New company hopes to grow fresh produce year-round

Daniel MacEachern dmaceachern@thetelegram.com
Published on June 7, 2013
Urban Barns’ “Cubic Farming” model (above) uses LED light and a controlled environment to minimize water usage to grow fresh produce. — Submitted photos

A former Newfoundlander is partnering with a Quebec firm to try to grow fresh produce in Newfoundland and Labrador throughout the year.

Urban Barns — which grows produce indoors with a proprietary method called “Cubic Farming” — signed a memorandum of understanding this week with Newfoundland Fresh Produce, allowing the local company to establish a growing facility in the province.

“We all know what happens in and around Newfoundland and for a lot of the country.  ... We’ll get our produce — most of it coming from California — we’ll buy it, it’ll last two or three days, and we’re throwing it out,” said Stephen Bruce, 27, president and CEO of Newfoundland Fresh Produce. “What Urban Barns is out to do on a global basis is they’re trying to, and they’re going to be able to, provide food traceability, food sustainability, while in turn being able to extend the shelf life of the natural produce.”

A news release announcing the agreement noted that the first facility will have four growing machines, with additional machines and facilities to be added throughout the province.

Bruce, who will be coming back from Montreal — he grew up in

St. John’s and Corner Brook — to establish the operation, wouldn’t say where the growing facility, or facilities, will be set up.

“That will all be announced when we’re ready to bring it to market,” he said, declining also to provide a specific timeline. “That will all be discussed once we’re ready to come. I have three partners, financiers. Once we’re all on the same page and we’re ready to announce that, we’ll bring it to the media, but we’re aiming to be operational by the end of 2013 in terms of producing.”

The farming method uses a modular, stacking growing apparatus and LED light and a controlled environment to minimize water usage. Urban Barns launched its first growing operation in Langley, B.C., in January. Bruce said the company won’t be selling directly to consumers.

“We’re going to go to grocery stores. We’re going to go to the restaurants. We’re going to go to the hotels,” he said.

Kristen Lowitt, a Memorial University doctoral candidate with research interests in sustainable food systems and food security, isn’t familiar with the specifics of this project, but said it would be interesting to see how it plays out.

“As an island as a whole, there’s certain challenges and a kind of vulnerability in food supply, particularly with perishable foods, which have to come such a distance and aren’t always as fresh as we might like them by the time they reach the island by ferry and truck,” she said, adding that there also inequities across the province in access to fresh produce. “If you’re a senior in a small town and you don’t have a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables and no local grocery, it’s much harder for that person, who might not have access to a car, to drive to a supermarket somewhere else in a larger place.”

Achieving food security in the province would have to address those inequities, said Lowitt.

“Would these fresh fruits and vegetables reach communities that don’t have a lot of access to that, or will it be supplied mostly to areas that may already have comparatively better access to them, like in St. John’s, for example? Those are questions that I would be interested in.”

dmaceachern@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @TelegramDaniel