Urban farms are changing Canada’s food supply in new and interesting ways. If you live in Montreal, for example, and are looking for somewhere to buy pesticide-free arugula, you might choose to order some online via a direct-to-consumer marketplace. And, depending on who you order from, you might end up with arugula that was hydroponically grown using 3D-printed materials in an indoor warehouse just 10 kilometers from downtown. To learn more about this fascinating trend, ICTC’s Mairead Matthews talks with Justin Dragan, co-founder of Tulsi Farm. Tulsi Farm is an urban farm in Montreal that produces a variety of pesticide-free vegetables hydroponically, including arugula, sweet basil, baby kale, oyster mushrooms, and more.

Urban farms like Justin’s are fascinating because they enable food to be grown in places where it was previously not possible to do so. Many urban farms are a type of controlled environment agriculture — a topic explored in ICTC’s recent agri-food technology report. At a high level, controlled environment agriculture encompasses any “indoor technology-based production system, where crops are grown under a modified and highly conditioned environment.” In this blog, Mairead and Justin chat about the cost and benefits of controlled environment agriculture, how commercial practices and social norms can create food waste, and what role small, urban farms can play in Canada’s future food system.

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Why did you start Tulsi Farm? What makes it special?

My co-founder, Mehdi Ibn Brahim and I started Tulsi Farm as part of a school project. We got funding from McGill University to tinker around in the plant biology space and eventually decided to design and build vertical growing systems. We use hydroponics and LED lights to grow food indoors, and because we manufacture our growing units ourselves, we can tailor and improve parts of our design over time. This is really useful in the context of indoor farming, because it enables us to scale the size of our growing machines to different rental spaces and improve our energy usage over time. While rent and energy are relatively cheap in Quebec, they can be expensive in some regions. Indoor farms that purchase growing machines instead of building their own don’t have as much flexibility to reduce their rent or energy costs.

What I find particularly special, though, is the way we distribute our produce. We price our produce as affordably as possible and use compostable bags and reusable containers, which I think people are really interested in. Eventually, our pipe dream is to provide growing units directly to people so they can grow food themselves. We’d have a network of farmers dotted all over the city, and you could buy food from your neighbour, or you could trade.

You studied mechanical engineering in your undergrad. What got you interested in food production?

I could tell you a story about being in the garden when I was a kid, but really, I got into food production on an exchange I did in Denmark a few years ago. I met a lot of really cool people while on exchange, and three of us got into dumpster diving and gardening. We bought seeds and built a garden on the balcony in our dorm. Denmark is pretty cold and dark in the winter, so it can be hard to grow things outdoors early in the year. We got around this by converting the common room in our dorm into a seedling area. People were not okay with it at first — it was a big mess, and we were invading people’s space — but once the garden started to grow, people were like, “okay, this is kind of nice. I can put up with this. It smells great in here and there’s lots of green.” When I came back, I told myself I would finish up school, take growing food more seriously, and do something with it.

What problem is Tulsi Farm solving, and how has its purpose or business model changed over time?

We started growing produce because of how expensive it is to buy organic produce in Canada, especially during winter. If you live in Canada, you’re paying a lot for produce that has been shipped to you from somewhere else, even when it’s domestically grown. The whole distribution process is turned upside down — we ship things across the world instead of buying what we grow next door. And then there’s the problem of dead zones. Even here in Montreal, a metropolitan city, there are pockets where you either have to pay a lot to get food or take the bus somewhere else to get food.

With Tulsi, we’re trying to address the financial and location barriers that prevent people from accessing food by changing the way food is grown and distributed. There are lots of at-home growing systems on the market that you can use to grow a couple of basil plants, maybe a head of lettuce, but they’re trivial. They’re like toys and are not built for you to survive on. Our original idea was to build this big, super-productive growing system that people could use to grow food at home, but we realized pretty quickly that people don’t want a giant growing system in their house. We eventually figured out that we could grow food ourselves and sell it for a lot cheaper than what stores are selling it for. We weren’t going to become rich, but we weren’t losing anything either, so why not?

How do you grow organic food at such a low cost compared to traditional farms?

There are a few reasons why organic produce is expensive. The growing process takes more time, energy, and resources, and you have to use certain kinds of fertilizers and biopesticides. You also have to keep your organic produce separate from any conventionally grown produce throughout the whole distribution process. Our produce isn’t officially organic because in Canada, you can’t get an organic certification if you don’t grow in soil. So, instead of organic, we just say pesticide free. But the reason we can grow comparable produce cheaper is because vertical farming enables you to grow a lot more food in a smaller space and with lower quantities of resources like water. The 3D-printed growing racks that we designed let us grow vegetables more densely and in shorter intervals, and on top of that, we’re not looking for a huge profit margin. We also started a group ordering system — people who share time and space, like neighbors, working teams, or friends, can save up to 20% by creating a group in our online marketplace and combining their orders and delivery.

