As COVID-19 lockdowns dragged out, there was an increased awareness of food security, along with a growing interest in where food comes from and how it is grown. For GoodLeaf Farms, a Guelph, Ont.-based producer focused on growing local, ultra-fresh micro-greens and baby greens, the ensuing desire to support local was firmly in its wheelhouse.
“People wanted to support their local farmers and businesses,” says Jacquie Needham, accounts manager for GoodLeaf Farms, which employs about 50 people at its Guelph farm. “And there was an increased interest in plant-based/vegan eating and the nutritional value of food, as well as in food safety.”
But this demand for healthier meals, coupled with a consumers’ desire to support local farms and fight climate change, presented a challenge for chefs and struggling restaurants as Ontario’s short growing season forces restaurants to import greens most of the year — not only losing nutrition from harvest-to-plate, but also contributing significant greenhouse-gas emissions as the produce is shipped across the continent.
Thanks to innovations in indoor vertical farming, GoodLeaf is able to offer fresh, locally grown micro-greens and baby greens year-round in Canada, using efficient specialized LED lights, water and essential nutrients to grow and harvest crops daily. The company has worked with restaurants that “have really had that local focus on their menu all year round — that’s been key,” as well as formed partnerships with operators who have a plant-based focused menu. And those have been phenomenal, because obviously, they’re looking for different types of greens to use — they want a breadth of variety of greens.”
Micro-greens are young plants harvested in the primary stage of plant growth just after the first set of true leaves have appeared. GoodLeaf’s family of microgreens include Spicy Mustard Medley, Asian Blend, Micro Arugula, Pea Shoots and the newest addition, Micro Radish. They’re typically harvested within two weeks of planting. Baby greens are allowed to grow a little bit longer than micro-greens, but are still harvested before they are fully mature. GoodLeaf’s Ontario Baby Kale, Ontario Arugula and Ontario Spring Mix are harvested after 18 to 20 days.
Needham also points to the savings that can be garnered by bringing in GreenLeaf’s produce. “Everyone is trying to trim down labour costs in restaurants already strained by COVID limitations. Farm fresh micro-greens arrive at the restaurant cut and inspected for quality — there is minimal kitchen prep required,” says Needham. Adding Guelph-based The Neighbourhood Group, which operates several restaurants in and around the Guelph area, is a loyal customer.
GoodLeaf has its roots in Nova Scotia, but broke ground in Guelph in 2018. “We had a small farm [in Nova Scotia] where we started our R&D and tested the technology,” says Needham. “We established some roots there in vertical farming around 2015 and in 2018 brought all our learnings [to Guelph] to build a very large-scale facility.”
Sustainability is a huge piece of GoodLeaf’s story. “We use significantly less land because we’re a vertical farm. We grow up in stacks and we use a sophisticated hydroponic ebb-and-flow system to feed the feed the plants from the bottom and from the root. It’s a circular system so we’re not wasting water,” explains Needham, adding GreenLeaf uses 95-per-cent less water than traditional farms and are able to recycle the peat substrate the plants are grown in. “It’s a really sustainable growing method that that’s a big part of our story and part of our passion.”
Written by Amy Bostock