Farming up: the future of vertical farms in the Fraser Valley

Seas of corn. Rows of blueberry bushes. Open-ended dairy barns. Gently glowing greenhouses illuminating the clouds above.

In the Fraser Valley, there is often a very specific vision of what farming looks like. But in February of this year, the Ministry of Agriculture made it easier for a new vision of farming to sprout on the landscape.

Vertical farms. These industrial-looking farms are in many ways similar to greenhouses. They exist in large, climate-controlled buildings, and they make it easier to grow vegetables that would ordinarily need to be shipped in from warmer climates like California. But unlike most greenhouses, vertical farms stack their plants. By growing more plants in a given area, proponents say vertical farming can make locally grown food more sustainable.

BC’s rules are only slowly catching up to technology. Before 2022, proposed vertical farms on the Agricultural Land Reserve had to go through a special approval process with the Agricultural Land Commission. In February 2022, the province made a declaration: vertical farming is farming, and would be allowed in all parts of the ALR.

For vertical farmers and the people who are invested in its success, it was a triumph. But there is a catch.

Municipalities now have the ability to create their own rules around vertical farms, similar to what the province put in place for cannabis operations on ALR land. Both Abbotsford and Chilliwack are in the very early stages of deciding what those regulations would look like.

This kind of regulatory hand-off has rarely happened before, according to UFV professor Lenore Newman, who has been studying food sustainability in Canada for the last quarter of a century

“Starting to pick and choose which farm uses are allowed on ALR will not end well for any use that’s industrial in scope,” Newman said. “We could literally just end up with hobby wineries and green fields with a few cows.”

What is a vertical farm?

In the Fraser Valley, there were 136 greenhouse operations as of last July. These glass-enclosed spaces cover roughly 480 acres of agricultural land and are used to grow nursery plants, tomatoes, peppers and, less frequently, lettuces and herbs.

Most people know how a greenhouse works: crops are planted either in raised beds or directly in the earth, while a climate- and light-controlled building creates an ideal growing environment. Vertical farms work in much the same way—except they turn the whole operation on its side.

“Vertical farming is still farming,” explained Dave Dinesen, CEO of CubicFarms, a Langley-based vertical farming company. “But the farmers are just as likely to be on the technology side—robotics, AI, agronomists…—as opposed to the labour side.”

Instead of rows on the ground, produce is planted in stacked beds. Lights provide illumination for each bed of plants. (Some companies have a row of lights for each bed, while others, like CubicFarms, rotate the beds themselves to bring them closer to the light source.) CO2 levels and other gases like nitrogen are monitored and adjusted.

Just how high these buildings can go depends on the farm itself. Warehouse-style vertical farms exist, although they can pose challenges due to variable CO2 levels at different heights in the building. Some companies like CubicFarms prefer a modular approach, in which beds are stacked inside shipping containers, and those containers can then be stacked two high. Vertical farms are typically more highly automated than greenhouses, with a few labourers able to supplement the work of robotic systems.

Right now, vertical farms primarily deal in lettuces, herbs, and microgreens—small plants with light root structures that are difficult to import without expensive wastage. (Greenhouses are typically better at producing peppers and tomatoes, as well as flowers.)

The goal is to create more intensive agriculture spaces, making local greens more sustainable. (CubicFarms estimates that one acre of their vertical farm system can replace 100 acres of traditional outdoor farming.) And many proponents of vertical farming think it is succeeding.

“Farming of the future is robotics, artificial intelligence, engineering, and project management,” Dinesen said. “All of this is how we’re going to be growing and getting our food in the future.”

Newman agreed, noting that vertical farming was particularly useful for a place like Canada, where cold winters dominate much of what could be the growing season.

“This is a country where you can really only farm four months of the year,” she said. “So if any country should embrace this, it should be us.”

There are challenges of course. Vertical farms are prohibitively expensive for many. (CubicFarms sold 26 modules to a Campbell River company for $4.4 million, not including the land the containers would need to go on.) And even when cost isn’t an issue, finding space for the farms can be tricky because of what Dinesen calls “reverse prejudice.”

“There’s a prejudice against a technology-enabled farm,” he said. “All of a sudden, it’s not farming.”

That is one reason why BC’s Ministry of Agriculture made legislative changes that will allow vertical farms to set up shop on the Agricultural Land Reserve. But some food security experts like Newman think the province didn’t go far enough in ensuring vertical farms get the same supports that greenhouses and other farm types do.

Supporting agritech

In 2020, Newman and two other members of BC’s Food Security Task Force published a report outlining exactly how the province could ensure every British Columbia had access to fresh food. The team had been appointed by the government one year earlier, and told to come up with recommendations for food security and the economic growth of BC agriculture.

Their report focused on agritech. One of the big recommendations: allowing vertical farms and other agriculture technology on the Agricultural Land Reserve.

