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Space tech that feeds high-end diners in Toronto could help Canada’s North

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Technology being used to stock high-end Toronto restaurants with designer leafy greens could provide Northern Canadians with locally grown produce.

That’s the view of academic experts and entrepreneurs involved with a high-tech vertical garden housed in an east-end Toronto warehouse.

“We’re going to grow food using light recipes to make economic food, to make food cost-effective” says Amin Jadavji, “and I think that’s the North story”.

Jadavji is CEO of We the Roots, a company he co-founded in 2017 with six others, including celebrity chef Guy Rubino.

Recently, the federal government increased funding for shipping food to Northern Canada and expanded the Nutrition North program. That move comes as advances in hydroponics and LED lighting coming from research to grow food in space are expanding the prospects for northern farming. 

Amin Jadavji, CEO of We the Roots, says vertical farms can produce cost-effective food, including in Canada’s North. (James Dunne/CBC)

The vertical farm of We the Roots is a commercial test of the new tech. The most traditional farm-like thing about it is the pickup truck parked outside.    

The structure inside a former factory is roughly 14 metres long by three metres wide and four metres tall. It houses from 15,000 to 20,000 plants at a time. “We’re growing wild Italian arugula, mizuna, which is a Japanese mustard green, Tuscan kale, basil,” Jadavji says, “and a little bit of cilantro.”

See how hydroponic technology grows vegetables:

The operation is hydroponic and almost entirely automated. Water in the system carries nutrients and is recycled.

Plants are nested in trays and stacked seven layers high, each one under strips of LED bulbs. The bulbs provide a tailored light combination (cool white, green, deep red, ultraviolet, far red), created to bring out specific qualities in the plants, changing their size, texture and even taste.

Then there’s the nutrition factor. “We can increase things like calcium and phosphorus and various vitamins by as much as 50 per cent just by changing light recipes,” says Jadavji.

Young plants nestle inside the We the Roots vertical farm. The system features custom LED lighting from a company called Intravision. ( Yan Jun Li/CBC)

The system at We the Roots is the first commercial use of a concept developed by the University of Guelph in collaboration with a Norwegian company called Intravision, says Jadavji.

The university’s Space and Advanced Life Support Agriculture program, which focuses on trying to grow plants in hostile environments like space, began using Intravision’s LED lights in research.  That developed into a stacked system that both light and water flow through.

Though this technology was created to help feed astronauts of the future, the first customers are already enjoying lunch and dinner at five upscale Toronto restaurants, including Parcheggio.  

In the hierarchy everything clicks into place with this product, which is awesome.— Andrew Piccinin, Parcheggio executive chef 

Parcheggio’s executive chef Andrew Piccinin dropped romaine lettuce from his salad menu after California’s E. coli problem.  With greens from We the Roots, he doesn’t worry about E. coli because hydroponics aren’t vulnerable to the same contamination.   

Besides safety, he loves that the greens are flavourful, local, and environmentally friendly. “In the hierarchy everything clicks into place with this product, which is awesome.”

Chef Andrew Piccinin of Parcheggio displays his ‘Nonna’s Salad,’ an old family recipe made with arugula grown in a new high-tech vertical farm. (James Dunne/CBC)

Vertical farming is part of a recent explosion in urban agriculture, a broad agriculture practice that dates back to ancient Egypt.

According to the United Nations, urban agriculture doubled from the early 1990s to 2005. Now, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says 800 million people in cities are growing fruits and veggies or raising animals, accounting for 15 to 20 per cent of the world’s food.

Vertical farming operations are a leading part of the trend.    

Analysts suggest the vertical farm market will shoot up to $13 billion US a year by 2024, from just under 1.8 billion US  in 2017.  

Though vertical farming has seen some high-profile failures in Vancouver and Chicago, entrepreneurs and investors see fresh opportunity.  

Aerofarms’ massive vertical farm in New Jersey is not hydroponic, but aeroponic. It uses less water by spraying plants with mist instead of soaking the roots. (Aerofarms)

CBC News reported on a massive investment in the sector in 2016. Inside Aerofarms’ large 6,500-square-metre facility in New Jersey aeroponics are used, spraying plants with mist instead of submerging them in water. The farm has the capacity to produce two million pounds of food a year.

In Canada, McCain Foods invested in a Nova Scotia vertical farm company called TruLeaf in the spring of 2018.

We the Roots plans to expand its Toronto operations next year. Jadavji is also opening two new farms, one about 135 kilometres from Toronto and one in New Jersey, each of them 1,850 square-metre facilities to produce 1.3 million pounds of greens per year.

Going big isn’t the only way to get into vertical farming though.  

Tiny turnkey vertical farms built inside shipping containers can be seen in cities such as Victoria, Calgary and Dartmouth, N.S.

 

Plants are densely packed into vertical towers inside the Very Local Greens container farm on the waterfront in Dartmouth, N.S. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Container operators can grow from 3,000 to 5,000 plants and sell at farmers’ markets and to restaurants and caterers. Prices for container farms range from just over $50,000 to more than $200,000.

American container farm makers have clever names like Freight Farms and Crop Box, and Canadians are doing the same with brands such as Growcer and Modular Farms, which sells new custom containers.

While many vertical farms are in large cities, Ottawa-based Growcer has six of its high-tech containers in Alaska and three in Northern Canada, with systems in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, Kuujjuaq, Que., and Churchill, Man.  Another system is going to Manitoba and one to Yellowknife as well.

Growcer’s vertical farm in Churchill, Man., is made from a repurposed shipping container. The operator supplies stores, restaurants and individual or families with a weekly subscription. (Carley Basler)

Its units are insulated to function in temperatures as cold as –​52 C. Growcer CEO Corey Ellis says the company began in 2015 deeply concerned about improving the supply of fresh food in the North.

