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Fresh, local lettuce in January? It's possible.

Edmonton couple uses vertical gardening to supply the demand for fresh, local produce year-round.

Mike and Becky Newhook never dreamed they’d become farmers.

Now, the couple owns and operates a hydroponic vegetable business in south Edmonton, a thriving operation that's become even more competitive because of inflation and supply chain shortages. 

“Five years ago, if you had told us we were going to be farmers, we would have laughed you out of the room,” said Becky.

“I had never planted a seed in my life,” added Mike.

Mike spent 20 years running his own information and technology support business. Becky was in marketing.

The transition began in 2018 when the couple visited friends in the Philippines struggling with a farming operation. Mike suggested aquaponics farming--using fish waste and nutrient-rich hydroponic water--as a quicker way to grow leafier green vegetables.

The project bloomed and the Newhooks relocated their family to the Philippines temporarily while they built two aquaponics commercial farms, producing over 20,000 heads of lettuce monthly.

Back home in Tofield in 2020, the onset of COVID-19 found Mike experimenting in his garage with a test farm using hydroponics and a vertical growing apparatus that saved on square footage.

With the help of a bridge loan from family, the couple launched a prototype farm and within a year were averaging 300 heads of lettuce per week (with an equal number of customers). Vertical Roots Canada was born, relocating to Edmonton in 2022 when the business needed space to grow.

Now using about 800 square feet on vertical platforms, green and red leaf lettuce, romaine, spinach, kale and sometimes Swiss chard grow in a sped-up method. The crop floats in about six inches of water, with fresh oxygen and nutrients added day and night.

The lettuce grows in 36 to 38 days, doubling in size in a week, while kale takes about 48 days. The Newhooks say their produce is more leafy, crunchier and nutrient-rich than what can be found on most grocery store shelves and, because it gets in customer's hands more quickly than most produce shipped from out of province, it can last longer too.

“No one’s getting lettuce that sat in a truck or on a shelf,” said Becky. “They’re getting it the same day, which makes a huge difference. Seniors love our product too; they’ll buy a head of lettuce and it’ll last a whole week-plus--so they don't even have to think about it."

Vertical Roots produce is sold to some wholesale customers and through online orders, with five pickup locations. Each weekend, their freshly-picked veggies are a regular sell-out at the Bountiful Market in south Edmonton.

Becky says some of the boom in her business is due to a market shortage a couple of years ago, when lettuce and kale prices skyrocketed to about $5 or $6 a head for even the limp product found at grocery stores.

"That opened the door for people to experience our product," she said. "They realized, oh, I’m probably paying about the same at many stores, and yet this is superior quality product."

The Newhooks say they could probably raise their prices, but they are looking to the long-term future of their business.

“We’re dedicated to not raising our prices and not undercutting our production to make money,” said Mike. “I don’t want $20 from you once; I want it for months and months and months.”

The business runs on a fairly lean basis, with the Newhooks hiring only four staff – a person to work at the weekend market, two part-timers and a driver.

The couple says the plan to start selling franchise licences for the hydroponics business is drawing some interest and they see that as a growth area in the coming year. They will set someone up in business using their system for a $250,000 fee, with profits expected to roll in quickly.

The goal is to have about 100 operations going across Canada eventually. “That is the plan,” said Mike.