Feed The World? The Farm Without Any Soil

Feed The World? The Farm Without Any Soil

Feed The World? The Farm Without Any Soil

Published December 5, 2016 - 8:59pm
Last Updated December 5, 2016 - 9:09pm

Loblaws backing retail test run for TruLeaf, Truro’s innovative indoor farmer

Bible Hill-based TruLeaf Sustainable Agriculture has started retailing its innovative, indoor-grown greens — partnering with Loblaws-owned grocer Dominion to distribute via that chain’s 11 Newfoundland stores.

Gregg Curwin, TruLeaf’s founder, president and chief executive officer, told The Chronicle Herald that Dominion began selling five TruLeaf products in October under TruLeaf’s GoodLeaf Farms brand.

Curwin said a five-ounce “clamshell” container of baby greens was selling for $4.99, about the same price as the regular Californian-grown premium-priced organic produce that currently comprises 90 per cent of all of Canada’s supply.

Curwin said the deal — to his knowledge the first time Loblaws had sold products made using hydroponics — was a pilot for launching across other markets including, initially, Atlantic Canada and the Greater Toronto Area.

He said Loblaws provided valuable advice relating to TruLeaf’s development.

Leading up to the big deal

The Dominion deal followed an April agreement with Gordon Food Service to sell into Nova Scotian restaurants and food service businesses for the first time, he said.

In October, the Truro and Colchester Chamber of Commerce recognized the 27-employee TruLeaf with an innovation award, while the previous month saw the Delta Management Group present a national Clean50 award to TruLeaf for developing and scaling its “smart plant” system.

Curwin said TruLeaf was on track to tap Greater Toronto Area consumers by opening there in late 2017. That facility would be about three times larger and more productive than the company’s existing 4,000-square-foot operation that produces 150,000-200,000 lbs. of greens annually. (See Chronicle Herald, Oct. 17.)

Going inside, getting vertical

To date, five-year-old TruLeaf has landed $2.5 million in financing, most of it from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and Crown capital agency Innovacorp, Curwin confirmed. The company’s private investors included vintner and former grocer Pete Luckett, as well as former Ocean Nutrition CEO Martin Jamieson, he said.

Curwin said TruLeaf’s products can’t be labelled as organic in Canada because they’re grown hydroponically. But he said pesticide-free and sustainably-based TruLeaf is going after the same consumers who bought organic produce.

He said TruLeaf plans to license the technology globally in “a few” years, following “significant” interest during the past two years.

Curwin said growing vertically indoors, rather than horizontally in fields, makes sense in a world marked by food insecurity, overpopulation, overcrowding, and environment-related risks such as climate change. TruLeaf’s model also allows food to be brought closer to consumers, he said.

TruLeaf’s Facebook page says it wants to “enable every community to grow the world’s healthiest food locally and sustainably.”

New Brunswick-raised Curwin studied at Saint Mary’s University before working for two decades in health care. He became intrigued with indoor farming after seeing a picture of a Japanese multi-level farm.

He said TruLeaf has been supported and advised by Dalhousie University’s Truro-based Faculty of Agriculture as well as provincially funded agricultural incubator Perennia and the National Research Council.

The science bit: TruLeaf’s tech

Using its trademarked but unpatented Smart Plant System, TruLeaf quadruples the amount of space available for farming by growing its plants on 10 levels. A fine-tuned LED array provides “sunlight.”

Excess water and humidity in the air is reclaimed to boost efficiencies, allowing the system to grow easily-transportable leafy greens with 90 per cent less water and less effluent and other waste — while yielding approximately 30 times as much food per square foot as a traditional farm, the company says.

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