Life / Food

Urban farming containers to play a role in hyper-local food sourcing

Forty-foot containers, equipped with infrared lights and vertical hydroponics systems, can produce up to 150 pounds of kale a week.

Aaron Spiro, president of Modular Farms, poses inside his mobile farm with kale growing under infra red lights.

Vince Talotta / Torstar News Service Order this photo

Aaron Spiro, president of Modular Farms, poses inside his mobile farm with kale growing under infra red lights.

Inside an inconspicuous white container tucked in the corner of parking lot behind a Toronto east-end catering company, infrared lights and a vertical hydroponics system will soon produce up to 150 pounds of kale a week.

Once harvested, that kale will be carried across the alley to The Food Dudes’ bustling kitchen and transformed into something delicious.

“They can start guaranteeing their customers that any kale on the menu was not only grown locally but was literally harvested less than half an hour before people are eating it, which is pretty amazing,” said Aaron Spiro, the president of Modular Farms.

Over the last four years the Brampton, Ont.-based company has developed an indoor farming system housed in 40-foot containers made of insulated composite steel panels that they say can grow food in any climate.

Aaron Spiro, president of Modular Farms, is inside his mobile farm with kale growing under infra red lights.

Torstar News Service

Aaron Spiro, president of Modular Farms, is inside his mobile farm with kale growing under infra red lights.

They aren’t cheap though. It would cost close to $150,000 to purchase the “primary module” like the one at The Food Dudes. But rather than owning and operating its own module, the catering company has an agreement with Modular Farms to purchase 100 per cent of the module’s produce.

Modular Farms’ units that have been purchased can now be found in a handful of locations across North America, including Calgary and Sudbury, Ont. Spiro said he's hoping to see more Modular Farms popping up.

“Our goal is really to replace as much food as possible with locally sourced options. When it comes to restaurants and caterers, it’s about putting the farms as close to them as possible,” said Spiro, who’s also managing the indoor farm at The Food Dudes.

Karen Landman, a professor at the University of Guelph who studies urban agriculture, said these container systems can make a “real contribution.”

“There’s certainly room for that kind of production in an urban environment,” she said, adding it contributes opportunities for learning, community engagement, and chances to get high value crops like herbs as fresh as possible.

Food Dudes uses 100 percent of his produce.

Torstar News Service

Food Dudes uses 100 percent of his produce.

The Food Dudes’ creative director Brent McClenahan said they’d like to have four units in the back parking lot giving them access to a variety of produce year round.

“We’ve partnered with Modular Farms because we recognize that urban agriculture is a local solution to an increasing environmental problem,” he said in a statement.

“As we move into the future and our cities continue to strain the surrounding lands and resources, hyper-local food sourcing will play a crucial role in defining our capacity and approach to feeding our communities.”

While The Food Dudes currently get most of their produce from the Ontario Food Terminal, Toronto’s main produce distribution centre, they’re planning to eventually source all of it from either organic farms or hyperlocal hydroponics.

The indoor farm out back is just one step toward that goal.

In the future, the company’s hoping to offer learning opportunities for the public.

Torstar News Service

In the future, the company’s hoping to offer learning opportunities for the public.

Inside, awash in red light, Spiro takes one of the vertical towers from the wall and lays it on a shiny metal work bench. He pulls a tray of seedlings from the shelf below and pries one of the peat moss plugs free. Today it’s ready to be transplanted into the tower and in about three weeks it will be ready for harvest.

A computer system manages the climate and nutrient dosing to maximize plant growth.

“Kale, it’s a very hardy plant, you can really pump the nutrients into it and it grows quite extensively,” he said.

In the future, the company’s hoping to offer learning opportunities for the public.

They also want to bring in students from schools such as Durham College, the University of Guelph and Niagara College, which have pre-existing horticulture programs, to learn about their system and hydroponic food production.

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