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City innovation fund request could sprout Calgary food access

There’s hope a city innovation grant could help launch a new growth opportunity in Calgary.

Sunspring Farms is working on a partnership with the City of Calgary and Fresh Routes mobile food delivery to validate a social impact model to support indoor urban agriculture (vertical farming). It would create a source of accessible produce for Calgarians.

A $250,000 Council Innovation Fund request is coming to the Executive Committee on Wednesday.

Vertical Farming is the practice of growing crops using vertically stacked layers. It often incorporates soilless farming techniques such as hydroponics. That makes it ideal for indoor and urban agriculture.

“The goal is to combine production and consumption by incorporating hyper-local hydroponic vertical farms with Calgary affordable housing developments in order to grow safe, fresh and healthy produce, while retaining sustainable business practices and underserved populations in order to drive social impact in Calgary communities,” read documents submitted to city council.

One-time funding is being sought by the project team on a cost reimbursement basis. It would be overseen by a project lead in administration.

Locally-produced foods for urban environments ‘essential’ Sunspring CEO

Sunspring Farms co-founder and CEO Chad Kolesnik said outsourcing products such as fresh produce isn’t viable anymore.

“The need for locally-produced produce, especially in urban environments such as Calgary, becomes more essential as we move forward,” he said.

“The less we can import into Calgary, the better. Especially when it comes to reducing the cost of produce since that’s now becoming a very high trend.”

According to the documents submitted to city council, the arrangement helps build on community efforts to create a healthy, equitable, and sustainable food system with the goal of providing more places to grow, sell, and access local foods.

Kolesnik said the investment is an opportunity for the City to support social and agricultural innovation. It also introduces a potential community partner to co-locate at an integrated civic facility.

“We want to make a big benefit to Calgarians and to make a very inclusive work environment for all of our employees, especially for those who suffer with cognitive and physical disabilities,” said Kolesnik.

According to Kolesnik, the model could be replicated across Calgary. That could increase food accessibility with multiple secondary benefits, including the potential use of vacant commercial spaces.

First location: Bridgeland

The first location of the project, according to Kolesnik, will be a space of 19,000 square feet by the Armour Block building. It currently has two floors that are affordable housing developments, along 4 Street NE, Edmonton Trail and Memorial Drive.

“The idea for the pilot is to validate our model within that storage garage, which happens to be right adjacent to the Armour Block, and then eventually expand into the commercial space, which is right underneath those affordable housing developments,” said Kolesnik.

The City’s investment in this pilot will be used to refund a portion of the operating expenses for the project.

The project application indicated that it will cost $620,000. It stated that the investment from the Council Innovation Fund would enable the project to access capital from the Social Enterprise Fund. That funds social enterprises across Alberta.

The pilot project is anticipated to generate an estimated $135,000 in gross revenues, with more than $13,000 a year in subsidy to support the Fresh Routes program.

A successful pilot may lead to additional investment by Sunspring Farms and others across Calgary, Kolesnik said.  

“By growing fresh produce such as lettuce, herbs, microgreens, and vegetables vertically, it will allow urban farms to produce comparable yields to traditional farming methods, but with using zero per cent soil and pesticides, 70 per cent to 95 per cent less water, 10 per cent the physical footprint, and resulting in 90 per cent of crops planted being harvested,” said Kolesnik.  

The approximate balance of the Council Innovation Fund is $2.3 million.

The project is aligned with the council-approved food action plan, titled Calgary Eats!, the admin report said.

LiveWire Calgary asked to interview city officials. They declined to speak on the project before it went to committee.