At the Sudbury farmers market on a recent Thursday afternoon, Erin Rowe and Steph Lanteigne unloaded their usual 75 bags of freshly picked kale, hoping to find buyers for their harvest. Just 90 minutes later, they were completely sold out.
The crisp, leafy green has incited a fervent fanbase amongst the market’s clientele since they began cultivating the crop at their Smart Greens-Sudbury indoor hydroponic farm just outside of Sudbury in April.
“The response has been fantastic,” Rowe said. “It’s modern farming. I believe that it’s the future, especially Northern farming.”
Smart Greens was founded by business partners Eric Amyot and Eric Bergeron in Cornwall in 2014. They started out with a refurbished shipping container, using hydroponics and LED lighting to create a climate-controlled environment that reduces growing hazards, such as pests and harsh weather. Eventually, they improved the design, adapted the technology, and came up with their current model.
Plants are cultivated from seed and then transplanted into vertical growing towers, which allows the farmers to grow up to 4,000 plants in just 400 square feet of space. The amount of water, nutrients, and light are all controlled by a programmable computerized system.
Several crops have been tested by the founders, but for Rowe and Lanteigne, kale is proving to be a hardy, quick-growing cultivar that’s high in demand. They can harvest the leaves from one plant, which regrow at a quick pace, multiple times for up to three months before a new seed has to be planted.
“What we’re finding is kale is a really unique product,” Lanteigne said. “It’s unlike anything else that’s on the market. The fact that it’s hydroponic means that it grows very quickly and it doesn’t get that bitterness, the stalkiness that you get with regular kale.”
The couple aren’t farmers by training — Rowe is a teacher, while Lanteigne has degrees in biology and applied linguistics — but they came across the idea for container farming while contemplating a return home to Canada after a 12-year stint teaching English in South Korea.
Searching out a new challenge that would let them spend more time with their four-year-old daughter, Indie, Lanteigne came upon the Smart Greens website and started an 18-month conversation with the founders to determine if it was the right move.
They bought some property, sight unseen, in the Sudbury bedroom community of Chelmsford, and got their farm on April 19. Smart Greens-Sudbury became one of six container farms in the Smart Greens network and the first in Northern Ontario.
Within eight weeks, the farm was producing its first kale. That quick turnaround, from inception to first harvest, is one of the most attractive facets of the system. And it keeps producing 52 weeks of the year, regardless of growing conditions.
“When we’re monocropping for kale, depending on how good of a job we do that week, we can get between 100 and 150 pounds a week perpetually,” Lanteigne said.
He believes there’s ample opportunity for growth in the sector, although the technology isn’t quite ready to roll out on a large scale, at least for the average farmer. A Smart Greens farm requires a huge investment — in both money and time — although it does come with full support from the parent company, including help from a master grower, technological advice and marketing assistance.
“Absolutely, the hydro bill is expensive. It's probably our number one operating cost; there's no getting around that,” Lanteigne said.
“But for every one per cent of energy cost that I increase, I'm getting one per cent increase in biomass. So, for us, the hydro costs are significantly offset by the fact that these plants grow that quickly.”
Lanteigne, in particular, has spent long days fine-tuning the levels of nutrients, water and lighting in order to find the perfect mix that will return the best yields. And yet, there’s still room for human error.
Early on in the process, one day before a harvest, the entire crop of kale nearly failed because the plants weren’t getting water: they had forgotten to turn on the valve that would deliver the water to the plants, something Lanteigne calls a “terrifying” lesson.
Since then, it’s been mostly smooth sailing. In addition to regularly selling out of their harvest at the farmers market, the couple has a number of restaurants on their client list, which is growing. They’ve even turned an early crop of basil into pesto. Demand for their kale is increasing, and there are already plans in the works for expansion.
“Our plan for the next six months to a year is farm number two: the identical system to this one, but with little tweaks here and there to make it a little bit more efficient,” Lanteigne said.
“In three to five years, we want to use the same technology, but in a warehouse.”
As they increase their output, the couple expects to hire additional staff to help with planting and harvesting, all of which is done by hand.
Financing for the second farm is already in place, said Lanteigne, who expects it to arrive in late October or early November — when other producers are shutting down for the season, they’ll actually be ramping up production and doubling their output, although which crop they’ll take on this time around is still up for debate.
“Spinach is on the table, lettuce is on the table, and quite a few restaurants want us to grow basil and mint,” Lanteigne said. “It’s a balancing act between what we can grow together, what we should be growing commercially, in terms of finances, and what people want.”