MONTREAL – Kosher consumers in Canada will soon be able to enjoy salads with a greater variety of lettuce and without the laborious soaking, or even washing.
In December, the Vaad Ha’ir issued its MK hechsher to two packaged lettuce products from Urban Barns Inc., a new Montreal-based company that grows produce indoors year-round without soil or pesticides or chemicals of any kind, and with minimal watering and just the right amount of LED lighting.
The two products certified are its red romaine, which goes under the brand Breen, and butterhead, or Boston, dubbed Frank. They are sold “live,” that is, with their roots intact, packed in plastic clamshells.
These lettuce heads grow in an attractive round, floral shape rather than upright, generally in an individual serving size. No need to tear them into pieces.
It’s a breakthrough both for those who keep kosher and in technology, said Vaad executive director Rabbi Saul Emanuel, who is highly impressed by Urban Barns’ patent-pending “Cubic Farming” system. It’s the result of five years of research and development that continues in conjunction with McGill University, which has a dozen scientists working with the company.
Invented by a Dutch-born farmer in Langley, B.C., this year-round, controlled-environment agriculture combines manufacturing production line practices with optimal growing conditions.
Non-GMO seeds are started in a naturally sourced fabric-like substrate. The tiny germinated plants are then transferred to a mechanical installation that consists of rows of trays in which the seedlings are positioned.
They are continuously rotated vertically under a series of lighting tubes and watered automatically, with the runoff recycled.
What thrills Rabbi Emanuel is that the produce is completely free of infestation and ready to eat. While lettuce, like all vegetables is, of course, pareve, the Vaad has strict rules about its consumption because of the risk of insects or worms, often too small for the untrained eye to see.
The only unpacked lettuce varieties the Vaad sanctions are iceberg and Boston, and they must be have their four outside leaves removed, be cut into quarters and all the leaves separated. The lettuce is then put in a solution of either vinegar, salt or soap and water for five minutes.
The water must then be rinsed off and every single leaf inspected carefully to make sure it is free of bugs. The only other packaged lettuce bearing the MK is from Bodek Inc., a long-established New York-based company. A range of its bagged, shredded salads are sold in Montreal.
Montreal-based entrepreneur Richard Groome took Cubic Farming commercial when he joined the company a couple of years ago and moved its headquarters to Montreal last year. Urban Barns opened in a rented facility in Mirabel in June which it announced as unique in the world.
He recently gave The CJN a tour.
The company has so far acquired some 50 customers in Montreal and Toronto and, starting in January, in New York, the Gristedes supermarket chain in Manhattan is carrying its wares. Urban Barns plans to have its products in IGA and Sobeys stores in Canada in the coming months, and at a competitive price.
Groome, the firm’s president and CEO, said produce can be picked and shipped within a 600-mile radius within a day.
In addition to lettuce, Urban Barns grows a variety of microgreens, seedlings of vegetables and herbs that are prized as garnishes. These are not kosher – but Groome is working with the Vaad to expand Urban Barns’ certification. Herbs have also been grown.
Most customers at this point are high-end hotels, such as the Ritz- Carlton and Fairmont, restaurants and caterers. Clients of the Mada Community Centre, a kosher soup kitchen and hunger relief organization, have also enjoyed generous donations of produce from Urban Barns.
The company is working with McGill on other types of vegetables and fruits that can be grown in this eco-friendly, economical way. Testing by the university and an independent lab show the nutritional value of its products is actually superior to their conventionally grown counterparts, Groome said. They also grow faster and have a longer shelf life.
Cubic Farming can also keep prices competitive because of low overhead. Urban Barns has just eight employees.
The system is now in its third generation, and a fourth-generation prototype has been developed by local engineers that should greatly increase productivity, Groome said. The current iteration has a capacity to grow 19,000 plants per year per machine (Urban Barns currently has 13 operating). The next generation is projected to produce 126,000 plants per year – all within a 320,000-square foot footprint, Groome points out.
“This is an absolute revolution in agriculture,” he says without any trace of hyperbole. “In the field, two lettuces can be grown per square foot in a year. In a greenhouse, it’s 20 lettuces. With our current generation, we grow 120 plants. With the fourth generation, that will be up to nearly 300.”
That’s a current capacity of about 350,000 units per year. In addition to expanding production and broadening the types of vegetables and even fruit, Groome’s long-term goal is to see the Cubic Farming system established worldwide, and he’s scouting the U.S. tri-state area for a second “barn.”
He will, not, however be licensing the technology; Urban Barns will own all facilities in order to control quality, he said.