High-tech London, Ont.-area farm delivers fresh produce all year. Could it be an answer to high grocery costs?

Western University researchers are developing a new kind of farm that uses machine-learning algorithms and data analytics to create optimum conditions for growing food anywhere and in any season — producing bigger and better yields while using as little energy and water as possible.

The venture comes at a pivotal time in agriculture, with climate change escalating the likelihood of drought and floods capable of decimating harvests, causing consumers to shell out more at grocery store checkouts. 

Called the Agrotunnel, the experimental farm north of London, Ont., may not offer relief from grocery prices, but it’s planting the seeds for a new chapter in farming — one that could bring year-round harvests and fresh produce to remote northern communities with minimal environmental impact. 

Enter the Agrotunnel

From the outside, the Agrotunnel doesn’t look much different than any pre-fab metal building you might see in the Far North. Inside, though, there are rows upon rows of leafy greens and hundreds of ruby red strawberries.

WATCH | A tour of the Agrotunnel net-zero farming system being developed north of London: 

WATCH: Researchers are planting the seeds for the future of farming north of London, Ont.

Western University Professor Joshua Pearce gives a tour of the Agrotunnel, a net-zero farming system being developed north of London, Ont., that can grow food all year round.

Each piece of produce is rooted in a fistful of soil along the vertical rows. They bathe in the glow of specially calibrated low-intensity LED lights that run 24/7, a pump delivers nutrient-rich water to each of them to keep them from going thirsty and a speaker system even plays them music — these particular berries love hard rock. 

“These are commercial varieties of strawberries and they’re continually becoming ripe,” said Joshua Pearce, a Western University engineering professor.

“When the strawberries are ripe, you can come and pick them … the next day. You can continually do that all year round.” 

A red strawberry
A ripe strawberry waits to be picked inside the Agrotunnel, an experimental net-zero hydroponic and aeroponic food growing system being developed north of London. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Pearce is a big booster of sustainability.

His studies in agrivoltaics — the dual use of land for solar energy production and agriculture — suggest that if Canadian farms devoted even one per cent of their land to solar panels, it would eliminate the need to burn fossil fuel when it comes to generating electricity. 

Solar panels keep the Agrotunnel’s lights on, and also power the machine-learning and data analytics that ensure the berries get what they need when they need it, which helps them grow at twice the rate of outdoor strawberries. 

“We found so far with what we’ve been doing that we can take a strawberry from seed to production in a single season and when you’re outside, it normally takes up to two years. It’s much faster at producing good-quality berries,” Pearce said. 

Green edible leaves grow under lights
Low-intensity LED lights shine 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and can be tuned by a computer to give crops inside the Agrotunnel ideal growing conditions. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The research was made possible with a $1-million grant from the Weston Family Foundation a charity created from the profits of the family’s empire. Their holdings include Loblaw, Canada’s biggest grocer, which is under fire along with other grocers over high food prices.

The Agrotunnel will shorten the distance from farm to table, said Kim Parker, president and CEO of Food Security Structures Canada.

It could also mean that one day restaurants and grocery stores themselves could grow some of their own produce in store. 

WATCH | CEO on how Food Security Structures Canada hopes Agrotunnels go countrywide: 

WATCH: Is this the high-tech solution to help northern communities get fresh produce year-round?

Food Security and Structures Canada President and CEO Kim Parker explains how her company hopes to one day deploy Agrotunnels across the country, to help remote and northern communities grow fresh produce year-round without having to worry about shipping costs or spoilage.

“With indoor strawberries, there’s always the complaint that they’re tasteless and watery. So when you’re growing under the right lights and right conditions with the right nutrient, you’re getting that juicy, fresh strawberry,” Parker said. 

She said the same solution could also be deployed in Canada’s North or remote communities where fresh produce is not only expensive, but often desiccated by spending days or even weeks on a truck. 

When it comes to taste, Pearce said, these indoor fruit don’t just stand up to their outdoor counterparts — they’re actually better. 

“I would say subjectively they’re sweeter and they taste better, but I’m not completely sure yet because they’re so fresh.”

Parker said an Agrotunnel costs between $500,000 and $600,000 and could be shipped anywhere in Canada.

Pearce said he’s still gathering data on his strawberry crop and by the end of summer, hopes to have a robust set of economic data measuring just how efficient these methods are. 

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