“My prediction is in Canada, in 10 years, almost all leafy greens will be produced vertically, year-round, locally. It’s going to be great,” Newman told The Current. “Better jobs, better prices, better quality.”

But, that doesn’t mean the change will be easy.

This February’s change ensures that people wanting to build vertical farms wouldn’t have to submit an application to the Agricultural Land Commission like they did before. (Prior to the announcement, only two applications had been submitted in the entire province—one of which was located in Abbotsford.)

The new regulations, which came into effect on Aug. 31, mean that any farmer can start a vertical farm, so long as they file a Notice of Intent for soil or fill use with the ALC. It will be almost the same as building a greenhouse or poultry barn on Fraser Valley farmland.

But not quite. And that is where Newman thinks the province slipped up.

Local governments will have the opportunity to regulate vertical farms—something that almost never happens on the Agricultural Land Reserve. That authority would allow individual municipalities the ability to ban vertical farms or restrict them to particular parts of the region’s farmland—essentially treating vertically grown lettuce the same as cannabis.

“This emerging type of intensive agriculture may not align with the values of some communities, as do more established types of agriculture,” a Ministry of Agriculture spokesperson wrote in an email. “The changes allow communities to make land use bylaws for this new form of agriculture that reflect their food security and land use goals.”

Newman has a different take on the situation.

“Really what they’re saying is: ‘Municipalities were so nervous about lettuce that we’re going to let you prohibit it in bylaws,’” she said. “It’s a shift in policy that I think in the long-term will be very dangerous.”

The future of farming

In BC, as well as in the Fraser Valley, Newman said she has seen a kind of “agricultural NIMBY-ism,” where some kinds of farming are considered more equal than others.

“If it doesn’t look like field crops, people get nervous. And my question is: where do you draw the line, because we are seeing less and less of that kind of farming.”

In the Fraser Valley, there are 2,358 farms—a 14% decline from just a decade ago. A little less than half of those businesses are less than 10 acres, meaning many are likely residential properties with a hobby farm attached. Although the amount of land being used to grow wheat, blueberries, and corn for livestock has increased in the last decade, Newman said that isn’t good enough for BC to remain competitive in agriculture.

“It’s really a fight for whether the ALR is a farming zone or a rural residential zone. And that’s rapidly what it’s turning into,” she said.

“If I were the wine and beer industry, if I was the greenhouse industry, if I was the animal agriculture industry, I’d be very worried that the government is starting to devolve powers to the municipalities, and that they might use those powers to limit agriculture to only the most peaceful, residential styles of agriculture.”

How to regulate a farm

Newman’s nightmare isn’t here yet. Many municipalities have hardly begun to discuss their approach to vertical farming—including the Fraser Valley’s two biggest farming towns, Abbotsford and Chilliwack.

In June of this year, Chilliwack’s Agricultural and Rural Advisory Committee sat down to discuss the change to the ALR regulations. They decided to ask staff to study the issue further, to find out what kind of development standards would be needed to control light pollution, noise from exhaust fans, and water discharge impacts.

Chilliwack staff are currently working on amendments to its zoning bylaw around vertical farms, and expect to bring them to council in late 2022 or early 2023.

Abbotsford staff are also taking a slow-and-steady approach to vertical farming. The practice is allowed under Abbotsford’s AgRefresh zoning bylaw, although the city will study vertical farming further. (Abbotsford currently has at least two vertical farms, one of which is in the ALR.)

Chilliwack’s committee report noted that some areas have limited vertical farms to industrial land. Both Newman and Dinesen said that would be impractical and ill-advised.

“If they’d like to pay $50 for a salad, then no problem,” Dinesen joked. “That same person that’s probably saying ‘How dare you put vertical farming on ALR land,’ they’re not willing to pay more for their dinner and they’re probably not going to go out and pick lettuce out of the field either.

“You can’t have it both ways,” he continued. “If you want accessible food at a reasonable price, you need technology. And it’s got to go on a piece of dirt.”

(Industrial land is facing a crisis of its own in BC, as there are fewer and fewer spaces left for expansion, and land prices are extremely high. Agricultural land, although much more expensive than decades ago, is still cheaper than areas designated for both industry and residences. That creates more incentive for industrial encroachment on farmland, rather than the reverse.)

For now, the ALR is open for construction when it comes to agritech like vertical farms. Dinesen said that the provincial change has already sparked a wave of interest in farmers who might not otherwise have considered vertical farming. He added that larger projects, which have significantly higher up-front costs, are now being contemplated across the province.

But if municipalities impose too many regulations, people like Newman worry about what it will mean for agriculture in a future that is increasingly technology-driven.

“I’ve always been busy protecting the ALR from developers,” she said. “It never occurred to me that the real long-term threat might be making it so hard to use it to farm that we actually just extinguish all the farming on it.”

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