What would you say are the main barriers that stop people from growing and selling food locally?

The main barrier is that cities don’t have enough outdoor space for everyone to have their own piece of land to grow on. If you’re growing indoors, it’s a lot easier to find space, but then price becomes an issue. The initial investment to become an urban farmer is huge. Some growing systems cost up to six figures. Another challenge is finding a market for your food. You can grow as much food as you want, but if you can’t find someone to sell it to, then you’re just sitting on a bunch of kale or basil that you have to get rid of. Once you get past the price point (by raising funds or making your growing system more affordable), the other barriers become pretty solvable. There’s enough space to grow food in cities, just in buildings, and there’s definitely a market.

I noticed you have a wait list on your website and that you recently moved into a new office space. How much has Tulsi Farm grown over the last few years?

We’ve gone from growing, say, a kilo every two weeks to growing 12 to 15 kilos a week. We also populated a new indoor farm in March where we grow food for our weekly baskets. The new space is in an urban agriculture co-op, which has enabled us to meet a lot of like-minded folks and even work on a few collaborations. We’ve learned a lot over the past year: we’ve gained confidence in our process. We know the plants aren’t going to fail. We know how long germination will take. We know people will buy our produce. Every individual or grocery store that has tried our samples is amazed by the flavour of freshly harvested produce that wasn’t picked four weeks ago and shipped here from California.

We come from technical backgrounds, too — for me, mechanical engineering and for Mehdi, computer science and programming — so the business side of things has been a lot of trial and error. We had zero knowledge of business or marketing; running an Instagram page; or putting something cool that we’ve made, that could potentially improve someone’s life, into a form of communication they can relate to. On the plant biology side of things, our scientific advisor is like the Yoda of plant biology and was a ton of help. We’d run into problems that we thought would take weeks to solve, and then we’d go to him and he’d have the answer right away.

I understand you’ve learned a lot about food and our food system. If you could make people more aware of some of the things you’ve learned, what would they be?

My co-founder, Mehdi, has been thinking a lot about changing the way people see food — which is a big thing, like, where do you even start? The whole food retail system treats food like any other commodity, whether clothes or cars. Our grocery stores treat food as a resource and brand it in a way that equates it to dollar signs and money. When you go into a grocery store, you abandon all your other senses and shop just based on appearance — on what you see — and I think that’s a big part of what causes us to treat food like a refined, finished product. One that needs to be perfect with super straight edges and a polished finish. But food is not like that, and it shouldn’t be valued like that. It should be valued based on its story — where it came from, what went into it, and how it was grown.

We also have this very rigid view of best before dates. We want food to be perfectly ripe and are scared of it spoiling, which is really a very new thing in human–food interaction. A lot of companies have popped up to address waste in our food system, but I think there’s a lot more that can be done before that point just by changing the way people see food. I saw recently that a grocery store in the UK replaced “use by” dates with “best before” dates on milk, and started telling customers to use the “sniff test” to decide whether milk had gone bad. They estimated that this would prevent up to 85 million pints of milk from being thrown out. [In Canada, companies mostly use best before dates because the use of “use by” or “expiry” dates is highly regulated and limited]

It sounds super cliché, but I think if people could grow their own food, or physically see how food is grown, it might change the way they see grocery stores. For me, grocery stores used to be this really warm, dreamy place that reminded me of my childhood, wandering around and looking at all the different products. But now that I’ve had the chance to visit a few farms and see the way food is grown, grocery stores are so tarnished for me. I go in, buy what I need to buy, and get out.

Looking to the future, what role do you envision small, decentralized farms playing in Canada’s food system?

There are pros and cons to every kind of farming, whether organic, hydroponic, or large-scale corn or grain farms. We could go back and forth on those, but really, no single method is going to solve the massive problems in our food system alone. We need massive corn and grain farms so that we have enough food. We need micro farms just outside the city so we have a constant stream of fresh, local vegetables in the summertime and to boost the local economy, and we need indoor farming so we can grow local produce all year round and give more people the ability to grow their own food. You’re not going to feed an entire population on any one of those things alone, but together, they each have a role to play. For us, the goal is to make it easier for people to grow their own food, and possibly enable people to earn a wage while contributing to their local food system.

If you’re in the Montreal area or just interested in what we do, you can check us out on Instagram @tulsi.farm or visit our website www.tulsi.farm. In the next month, we’ll be building out our group order communities and continuing to try out new vegetables in our weekly baskets — sorrel, rapini, kohlrabi greens, and soon, we’ll have cherry tomatoes and chili peppers for our subscribers to try!