system

Aeroponics is a soil-free cultivation process, where plants are put into chambers atop a filter. The filter and chamber insulate the roots from the outside. The plant root is suspended in air and misted with nutrient-rich water.

Philpott said they’ll mist the roots for five seconds every seven to 10 minutes, 24 hours a day.

The process uses substantially less water than traditional farming methods. Their website states it uses 95 per cent less. Much of the water they use for farming is also reused.

Philpott’s found that the most productive crop so far is lettuce. Leafy greens tend to do well in this environment, especially in smaller operations.

He’s tried kale, spinach, Japanese spinach, basil, mint and arugula, and lettuce is the one that outperforms them all.

“It’s probably best to focus on primarily lettuce. Now, once we get a larger facility, we can go back to those other plants,” Philpott said.

“You try to focus on what the market wants, what the market is demanding and what works best for your business.”

Combining skills past, present and future

Philpott has the background in construction. He’s got experience with the research on aeroponic. He started in corporate finance.

What does a start-up accelerator provide to a person with such a diverse set of skills?

Philpott said it was refreshing.

“To be able to be in the presence of people (mentors) who have done what we’re basically trying to do,” he said.

“These people are entrepreneurs who have walked the road.”

Philpott said anybody can read a book, but if you have people who have already been through some of what he’s going through, you take away their experience.

“They have lots of real-life experiences, so it kind of helps a start up like me,” he said.

Gleaning that experience has helped set Philpott up for the new stage in the start-up adventure.

The future looks green

Philpott started off in farmer’s markets. They do offer curbside pick-up and they’re currently in 28 retailers across the Edmonton area.

He said they’re very careful not to undercut the retailers in their sales because they want to maintain a good relationship with the clients that have helped them get this far.

Expansion is in the cards, too.

Philpott has the designs ready for a new grow facility outside Edmonton later this year. They’ve got plans for another on in Calgary by fall 2022.

It’s part of a five-stage plan that will eventually take the across the country, Philpott said.

“It was a long process to go through the design and proof of concept,” he said.

“And the next step is to take your proof of concept and scale it. We have no reason to believe that that’s not going to work.”