Story and photography by Janet Wallace
In a warehouse, thousands of lettuce plants grow in nutrient-laden water. It’s hard to see the plants clearly because of the darkness—the only available light is purple. Workers wear hairnets, not sunhats. Rather than walking in fields, they climb metal staircases to reach layers of plants.
It may sound futuristic, but this is how Jesse and Julian Howatt grow salad greens for their business, Local by Atta— indoors, in an industrial park in Moncton, using vertical hydroponic agriculture.
Jesse and Julian, both in their early 30s, have created a vibrant, farm business in just six years. Their success is even more remarkable considering that a fire destroyed their plants and equipment three years ago.
A different kind of grow-op
It all started as a small grow-op. While growing plants under lights is nothing new for university students, what set the Howatts apart was that they grew lettuce, not marijuana.
Jesse and Julian grew up on a hog farm in rural PEI. While Julian studied urban planning, Jesse was already working as an urban planner and fascinated by urban agriculture. He started by raising 21 heads of hydroponic lettuce. Encouraged by his success, Jesse expanded and soon the shed in his backyard was filled with troughs of hydroponic herbs and salad greens.
The brothers decided to start a business in 2013. By the following spring, they were selling greens at the local farmers market. They kept expanding until the fire in January 2016.
“We salvaged a few books, a Swiss Army knife, and that was about it,” says Julian. “We took stock and decided we either had to stop the business or go on with it.”
“The first step was just getting the insurance claim. That actually went quite smoothly because, fortunately, all the receipts were stored off-site,” he adds. “Then we decided that we wanted to be rebuild.”
“After the fire,” says Jesse, “there was so much support...it was unreal.” This included a fundraiser organized by the local restaurant Manuka.
The brothers decided to rent a larger warehouse space, which now contains 8,000 square feet of growing space under lights. Sixteen-foot-tall towers, 50 feet long, have seven levels of plants overtop reservoirs of water. The main crop is lettuce, but the Howatts also grow Swiss chard, kale, basil, bok choi and arugula. These are planted in cubes of rockwool, an inert substance often used as insulation, set in styrofoam trays over water. About six weeks later, the greens are harvested.
Each week, about 5,000 heads of lettuce (around 1,000 pounds) are harvested, along with the other crops. The Howatts also grow microgreens by densely planting seeds for broccoli, peas, amaranth, cilantro and other crops in peat moss. The microgreens are harvested when they’re less than a few inches tall and are used by chefs and home cooks as colourful garnishes that can give an intense hit of flavour.
I’m on a “farm tour.” Our group includes customers and their children, backyard gardeners and a few hipsters who have a lot of interest in hydroponics, but (suspiciously) no apparent interest in greens or herbs.
We walk in twilight among the towers; a dark purplish hue is cast on everything. Basil has the colour of eggplant, until Jesse shines his cellphone light on the leaves– then they’re a green oasis in purple shade. Only the blue and red parts of the light spectrum are needed to grow leafy greens.
The blue and red LED lights use very little energy compared to high-efficiency fluorescent bulbs. Even though the lights are actually cool to the touch, they generate a tiny bit of heat. Multiply that by the vast number of lights, and they heat the building even when it’s as cold as -10°C outside. A large, energy-efficient heat pump provides cooling and additional heating.
From ants to Atta
“Atta is a genus of leaf-cutter ants,” explains Jesse. “These ants go into the forest and cut leaves, and bring the leaves back into their ‘city.’ They grow a fungus on these leaves in a controlled environment and then feed it to the larvae.”
“So basically the ants are farming in a city,” he adds. “Like us, they provide a controlled environment for the crops and provide food for the city.”
The ants inspired the unique business name, Local by Atta.
Crops under control
One way that Local by Atta differs from many farms is the degree of control over the environment. Whereas crops grown outside are vulnerable to drought, heat waves, frost, deer damage, and other natural influences, plants at Local by Atta grow in a controlled environment.
