A Canadian company is working to turn modern agriculture on its head by expanding its vertical farming operation into the United States. One of their first investors might just be in Essex.
Father and son owners of GiGrow, Gilles and Guillaume Dumont, presented their patented vertical farming technology to investors, developers and other Essex and Chittenden County stakeholders back in February at an event hosted by Excelerate Essex.
The GiGrow system features a space-saving wheel that measures six feet wide and five and a half feet deep that can grow up to 336 plants, mostly leafy greens and herbs, at its max capacity. The company boasts that in a 10,000 square foot warehouse with wheels stacked on top of one another, the system can turn out 1.5 million plants in just 30 days.
Guillaume Dumont said this technology would change the way Vermonters and other northern consumers get their food, especially in the winter time.
“One of the problems with the current way we feed ourselves is that we eat 12 months a year, but we produce, in the northern region, very small amounts in that period,” he explained. “Vertical farming can bring local food 12 months a year, so it will reduce transport and reduce a lot of carbon emission.”
He said the technology can also bring “food independence” so a community doesn’t have to rely on importing as much food from the other side of the country, and they can enjoy fresh, organic food all year long.
Dumont said his visit to Essex was very promising and he feels Vermont would be a “logical choice” for his company to begin its U.S. presence.
“The products we are making are actually growing organic food indoors, so you need to have a consciousness of the environmental impact of what you’re doing,” he said. “We saw that is something that is very important in Vermont, so there’s a great match of values there.”
Greg Morgan, chair of the Essex economic development commission, said Essex and other Vermont residents would be interested by the fact that the system uses no chemicals and specifically targets the plants with the exact amount of water they need so as to produce no waste or runoff.
“We all know how big of an issue that is with Lake Champlain,” he noted.
Dumont explained that growing about 2.2 pounds of lettuce in his system takes approximately 10 times less water than on a traditional agricultural field. He said the GiGrow system allows the grower to control 100 percent of the environment the plants grow in, from water to humidity to soil, allowing for maximum efficiency with little waste and impact to the environment
Additionally, because the organic system uses real soil to grow the food instead of recirculated water like in a hydroponic system, Dumont said diseases don’t get passed from plant to plant. The soil can also be taken out of the system after a period of time to be renourished, producing similar effects to crop rotation that occurs in traditional agriculture, he added.
While the technology can work on its own with just one wheel, Dumont said the system is most efficient when working at a larger capacity, since the plants turnover at a rapid rate and harvesting takes very little time.
Morgan admitted that while the system, if installed in Essex, would not create a large number of new jobs, due to its high level of automation, he said it could stimulate the local agricultural economy and provide fresh, organic food all year round to Chittenden County.
Morgan said he was able to bring the Dumonts to give their pitch at Excelerate Essex with the help of Yann Lemarche, the economic affairs officer for the Quebec government office in Boston, as well as Gail Stevenson, the director of the Vermont-Quebec Enterprise Initiative (VQEI).
The VQEI, which is part of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, works to promote Vermont as an attractive location for Quebec businesses to set up shop as they expand their market.
“We think they should come to Vermont,” Stevenson said. “The whole point is in the context of workforce development, workforce generation [and] creating new high-paying jobs.”
Stevenson said her office has helped to bring Quebec companies like Pratiko medical devices to the Northeast Kingdom and iSun Energy, a solar carport company, to Burlington, as part of their efforts. She thought GiGrow’s visit to Excelerate Essex was a promising and exciting start for both the town and company.
“We think it’s very interesting because of their technology…it seems that it would be an excellent opportunity for Vermont,” she said. “Vertical farming is quite the new thing countrywide and worldwide, and it’s right on the cusp of something that could be really both interesting and transformative.”
While no investment deals have been made yet in Essex, Dumont said he had a great experience here and he had many promising conversations with possible investors. Overall, he said he hopes people can see the value in the investment to bring environmentally sustainable, year-round food to the state with his business.
“There’s a lot of solutions and we just need to be open to paradigm change,” he said. “There’s a lot of technology out there for vertical farming to feed ourselves the right way. We don’t actually need to destroy the environment in any way…with the technology that there is right now.”