Vertical farming operation GoodLeaf Community Farms (Guelph, Ontario) brings a unique perspective to its little corner of controlled environment agriculture. That is clearly by design, according to company leadership.
For one, the group initially set out to do indoor, stacked micro and baby greens production differently: with business people, horticultural scientists and engineers running the show instead of traditional farmers. Starting out, they were more interested in smartly addressing the labor and food safety woes plaguing much of the segment (particularly outdoor operations) than pumping out the most yield per square foot.
“Our business today is a marriage between engineering and horticulture – we’ve done it and we’ve done it well, and we know it works,” states Jeff McKinnon, GoodLeaf VP and Chief Financial Officer. “Now, it’s just about how do we do it better?”
The GoodLeaf vision
What GoodLeaf wants to do better entails scaling up production of locally grown, pesticide free leafy greens across Canada for its large retail partners, which include grocery giants like Loblaw and Sobeys, as well as Amazon’s Whole Foods and some smaller regional players like Ontario’s Longo’s. The farm has been working with several restaurant food service distributors, as well, although McKinnon readily admits that channel has taken a bit of a hit of late due to COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders.
“We don’t necessarily need or even want to achieve 100% market share (in leafy greens), we’re just looking for our piece of the market locally where we can serve our customers efficiently and at scale across Canada,” he adds.
The GoodLeaf play is one of consumer preference for locality, as McKinnon says that today upwards of 90% of the leafy produce sold in Canada is imported in from large outdoor operations in California and Arizona. The group envisions its fully contained, zero human interaction growing chambers solving the “ship-first-and-recall-later” issues that have plagued field-grown produce in the past few years. GoodLeaf deploys a positive release program by utilizing the in-house lab to ensure product is safe prior to shipping.
“There’s a lot of challenges with field-grown in the U.S, and it’s our belief that as an industry we’ve got to get away from this recall model that plagues the industry,” McKinnon says, adding the group’s future objectives include looking at other produce segments like berries future.
“Our mandate from our Board and our largest strategic investor, McCain Foods, is to scale very aggressively our network of indoor farms across all of Canada,” he adds.
To understand where GoodLeaf stands today, it helps to take a quick look at where the operation’s journey got started.
GoodLeaf, a subsidiary of TruLeaf Sustainable Agriculture, entered the controlled environment, vertically-grown leafy green market half a decade ago with aspirations to solve two major pain points with its highly automated warehouse farms: the labor challenge, and the aforementioned recall-based risk management situation in produce. The group started with a research-focused, proof-of-concept farm in Nova Scotia in 2015 before launching its fully automated, full scale commercial indoor farm in Guelph, Ontario.
The new indoor farm, officially opened summer of 2019, is already outpacing the original proof-of-concept facility (now the group’s R&D headquarters) by 10x the output, according to the company.
“From the time the seed goes into its substrate and right through to the finished product, there is no human interaction with the plants,” McKinnon says. “No human touches it, no human sneezes on it or breathes on it or contaminates it in anyway. It’s what we call ‘bio secure’ from the time it goes into the growing media until it leaves our facility .”
This commitment to human health starts at the top with GoodLeaf Founder Gregg Curwin, who foresaw the potential of automated indoor farming on a past trip to Japan and decided the segment would be perfect for his home country, where growing leafy green crops outside is not really viable nine months out of the year.
“Our founder’s background is in health care, and it’s nothing too revolutionary or anything, but his premise when he started GoodLeaf was that exercise and healthier food and diets would be the answer to solving the health crisis in Canada,” McKinnon recalls. “If you get leafy greens fresh from near the source, they are literally packed with nutrients and healthy minerals, but we’ve also learned that they can degrade with time. Often when they get to central Canada from California, they have already degraded significantly.”
Growing in a fully controlled, Safe Quality Food-certified warehouse style versus greenhouse, there are no rays of free sunshine penetrating into GoodLeaf’s growing chambers. The operation is, as they say in the greenhouse business, "on it's lights 100% of the time.” Today, 100% of those lights are Philips brand LED production modules.
“We used Philips in our very first facility (now the R&D farm in Nova Scotia), and before we built the large automated facility in Guelph we probably researched different lighting vendors for a year,” McKinnon says, adding the group evaluated lighting options from all over the world – including sourcing fixtures directly from Shenzhen – before landing on Philips.
Currently on the latest iteration of Philips’ Generation 2 LEDs, what GoodLeaf’s management team was seeking from its lighting provider was more of a true 50-50 partnership, as opposed to the typical transactional supplier-customer interaction. Matching organizational intangibles, like a top-to-bottom commitment to innovation, was vitally important to the team.
“They have a really strong research presence in the Netherlands and having that level of customer support available to us is really a nice benefit to have,” McKinnon says. “And they’re really innovative, and we like to consider ourselves pretty innovative, too. We’re confident today that every new iteration of a light that they release will bring new benefits to our business.”
The durable longevity of Philips’ LED solutions was another positive selling point for GoodLeaf management, as it is crucially important for food safety that the lights last as long as possible.
“Humans cannot just go in and out of our grow chambers all the time, so to have maintenance people going in and out of there and changing lights all the time just wasn’t going to work for us,” McKinnon says. “We know we can and will get many years of strong performance out of these lights.”
Performance-wise, the Philips LED production modules provide the precise spectrums that GoodLeaf’s crops want and need.
“They’ve just been rock solid,” McKinnon adds. “I’m not a horticultural or lighting specialist, but the blend of far red and blue spectrum that they deliver – it creates that eye-catching pinkish hue that everyone associates with LEDs – that provides the spring sun that the leaves on these plants really like.”And so, as Goodleaf continues growing the local, clean and sustainable produce that it’s consumer base likes, it’s fair to say the vertical grower’s untraditional path will continue to be one worth watching.