How one founder turned a challenging personal experience into a game-changing innovation for farmers.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing agriculture today is the ability to adopt regenerative farming practices. As the science of farming evolves, many farmers want to transition with it, but changing equipment, growing methods, and crop varieties can mean big financial risk. With our current farming methods and as demand and population increases, growing food locally in Canada’s temperate and resource-stricken areas becomes even more of a challenge.
It was these challenges that inspired Biofresh Farm Innovations, an agritech startup focused on helping small to medium-sized greenhouse farms. It began in 2014 when urban farmer and founder of Biofresh Farms, Ryan Gale, started a personal vegetable patch to juice vegetables as part of his recovery from a heart procedure. Farming his vegetables and having to shut the garden down for winter made acutely apparent the difficulties that farmers face, from fewer daylight hours and increased operating costs during the winter, to the initial capital needed to build a heated greenhouse. With some research on year-round solutions for farming in temperate climates, Gale discovered that while agricultural robots were being introduced to largescale field farms to ease labour and to farm more quickly, efficiently, and year-round, they were not adapted for use by smaller indoor growers.
“My first thought was, how cool would that be to have an automated co-pilot like the big farms,” Gale says, “but these devices were not affordable nor adaptable to the small greenhouse grower.”
Fast forward to 2017 when Gale started his vertical garden, a technique used to grow plants indoors on a vertically suspended panel — either freestanding or attached to a wall — by using hydroponics, a method of cultivating vegetation with nutrient-rich solutions, oxygen and water, but without soil. Along with his vertical garden, Gale began the construction of his own robot specialized for small and medium-sized farmers: the vertical farm tractor — an automated farm co-pilot that utilizes simple automation and conveyer systems to harvest common hydroponic rafts and gutters with leafy greens and lettuce heads.
The vertical farm tractor can be used as a stationary device with adjustable heights, or it can move across hydroponic troughs or raised soil beds guided by a rail system, allowing for a second or third cut of the greens before having to replace the crop. The robot also enables the farmer to either follow along beside the grow bed with collection bins to gather the crops, or line bins up and watch the tractor fill them directly. This same principle can be applied to horizontal grow troughs and gutters.
By 2019 the first components of the vertical farm tractor were built and this year, following further enhancements, the first pilot unit will be released. For various agricultural industries, the combination of vertical growing methods and Gale’s innovation is projected to increase farmers’ production twofold and reduce labour by 75 percent.
“For the small to medium greenhouse grower, adopting our agritech solution will allow new market opportunities, higher margins, more production and most importantly, more time with family than on repetitive farm tasks.” Gale says.
This could very well be the start of another agricultural revolution.