By Ted Nickerson
At the recent City of Pickering Council meeting regarding the motion to reverse the City’s support for an airport on the Pickering lands, I was struck by one presenter’s comments. , A clearly pro-farming, anti-airport advocate, stated their firm opposition to vertical farming or greenhouses on the lands. The comments were consistent with a Land Over Landings 2020 research paper (2) that also opposed vertical farming.
A Pickering airport aside, the eastern Toronto region will experience incredible growth in population and employment over the next 30 years. Per the 2021 Census, the area already has a population bigger than most provinces and will double that by 2051. The City of Pickering is growing at a rate of 5% a year and is expected to grow from 95,000 in 2021 to 168,000 in 2041.
So, what is the future for farming in this urban/near-urban growth setting, on these lands? There definitely is one but it’s not open fields, cows, hogs, hay, corn, or orchards. Even a little research points to a changing agricultural future – the continuous growth in vertical farms and greenhouses in and near major metropolitan centres in Canada where the growing season is short, and fields are snow covered for part of the year.
The Federal Pickering Lands could be a long-term home to both vertical and greenhouse farming.
There are now 55 vertical farms in Canada, one as far north as Yellowknife, and even one in a re-purposed office building in downtown Calgary. As noted in a previous posting (4), vertical farms use 95% less water, no fertilizers or pesticides, use less than 1% of the lands to produce the same output as conventional farming, and importantly can deliver high value fresh produce to the local community year-round.
Research on greenhouse farming produces equally worthy findings. Per Agriculture Canada (1) , greenhouse operations are growing approximately 4% per year, and demonstrate many of the same properties as vertical farming, e.g. less water, little to no pesticides, land use efficiency, less risk and high quality outputs close to local markets. And greenhouse farming is profitable too, with Gross Margins of 30%-40%, and Profit Margins of 10%-15%.
Seventy percent (70%) of greenhouse operations and output are in Ontario.
A cursory look indicates that the Federal lands could reasonably accommodate greenhouse operations equivalent of about 5% of the 2021 Ontario operations (70 hectares harvested, grossed up to 120 hectares to allow for other farm infrastructure) within a full economic development plan, including an airport. Using Agriculture Canada overall national performance metrics, how would that measure up against the regional agriculture impact of North Pickering Farms proposal? In fact, quite well!
As Table 2 shows, significant greenhouse farming operations on the Federal lands could generate more than 2.6 times the farm gate revenue and produce more jobs on less than 5 percent of the farmland area of the North Pickering Farms proposal. Those jobs in vertical and greenhouse farming have better working conditions, require higher skills and are more stable, while trending to better paying positions than field labour.
Importantly, vertical and greenhouse farming are seen as profitable enterprises fully funded by private investment. The North Pickering Farms proposal (2), on the other hand, requires public support, specifically an initial investment of $58 million and ongoing public funding of $7 million a year. This publicly funded initiative would then compete against privately owned farms.
Full economic development of the Federal lands, including an airport, would occur over a very long time, maybe 25 – 40 years. Vertical farms and greenhouses could be on the lands for a very ling time, maybe permanently in certain areas.
Lastly, there are distinct synergies for both vertical farms and greenhouse operations. The primary output from vertical farms is “greens” e.g., lettuce, microgreens, strawberries, while 98% of greenhouse output nationally is tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. These two types of agribusinesses are complementary. Vertical farming and major greenhouse agribusinesses on the Federal lands appear to be operationally and financially viable using private investment.
So, back to my opening point, why do the Pro-Farming people oppose them?
Is it ideological? All farmlands must be preserved at all costs! Field farming is the best and only acceptable use for the lands!
Is it anti-growth? We don’t want the airport, or any development at all on the lands! We don’t even want to see the growth the province forecasts for the region!
Is it seen somehow as a loss on a personal level? I don’t have the answers.
Growth is coming. The full economic development of the Federal lands is a transformational project for the Toronto region and eastward, bringing with it huge economic and job creation benefits. Vertical farming and greenhouse operations on the Federal lands, in an urban/near-urban setting, fits within that development plan.
2 -“A Future for the Lands: Economic Impact of Remaining Pickering Federal Lands if Returned to Permanent Agriculture”, January 2018.
4 – Critique of the Land Over Landings Research Paper 11 – Indoor Farming and North Pickering – Friends of Pickering Airport March 3, 2021, Pickeringairport.org