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Espanola greenhouse builder becomes farmer to prove technology

Greenhouses Canada is pushing the envelope for indoor growing in Northern Ontario.

Jeff Scharf didn’t set out to be a farmer.

The roofer-turned-greenhouse-designer simply wanted to build efficient, four-season greenhouses and sell them to customers looking to grow their own food. But two years after he and his partners launched Greenhouses Canada, Scharf realized that to sell greenhouses, he first had to sell the technology.

“At no point two years ago was I ever expecting to grow my own food,” he said. “I wanted to build greenhouses for other people. But in order to be able to actually prove that and be able to do that, you have to become a farmer.”

He’s now demonstrating his technology really does work from his 4,000-square-foot prototype greenhouse in Espanola, which isn’t even fully completed yet, but is producing thousands of dollars’ worth of food monthly that is shipped to customers locally.

The company employs 15 people — who manage, grow, crop, package and ship the product — and Scharf anticipates hiring 10 to 15 more within the next six months.

About half the facility is dedicated to traditional crops, like tomatoes and cucumbers, while the other half is dedicated to microgreens like wheatgrass.

But this is isn’t like the greenhouses of old with walls of windows and poor insulation. Greenhouses Canada uses a combination of sophisticated technology and contemporary growing practices that allow operators to grow produce year-round, regardless of their climate.

“We have a 12-kilowatt rooftop solar system to offset our electrical load, because the electrical load is quite high, and we’re also integrating a 500-kilowatt cogeneration facility that’ll power our whole building,” Scharf said.

“We’re still going to be grid-tied, but we’re doing a net meter so it’ll offset all our electrical.”

The cogeneration facility doubles as a source of carbon dioxide, which is required for indoor growing and helps increase crop yields.

That technology is used alongside an aquaponics system (the cultivation of fish) and hydroponics (the cultivation of plants) in nutrient-rich water. The system uses 95 per cent less water than traditional growing methods.

Initially, the Greenhouses Canada design was targeted at communities in Northern and remote areas which have short growing seasons. Scharf believed it would be particularly beneficial to Indigenous communities that pay high prices for produce that’s trucked or flown in from the southern U.S. and Mexico.

But with the idea of indoor growing still being new to many communities, Scharf was having a hard time selling the idea. What he needed, he realized, was to demonstrate that it works, and once that decision was made, new ideas started percolating.

Last May, Greenhouses Canada signed a distribution agreement with Indoor Farms of America, which produces a plastic, molded vertical panel that allows producers to grow 40 plants per square foot.

“Our vertical system basically hangs like a bookcase in a library and can move side to side, so we can really maximize the space,” Scharf said. “And in that panel that’s hanging, there are 320 spots on that one panel, so it’s a very different way of looking at vertical growing.”

Also in the works is a three-way agreement with gd2go and Buckstone Inc., two businesses based in Callander, to create a mobile truck that would grow and distribute food, while training and demonstrating the technology.

Scharf estimates it would produce 4,875 plants per month, or a total of $9,750 in monthly revenue ($117,000 annually).

The company has also been experimenting with an indoor growing facility manufactured from a 20-foot shipping container. Housed on its Espanola property, the seacan facility and the greenhouse are currently generating $7,000 to $10,000 worth of produce monthly.

To add to its holdings, Greenhouses Canada also purchased a 270-acre farm down the road and hopes to start some outdoor growing as well.

The company has put an offer on an 18,000-square-foot facility in Lively, which they plan to convert into a second growing facility. By next year, Scharf estimates that facility will be producing 100,000 plants a month.

In addition, the company is currently working toward its organic designation, which Scharf expects to secure in 2017.

To date, Greenhouses Canada has had assistance from Business Development Canada, and has applications in to the Greenbelt Fund and Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. Last August, Premier Kathleen Wynne visited the Espanola site as part of her Northern Ontario tour.

If all the hype around indoor growing seems like a lot, Scharf believes that’s just scratching the surface of its potential.

“I could build 1,000 of these (greenhouses) in Sudbury and still not come close to hitting the full market,” based on what a regular family in Northern Ontario spends on produce, he said. “There’s a lot of room for this business to expand.”

With the costs of food increasing and less food being produced globally, the need will only grow in Canada and around the world, Scharf said, and growing indoors, in a controlled environment, could be the solution.

“I believe this will, 100 per cent, be the future of our world,” Scharf said. “All the growing will happen indoors because it makes more sense.”

Scharf anticipates the Espanola greenhouse, which will be the largest indoor growing facility in Northern Ontario, to be fully operational by next spring.