Question: I’m a retail grocer looking to purchase local food at a large volume all year round. At the moment I work with local farmers but every time the season changes, I have to source from a difference supplier. I’d like to know what my options are.

Answer: Timing is everything! Last week BizEnergy spoke with a Canadian business soon to launch that will target meeting the needs of retailers and distributors who want to serve local food 12 months a year.

Having taken off in cities throughout both Canada and the United States, the “farm to plate” movement driving customers to support local producers has businesses scrambling to find suppliers with volumes high enough to meet their needs. Take stores like Loblaw for example, a chain that presently feeds over 14 million Canadians every week. In cases like these, volume is one problem; but add to that the difficulties of finding food to line the shelves regardless of the season, and buying local is harder than it seems.

Following these tips on how to serve local all year round is one way to go, but here to simplify the process, is Urban Produce; a start-up in Toronto whose sole purpose is to facilitate the ease with which fresh food is purchased by retailers and distributors, all year round. BizEnergy spoke with Neil DeGasperis, Director of Sales & Marketing, and Danielle Cinanni, Director of Retail and Distribution at Urban Produce this week, to get a better idea of just how retail grocers, distributors and restaurants can get their hands on the freshest local produce, twelve months a year.

Using hydroponic greenhouses,Urban Produce encourages us to “Eat-UP!”

With a slogan like that, it sounds like this young business is off on the right foot. But, what exactly does Urban Produce (UP) do? “At Urban Produce, we finance build and operate hydroponic greenhouses” says DeGasperis. “Our purpose is to bring local food to retailers trying to satisfy the needs for local food in their stores, which is difficult to do in the Canadian climate. These stores currently source from the U.S. or Mexico at certain times during the year but we provide local produce all year round.”

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solution in water – without soil. Using hydroponic greenhouses, Urban Produce is able to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables that, for traditional farmers, are seasonal produce. Urban Produce is also able to meet a higher demand than traditional farmers – 500 000lbs, or twenty times more to be exact.

What makes food grown at Urban Produce local?

It can’t be denied that fresh food all year round has a natural appeal (pardon the pun) but just because it’s fresh doesn’t mean it’s local. So what makes Urban Produce a supplier of local produce? Cinanni explains that the furthest Urban Produce would like to distribute is 50 km away from any retailer or distributor. “The purpose of the model is to reduce the impact on the environment. A lot of the food we see in stores now comes between 2000-5000 miles away. We want to reduce that carbon footprint while reducing costs at the same time.”

Besides being good for the environment, we had to ask why Urban Produce decided to focus on local distributors instead of shipping their year-round goods to retailers out of province. The explanation was simple enough: fresh produce is packed with vitamins and flavour. “We grow for taste, not travel. You’ll notice if you buy something on the shelf, that it spoils relatively quickly,” says DeGasperis “but if you buy something from a farmers market, you can keep it in your fridge for 3 weeks and it will stay fresh.” That’s because much of the food you find on the shelf is being transported on trucks for a day, or even a week before being made available to the general public, meaning that leafy greens like spinach lose 50 percent of their nutritional value. Take into account that 20% of the cost of food on the shelf is tied to transportation and you’ve got one attractive model for both retailers and consumers.

An (almost) organic product that uses less energy and saves on water

When asked whether or not their produce was organic, Urban Produce admits (in frustration) that while everything they grow adheres to organic requirements, their fruits and vegetables are not certified organic as per Canadian standards. DeGasperis explains: “We have all the components that make a product organic; it’s just not grown in soil. Instead of sending chemicals [typically bleaches] into the water system, we’re using integrated pest management, using the right pests, like ladybugs etc.” Cinanni explains that while fruits and vegetables grown at Urban Produce are certifiably organic in the U.S., Canada is still playing catch up, at bit of a slower pace.

Let’s see; that means that Urban Produce grows almost organically (minus the actual certification) and insists on limiting the transportation of produce in order to be more energy efficient. Not a bad start for a company that is still getting off the ground. But how green does their production line really stretch? According to Cinanni, Urban Produce re-uses 80% of water for irrigation purposes while DeGasperis points out that energy conservation is a number one concern for the business. “The ideal situation for us is to put our greenhouse on top of a business so we can capture heat. Approximately 30% of heat used during winter, would be coming from the building itself through ambient heat loss. We’ve also got heat capture systems, there’s a lot of excess heat floating around.”

Cinanni points out the fact that Urban Produce greenhouses are not fully heated; in order to maintain a certain temperature, an energy curtain covers the lower 2/3 while the air above remains chilled. As the sun comes rises, the area heats up and once it reaches a mean temperature, the energy curtain pulls back completely. “It’s all automated,” says Cinanni. DeGasperis adds that the company is working towards incorporating both solar and wind energy into the greenhouse in order to produce energy and operate the existing computer system.

Providing a stable future for retailers, without ‘reinventing’ the wheel

Urban Produce already has some pretty good size distributors on board, says DeGasperis. Retailers are attracted to the stability of a food source that isn’t as susceptible to external factors as traditional produce: “By partnering with us, retailers and distributors can promote their environment and sustainability commitments but most importantly, it affects their bottom line as they’re no longer subject to market volatility, oil prices, or bad weather. If there’s a bad snowstorm on the west coast for example, a truck can be delayed 2-3 days, and if there’s a frost like there was this year in Ontario, a crop can suffer tremendously. Most of the apples in stores at the moment are coming in from Washington – normally those apples come from Ontario or Quebec. Our partners aren’t subject to that volatility. We provide a secure food source, at top quality, that can be grown year round.”

When asked about the competition, both Cinanni and DeGasperis point out that while the concept of hydroponic greenhouses is a novel one, Urban Produce is by no means reinventing the wheel:  “We’re just making it easier to distribute food and grow it. There are very few people doing it in Canada and no one doing it the way we want to – direct to retailers.” Cinanni sees the work of Urban Produce as a step back in time, and a return to food production as it was meant to be: “Urban agriculture has been around a very long time but we’ve been pulling away from it as a society – we’re just reopening the conversation”.

To find out more about Urban Produce, visit their website.Questions or comments? Leave them below!