Vancouver’s Vanguard of Rooftop Farming

From the sidewalk it looks like another overpriced concrete parkade, but climb to the 10th floor of the garage at Richards and Duns­muir and you’ll score a surprising glimpse into the future of food production. Tucked between skyscrapers stands a 6,000-square-foot greenhouse filled with thousands of rotating, produce-growing trays ready to be harvested and packaged on-site under the name Local Garden. Vancouver-based Alterrus made history here in November by creating North America’s first rooftop vertical farm.

“The city has been encouraging local food and urban farming by making under-utilized land available,” says mayor Gregor Robertson. “In this case Alterrus is paying rent. It’s actually revenue we weren’t getting because the parking lot was not at its capacity, so this is a win-win. We’re trying to encourage urban farming in any space that makes sense.”

Inside the rooftop greenhouse, crops like kale, arugula, spinach, and basil grow in trays, stacked four metres high, that rotate on a conveyer to get the proper amount of natural and supplemented light, irrigation, humidity, and carbon dioxide. The innovative technology goes by the name VertiCrop. Alterrus boasts that its technology can provide year-round access to pesticide-free produce while using 92 percent less water than the average field. (A smaller prototype was installed at Paignton Zoo in Devon, England, where greens feed the animals.)

Donovan Wollard, Alterrus strategic advisor, says Vancouver is a natural fit for the first commercial VertiCrop installation: it’s a city with a population concerned about sustainable options, a high percentage of its vegetation trucked in from far away, and a receptive city government. There has been talk in Ontario and Alberta about constructing vertical farm projects, but so far all have remained stuck at the conception phase from lack of support.

The future, though, looks promising. Before the first crop was even available, local restaurants Hawksworth, Cioppino’s, Boneta, Fable, and Cibo, as well as grocer Urban Fare, signed on as clients. When asked about making the switch, Cibo chef Faizal Kassam says he chose the supplier for his salad greens because, “During the winter my usual suppliers couldn’t supply to us. Local Garden is only three blocks away and actually makes deliveries by bicycle.”

In 2011 the United Nations released an assessment of the world’s agriculture that estimates farmers will have to produce 70 percent more food by 2050 to meet the needs of our growing global population—nine billion at that point. While needs are increasing, farm real estate is not. Growing vertically looks like a viable first step in dealing with the problem. Alterrus aims to produce 150,000 pounds of produce a year atop this unlikely car park location.