It was the high food prices in the North that also gave the company a buffer period to improve its technology. The company was able to win Northern customers as it was working to lower operating costs.

“It was a great testing ground because you know with a $7 head of lettuce that’s on the shelf before we show up,” says Ellis, “we knew that if we could even do a $3 head we would be doing well.”  Ellis says Growcer’s systems have advanced so much some units can match wholesale prices of greens from California.

It galls me, quite frankly, to think this Canadian technology will find its first expression in a large scale pilot in the deserts of Kuwait.— Mike Dixon, University of Guelph 

Experts believe it’s time to try large scale vertical gardens in the North.  

University of Guelph professor Mike Dixon is frustrated technology from the school’s space agriculture program isn’t being used to help address Northern food security.  

University of Guelph Prof. Mike Dixon believes large vertical gardens can help provide food security in Canada’s North. But he says, ‘It galls me, quite frankly, to think this Canadian technology will find its first expression in a large-scale pilot in the deserts of Kuwait.’ (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

We The Roots wants to try the system Dixon helped create in the North, but it will be tested in extreme heat before severe cold. Why? Because Kuwait is willing to invest in it.

“It galls me, quite frankly,” says Dixon, “to think this Canadian technology will find its first expression in a large-scale pilot in the deserts of Kuwait.”

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Montreal real-estate prices climbing much faster than Toronto or Vancouver: study

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MONTREAL — The cost of housing per square foot has skyrocketed in Montreal while other cities saw little change over the last year, according to a new national survey.

The study found that condominium prices in downtown Montreal are up 13.5 per cent from last year to, on average, $805 per square foot.

That’s not as high as other cities, but it’s catching up — and Montreal’s rate of growth is outpacing other major Canadian cities.

Toronto’s condo prices grew to $1083 per square foot, an increase of just under 10 per cent, according to the study. In Vancouver, where you can find some of Canada’s most expensive condo prices, rates are down 4 per cent to $1192 per square foot.

To make the comparisons, Canadian real estate giant Century 21 collected data from real estate boards across the country to calculate the home costs per square foot.

“It’s important to compare apple to apples,” said Todd Shyiak, the company’s vice president of operations.

Montreal’s rise was even more explosive for detached homes and townhouses.

Detached houses in Montreal’s downtown and southwest rose to $958 per square foot, 40 per cent up from last year.

“It’s wild,” said Century 21 broker Angela Langtry. She says the pandemic raised demand.

“People had a lot of time to figure out they don’t like the home they’re in,” she said. “They all want pools.”

There was a big spike in sales, she noted, following a pause in brokerage during the spring, at the peak of the pandemic.

Experts say the pandemic will push people into the suburbs as they search for affordable housing and home office space.

“A huge portion of our society’s housing needs changed overnight,” said Shyiak. People “no longer need to be 10 minutes from the office.”

He says that could mean less demand for condos in the future. “People want their own front door,” he said.

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Carttera buys prime downtown Montreal development site

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Carttera has acquired a prime downtown Montreal site at 1455 De La Montagne St. which will mark its third development on the thoroughfare.

“We think it’s probably one of the best, if not the best, locations in the whole city,” Carttera founding partner Jim Tadeson told RENX. “We’ve had great success on De La Montagne.”

The two earlier projects are: L’Avenue, a building with 393 residential units, 84,000 square feet of office space and 34,000 square feet of retail that was developed with Broccolini and occupied in 2017; and Arbora Residences, a two-phase development with 434 rental and condominium units in three buildings being built in partnership with Oxford Properties.

Thursday’s latest acquisition, for $48.5 million from 630745 Ontario, is a 31,750-square-foot surface parking lot with flexible mixed-use zoning on the corner of De La Montagne and De Maisonneuve Boulevard West.

The site is near the Vogue Hotel Montreal Downtown, the new Four Seasons Hotel Montreal and high-end retail.

“It’s zoned for up to 203,000 square feet of density, which we’re going to take advantage of,” said Tadeson. “Our vision for the site is a condominium project with some retail.”

Since there is no demolition required and no heritage issues to contend with, Toronto-based Carttera plans to move ahead quickly with the luxury project.

It’s in the concept design phase and Tadeson said it could take six months or more before it’s prepared to make a submission to the city.

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Montreal Has the Hottest Real Estate Market in Canada Right Now

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If you thought Toronto’s real estate market was on fire, it’s time for a second take, because the market in Montreal is the hottest in all of Canada right now.

A newly-released annual report from CENTURY 21 Canada reveals that, following an early-spring decline due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sales numbers are bouncing back and house prices across the country are maintaining their strength. The study compared the price per square foot of properties sold between January 1 and June 30 of this year, compared to the same period last year.

In Toronto and Vancouver, unsurprisingly, prices remain high. But while regions across the country are seeing varied stories when it comes to their housing market fluctuations, Montreal stands out — there, prices have increased dramatically since 2019. While the numbers remain lower than Toronto and Vancouver, that housing market is proving to be the country’s strongest right now.

In Quebec’s largest city, prices have increased significantly since last year, particularly in the downtown detached house and townhouse markets. For example, the price of a detached house in Montreal’s downtown and southwest rose 42.14% to $958 per square foot, while townhouses went up 44% to $768, and condos, 13.55% to $805. Comparatively, in Toronto and Vancouver, prices saw more modest increases or, in some cases, even declines.

“Even though real estate in Quebec was not considered an essential service, we have seen strong demand and a jump in prices in 2020,” said Mohamad Al-Hajj, owner of CENTURY 21 Immo-Plus in Montreal.

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