“We control the temperature, the carbon dioxide levels, the relative humidity, the air movement, the lighting and the nutrients. We try to make it as comfortable as possible for the lettuce to grow,” says Jesse.
Achieving the right balance of light, carbon dioxide and nutrients is key to having healthy, productive plants. Carbon dioxide is pumped into the environment but, Jesse says, the farm levels are actually lower than that of most offices where simply the exhalation of workers adds CO2. Fans help to keep the plants healthy by moving humidity away from the leaves.
“We test our water monthly to make sure the plants get all the nutrients they need. This way, we have healthy plants,” Jesse gestures to the lush plants. “We don’t use any pesticides or fungicides or insecticides. Instead we just focus on having healthy plants. To do that, we provide a healthy nutrient balance.”
They also take care to select crops and varieties that do well in this setting. “Finding a kale that would grow alongside basil wasn’t easy,” Jesse adds, “but we only grow plants that will grow in the same environment.”
“It’s like a forest of kale,” says one participant as we pass a leafy tray.
The Howatts sell their greens at two farmers’ markets, 20 restaurants and 12 retail outlets in the Greater Moncton area. They also have 150 subscribers who order weekly baskets.
“We have year-round demand,” says Julian. “In the winter, the farmers’ markets have greater demand. In the summer, some farmers’ markets customers go to other farms where they grow the greens outside, but this is balanced by greater demand from restaurants. This is partially because of the tourists but also because there’s more demand for salads in the summer.”
Their customers appreciate having fresh, locally produced greens year-round even though, as Julian says, “it’s hard to compete with Californian product on price.” Many supermarket salad greens come from California.The nutritional content and flavour of the greens depends on the balance of nutrients provided to the plants and the time between harvest and consumption, he explains. “If you buy something at the grocery store, it’s often been in transit and in the supply chain for about 10 days. During that time, it’s losing flavour and nutritional value.” In contrast, Atta’s customers can get greens soon—sometimes just hours after harvest.
The recent recalls around romaine lettuce led to media interest, which spread the word that the Howatts were supplying safe, locally-grown lettuce all winter long.
“We hear our customers say they’re addicted to our lettuce,” says Julian. “They say that after eating our lettuce, they won’t buy it from the grocery store anymore.”
When people buy greens from Atta, adds Jesse, “they support the local economy. We’re aiming to provide all our employees with a living wage. We’re not quite there but we’re working towards it.”
Atta’s staff have year-round, stable jobs working in a comfortable setting. Jesse adds that there are issues surrounding labour rights on California farms. Overall, the farm needs about eight full-time staff. There are five full-time workers (in addition to the brothers), along with a few part-time helpers.
On the farm tour, someone asks if they can mechanize the harvesting.
“We’re not growing marijuana, we’re growing lettuce,” Jesse laughs. “We don’t have the capital to do that.”
The legalization of pot is one reason why there are so few farms like Local by Atta in Canada. A handful of vertical farms used to grow greens a couple years ago, but some of these are switching to cannabis. The Howatts, however, are focused on growing food.
The current location for Local by Atta is already at capacity, yet demand is growing. Julian explains that they frequently get asked if they could sell their greens outside Moncton, and they’re considering this.
The brothers are trying to further reduce their environmental impact. For example, they want to use compostable packaging rather than plastic packaging. They also keep looking for ways to improve their energy efficiency. But, Julian adds, when an NBPower energy auditor visited, “he couldn’t really identify any ways to improve the efficiency, it is already so efficient.”
Right now, their water use is similar to that of a large household. In fact, Jesse adds, before he fixed a leaky toilet in his duplex, his small household used almost as much water as the whole farm.
One thing that has grown on the farm is the relationship between the two brothers.
“We both feel quite fortunate to have the opportunity to become closer by working together,” says Julian. “If we didn’t have the business, we probably would be in different cities. It’s nice to be able to live near each other and work together.”
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Intro caption: Customers can get their fresh local greens hours after they are harvested, ensuring maximum flavour and nutrients.