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Vertical farming a local success

Vegetables are grown on double-sided towers one on top of the other in pod-like cells
Romano Marchi and Robin Gibson of Lount and the grow site towers that make up their indoor vertical farm. The husband and wife business team have six towers in place currently but expect to put up even more towers in the near future.

The Almaguin Highlands has what is believed to be its first indoor vertical farm and it's located in the unorganized township of Lount, near Sundridge.

Husband and wife team Romano Marchi and Robin Gibson own the operation and Marchi says the technical name for this type of growth is controlled environmental agriculture.

However, it's better known as vertical farming because vegetables are grown on double-sided towers one on top of the other in pod-like cells. Marchi says this is the key to the success and efficiency of vertical farming because it allows one to grow many vegetables in a small amount of space. He says in a typical farm field in Ontario people are lucky to get one or two heads of lettuce over the growing season for every two square feet and three to four heads in California because the season is longer.

Marchi compares that to just one of his six towers which are 16 feet long and have 20 double-sided rows. Each row has 12 grow sites on one side and another 12 on the other. Marchi says this allows him to grow 24 lettuce plants at a time on each row and it's a process he repeats 12 times a year because of the controlled indoor environment. The six towers give Marchi 2,880 grow sites over an area that's well under 300 square feet.

“You would need several acres to accomplish this amount of growth in a farmer's field,” Marchi said.

A computer draws the exact amount of nutrients the plants need from two tanks while hoses on top of each tower drip water down on each plant through a controlled on/off basis.

“So you use only a fraction of the water because it's recirculated, redosed and sterilized,” Marchi said. “In fact, vertical farming uses 90 to 95 percent less water than traditional farming,” he added. “Vertical farming is also a way to address areas that experience drought.”

The grow sites contain no soil and the plants are suspended in a peat-based growing medium. Marchi says this also helps address the issue of soil depletion which is a major issue with traditional agriculture.

“To grow properly roots need nutrients and oxygen,” said Marchi. “When a plant is in the earth, roots grow vastly outward to find the nutrients and water they need.  But when they are suspended in air and given the exact nutrients and oxygen, all the power of the plant goes to what you see above the ground.  It doesn't have to grow an extensive root system because the roots are getting exactly what they need and can remain small.”

Marchi says because his plants grow indoors he doesn't have to worry about pests and there is no need for pesticides. A series of LED lights simulate sunlight which is turned off at night. A fan that draws fresh air from the outside in the winter and air conditioners to offset the heat the LEDS and their power sources generate in the summer keep the temperature of the vertical farm at 18 to 20 degrees Celsius year-round.

Marchi's plants start as seeds grown in peat-based propagation trays. About three weeks later when they germinate and have grown two to three inches he transfers them to the vertical grow sites. Once in the grow site, the lettuce leaves can be harvested in three to four weeks. The leftover roots are composted.

Marchi says vertical farming can never replace traditional agriculture but believes it can add to it. He's part of a growing number of people who believe food should be produced “close to where it's going to be consumed”.

“Our food is fresh and we can respond to local markets” he said. “Part of our vision is to collaborate with local chefs and restaurants on what they need.  We help create the variety.”

The vertical farm operates as Marquee Farm and Marchi says it's ideally situated to serve North Bay to its north, Muskoka to the south and Parry Sound to the west. He says it's a wholesale operation and currently provides some stores with various lettuce and has begun supplying Churchill's Prime Rib House in North Bay with various lettuce for its salads. Marchi expects to expand in a large way this summer to other outlets.

Marchi says he's been toying with the idea of a vertical farm for years and the pandemic helped him and Gibson make the decision to pursue the project during the summer of 2020 when supply chain issues surfaced.

He applied to the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation for a $200,000 grant which he matched dollar for dollar although he will be spending more than the $200,000 he was required to put up.

During the fall of 2020 Marchi broke ground on a 3,200 square foot building. Construction continued through 2021 and in the spring of 2022 he and Gibson planted their first seed and were selling their produce to the area by that summer.

Marchi grows a variety of leafy green blends including Romaine lettuce and he also grows bok choy. Herbs are also grown and his most popular herbs are Thai basil and Genovese basil.

Marchi says in theory a vertical farm can grow any vegetable, even tomatoes but they are not used for this purpose because a quick turnaround is needed to make the operation efficient and financially viable. But he believes berries, like strawberries, can be financially viable.

Although primarily a wholesaler, Marchi sells some produce to area residents who drop by the 3905 Boundary Road site. If people want to buy from the site directly, Marchi says Friday afternoons are best because that's when he's done harvesting his produce for the North Bay Winter Farmers Market on Saturdays.

A 142-gram bag of lettuce is $6.99 while a 400-gram bag sells for $14.99 and the basil is $6 a bag and customers have told him his produce remains fresh two weeks after buying it.

Marchi and Gibson hope to add five more units made up of six towers each in the near future giving them the capacity to grow many thousands of heads of lettuce each month of the year.

These additional towers, just like the introductory towers, were built by Waveform Plastics Technologies in South River.

Besides Marchi and his wife, Marquee Farm employs Daniel Blue who is a horticultural specialist from Magnetawan and Blue has taken another individual, Marc Larush, on as an apprentice.

An official opening is planned for late summer or early fall and once the additional towers are up Marchi wants to provide tours for students and horticultural clubs.

Additionally, he hopes the Marquee Farm operation can serve as a template for people to build more vertical farms anywhere.

“I believe this can be replicated and expanded upon,” he said. “I don't want what we're doing to stay in this little room.”

Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter with The North Bay Nugget. LJI is funded by the Government of Canada.