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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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Ottawa education workers still teaching special-ed students at schools want safety checks

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Some Ottawa educators say they are concerned about the safety of classrooms that remain open in schools for special-education students.

Ontario elementary and secondary students have been sent home to study virtually because of the dangers posed by rising rates of COVID-19. However, special-education classes are still operating at many bricks-and-mortar schools.

The special-education classes include students with physical and developmental disabilities, autism and behaviour problems. Some don’t wear masks and require close physical care.

Two unions representing teachers and educational assistants at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board have sent letters to Ottawa Public Health expressing their concerns.

It’s urgent that public health officials inspect classrooms to assess the safety of the special-ed classes, said a letter from the Ottawa branch of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, which also represents the educational assistants who work with special-needs children.

“In the absence of reasons based on medical evidence to keep specialized systems classes open, we are unsure as to the safety of staff and students in these programs,” said the letter signed by president Stephanie Kirkey and other union executives.

The letter said staff agreed that students in specialized classes had difficulty with remote education and benefited most from in-person instruction.

“Our members care deeply about the students they work with and are not only concerned about their own health and safety, but also about that of their students, as they are often unable to abide by COVID safety protocols that include masking, physical distancing and hand hygiene, thus making it more likely that they could transmit the virus to one another,” the letter said.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board has 1,286 elementary and secondary students in special-education classes attending in person at 87 schools, said spokesperson Darcy Knoll.

While final numbers were not available, Knoll said the board believed a large number of the special-education students were back in class on Friday at schools.

In-person classes for other elementary and secondary students are scheduled to resume Jan. 25.

The school boards provide PPE for educators in special-education classes as required, including surgical masks, face shields, gloves and gowns.

Several educators interviewed said they don’t understand why it has been deemed unsafe for students in mainstream classes to attend class, but not special-ed students.

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Ottawa sets record of 210 new COVID-19 cases following lag in data reporting

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Ottawa has now broken its daily record for new COVID-19 cases twice in 2021, with 210 new cases added on Friday amid a lag in data reports from earlier in the week.

The nation’s capital has now seen 10,960 cases of the novel coronavirus.

Ottawa Public Health’s COVID-19 dashboard reports 977 active cases of the virus in Ottawa, a jump of more than 100 over Thursday’s figures.

One additional person has died in relation to COVID-19 in Ottawa, raising the city’s death toll in the pandemic to 395.

The record-setting case count comes a day after Ottawa reported a relatively low increase of 68 cases. Ontario’s COVID-19 system had meanwhile reported 164 new cases on Thursday.

OPH said Thursday that due to a large number of case reports coming in late Wednesday, the local system did not account for a large portion of cases. The health unit said it expects the discrepancy to be filled in the subsequent days.

Taken together, Thursday and Friday’s reports add 278 cases to Ottawa’s total, a daily average of 139 cases.

The new single-day record surpasses a benchmark set this past Sunday, when the city recorded 184 new cases.

Ontario also reported a new record of 4,249 cases on Friday, with roughly 450 of those cases added due to a lag in reporting in Toronto.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 also continues to climb in Ottawa. OPH’s dashboard shows there are currently 24 people in hospital with COVID-19, seven of whom are in the intensive care unit.

Three new coronavirus outbreaks were added to OPH’s dashboard on Friday. One outbreak affects a local shelter where one resident has tested positive for the virus, while the other two are traced to workplaces and private settings in the community.

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Ottawa family dealing with mould issue in apartment grateful for support

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OTTAWA — An Ottawa family, who has been dealing with mould in their south Ottawa apartment, is grateful for the support they have received from the community.

“I would like to say big very mighty, big thank you to everyone,” says Nofisat Adeniyi.

Adeniyi lives with her three sons in a South Keys apartment. Her son Desmond turned to social media on Sunday to seek help for the family, saying they’ve been dealing with mould in their unit and it has taken too long to fix.

“I see my mom go through a struggle everyday; with three kids, it’s not easy,” says 16-year-old Desmond Adeniyi.

He setup a GoFundMe page to help the family raise money to move out. After gaining online attention and the story, which originally aired CTV News Ottawa on Tuesday, they have been able to raise over $30,000.

“Yes! I was surprised, a big surprise!” says Nofisat Adeniyi, “We are free from the mess that we’ve been going through.”

The family was so touched, they decided to pay it forward and donated $5,000 to another family in need, “A lady my son told me about,” says Nofisat Adeniyi.

The recipient wants to remain anonymous, but when she found out from Adeniyi, “She was crying, she has three kids; I remember when I was, I can feel what she’s feeling – because I was once in those shoes.”

CTV News Ottawa did reach out to the property management company for an update on the mould. In a statement on Wednesday, a spokesperson for COGIR Realty wrote:

“We respect the privacy of our residents and are unable to disclose any specific information regarding any of our residents. We can, however, let you know that we are working with the residents and are making every effort to resolve this matter as soon as possible,” said Cogir Real Estate

The giving did not stop at just cash donations. “When I saw the segment, the thing that struck me the most was how easily the situation can be resolved,” says mould removal expert Charlie Leduc with Mold Busters in Ottawa.

Leduc is not involved in the case, but appeared in the original story, and after seeing the mould on TV wanted to help.

“This isn’t something that we typically do, but given the circumstance and given the fact that this has gone on way too long, our company is willing to go in and do this work for free,” said Leduc.

The Adeniyi family may now have some options, and are grateful to the community for the support.

“Yes, It’s great news — you can see me smiling,” says Nofisat.

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