Squamish could soon be home to B.C.'s largest vertical farming facility

Vertical Designs Ltd. (VDL) has entered into an agreement with Rendavi Developments Ltd. to purchase 6.5 acres of land in an undisclosed location in Squamish to build what could be one of the largest vertical farming facilities in North America.

VDL's CEO and technology designer, Nick Brusatore, is calling it a plant sciences hub for growing herbs, fruit and vegetables in order to service restaurants, organizations and individuals in Whistler and Vancouver.

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Brusatore is director for pharmaceutical company Abattis Bioceuticals Corp., which has also applied for a licence to grow, study and mass produce medicinal marijuana out of the proposed site.

While VDL is unable to reveal exact details of the project yet, as it is still in the proposal stage, if approved the new facility is set to be filled with tiered crop growing systems with regulated air temperature and lit by energy-efficient light bulbs. Greens would be grown hydroponically, meaning soil would not be required as crop and plant roots would be immersed in water containing mineral nutrient solutions.

"The beauty of our vertical farming technology is that we use far less water than a greenhouse or farm, we don't use pesticides and everything is locally grown in Squamish throughout 12 months of the year. Not only that, we are creating jobs both in an entry level capacity as well as in R&D," said Brusatore.

While the produce grown won't have an organic stamp of approval, Brusatore claims his company's growing standards are cleaner than organic standards and won't include use of any pesticides.

His team has already approached Squamish City Council with a summary of major facilities to be built and he expects to submit VDL's final proposal to council by the end of May. Financing for the project could be secured by as early as October and if all goes to plan Brusatore said construction would begin January 2014.

"Vertical farming in Squamish is really exciting because once we are up and running, we will be able to grow about ten times more produce per square foot than what a greenhouse can. So if we were to use the whole 6.5 acres of land for vertical growing, we could produce the equivalent amount of product that 60 acres of farm land could grow in the same amount of time," said Brusatore.

If the project is approved, VDL projects to create up to 60 new local full-time and part-time jobs to run the facility.

VDL has already inked licensing agreements for similar projects with the province of Ontario, Alberta, Atlantic Region and Minnesota, but Bruastore says those projects are on hold until the Squamish project proves successful and profitable.

Brusatore has been in the vertical farming business since 2000. He currently serves on the Science Advisory Board for BG Medical Technologies, which brought him on to provide advice and guidance in developing new solutions for natural medicinal production of marijuana.

Other options for growing produce in urban areas While the RMOW does not currently have any plans to install vertical farms in Whistler, the boys running Alta Bistro restaurant have come up with their own solution. They have just decided to purchase their first Urban Cultivator, which they have been testing out for the past few months.

It's a culinary grow-op of sorts, which acts similar to an incubator that regulates the environmental temperature and watering timer. It allows head chef Nick Cassettari and his team to cultivate up to 16 different trays of herbs and micro-greens year-round.

"The fact that our Urban Cultivator is zero mile and located right in our kitchen was the big attractor," said co-owner Edward Dangerfield. "Previously, we were spending about $500 a month to buy our live trays from Barnston Island Herbs near Surrey. That's a long way to ship fresh herbs, so when we heard about the Urban Cultivator, I punched in the numbers and worked out that it would take two years for us to pay off the purchase cost of the machine."

Prices for the consumer model start at around $1,800 and a larger industrial model of the starts at $5,250.

For budget conscious green thumbs, the Whistler Community Service Society operates four, 20 by 40 foot greenhouses in Whistler; two at Spruce Grove Field House, one at Myrtle Philip Community School and one at Alpha Lake Park.

For six months of the year Whistler locals can rent their own plot. The annual rental fee is $65 which includes a plot 2.5 feet by 8 feet in size and is rigged with heating cables and an irrigation system. The price also includes organic seeds, fertilizer and water. WCSS has currently filled most vacant boxes, but there is a waitlist. Committed members will have until mid-April to confirm their spots, so there is a possibility of more spots opening mid-April.

Squamish is also playing in the greenhouse sandbox. The District of Squamish operates garden plots located near the Eagle Wind Housing Development. For $50 locals can rent their own box for the spring and summer months. There are programs which will fund the plots for low income individuals.

The Pemberton Community Garden Committee rents out one by four foot plots to raise organic seedlings. The committee says their goal for the greenhouses is for "gardeners to increase their knowledge of growing, reduce costs of buying plants and lead a more sustainable growing environment." The annual garden plot fee is $50 per plot for new gardeners and $30 for returning gardeners and includes access to water and the greenhouse.

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