Growing diverse ideas in horticulture
Urban vertical retail farm finds ways to start up.
August 25, 2022 By Janelle Abela
The agricultural industry in Canada is varied and constantly evolving, and this evolution is happening at an exponential rate due to the diverse intersectionality of up-and-coming innovators in the space.
For the founder and CEO of Ortaliza Farms, Carina Biacchi, finding space in the industry has been challenging but she credits local resources for entrepreneurs as much-needed support towards her success. Biacchi is an immigrant to Canada from Brazil, learned English as a second language, and is one of the agricultural industry’s newest, most driven changemakers.
Coming to Canada, Biacchi transitioned from her corporate career to a start-up entrepreneur. She started Ortaliza Farms in Kingsville, Ont. in 2021, alongside her co-founder, Alvaro Fernandes, an agronomist engineer, and controlled environment agriculture (CEA) specialist.
“Ortaliza is an urban vertical farm store, a first-of-its-kind in Canada, and we grow and sell more than 65 varieties of microgreens directly to consumers,” describes Biacchi. Vertical farming uses automated technology to grow crops in vertically stacked layers. Ortaliza has taken this concept and added a storefront for consumers.
“Vertical farming is a rapidly up-and-coming industry within agriculture,” says Biacchi, and it reinvents the farm-to-table style of consumption.
At Ortaliza, the entire space totals 850 sq. ft., producing about 20 kg of microgreens per week, which represents 25 per cent of their production capacity at this first location.
“A vertical farm store is a concept where we integrate the practices of vertical farming with a direct-to-consumer model, creating a space where customers can see the production and experience the beauty of freshness, like having their greens harvested on the spot,” says Biacchi. “With this concept, we are able to reduce food mileage and food waste, while delivering the freshest products, year-round, that will allow consumers to get the most value in terms of nutrient content and flavour.”
In the early phases of development, Biacchi faced difficulties accessing capital.
“The combination of being newcomers and trying to create something entirely new within the industry (micro-farming in a retail space), presented barriers to initial funding,” she says. “It has been challenging to meet like-minded people and to find tailored mentoring. Agriculture is a completely different beast from a typical tech company, and at the same time, being an agtech startup makes you completely different from traditional farming.”
For the horticultural sector to grow, Biacchi’s case illustrates the importance of embracing new ideas and opportunities.
“So far, we’ve been able to fund our first MVP-like (minimum viable product) location with the help of Futurpreneur and BDC loans – although we were only able to access higher rate loans since we are newcomers.”
But there are regional resources that have stood by Ortaliza during its conception, to which Biacchi attributes some of her startup’s successes, including WEtech Alliance, who connected them with resources and support.
Finding regional support
WEtech Alliance is one of 17 Regional Innovation Centres across Ontario, serving the communities of Windsor-Essex and Chatham-Kent. The organization’s mission is to help grow tech companies and innovation. To support growth for entrepreneurs in the greenhouse sector, WEtech provides one-on-one advisory services, access to mentors and experts, as well as connections to investors and funding opportunities.
Adam Castle, director of venture services at WEtech Alliance, describes the criticality of the Canadian agricultural sector in recognizing and utilizing domestic technology.
“The majority of agricultural technology currently being used by Canadian farmers is imported. When [the] equipment breaks, the closest technician or solution might be over 6,000 kilometres away. As food sovereignty, security, and sustainability become a more frequent focus of national policy and sentiment, we must look at supporting Canadian technology solutions as an investment that fortifies the ability for Canadian Agriculture to tackle challenges in real time,” he says.
Castle also implores the necessity to ‘shop local’ by utilizing and purchasing products or processes that are fuelled by Canadian innovation. “The heart of innovation is empathy and understanding. At the heart of empathy and understanding is a relationship. By buying from Canadian technology vendors, we’re opening the doors for innovators to get a first-hand look at Canadian agricultural challenges. This virtuous cycle of working closely to understand pain points ultimately leads to technology being custom-made, and purpose-built for Canadian needs. Better relationships with suppliers create better outcomes.”
Awareness of the changing market has allowed Castle to realize the range of new technologies and methods that are coming out of diverse markets. Serving diverse populations could support a pivot that responds to change in consumers and market demand.
As these local relationships develop, resources for entrepreneurs must coincide. Biacchi urges the development of spaces for agtech startups to learn and grow, including support from existing horticultural growers in the form of partnership and collaboration. Biacchi says that these spaces should allow entrepreneurs to “work with and learn from people who have gone through or are going through the process, people who understand ‘ag’ language and [those] who share the same growth mindset.”
“You’re never done evolving as a startup, as an entrepreneur, or as an individual,” Castle adds. “But as a service provider in an entrepreneurial ecosystem, we must always remember that our programs and resources require iteration too.” Diversity, equity, and inclusion have become prominent on WEtech’s radar as the region’s population diversifies and the needs of entrepreneurs change.
Recent findings from the 2022 RISE Windsor-Essex Female Entrepreneurship Needs Assessment report “underscore the significant strides that have been made in becoming more accessible to a broader demographic within the community. The same report, and others like it, also underscore how much work still needs to be done to ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion are being built into the foundations of our network, in meaningful and tangible ways,” says Castle. Support from growers isn’t just a helping hand to a competitor; it’s a collaborative relationship that moves the needle within the industry. There is no time to wait because change is looming in the Canadian agricultural industry and the sector must evolve.
“Canadian agricultural food exports are determined to reach $75 billion by 2025. Our farmers feed the world, but they can’t do it alone. As the climate crisis deepens, supply chains struggle to return to pre-pandemic functionality, and the global agricultural labour shortage grows, Canadian agtech will play a vital role in helping chart a path forward for our country’s most foundationally important sectors,” predicts Castle. To maintain a leading position, growers must integrate the unique decision-making, problem-solving and critical thinking of new entrepreneurs, such as Biacchi.
What’s next for Ortaliza? They are working hard to establish and grow an entirely new business model within the industry using their unique approach of direct-to-consumer vertical farming.
“Our focus is now on tech development, sales traction, and preparing to scale,” says Biacchi. To aid in the growth and success of entrepreneurs like Biacchi, it is critical for those in the sector to listen, welcome diverse entrepreneurs to the table, and work collaboratively for sector growth
Janelle Abela is the founder of Diverse Solutions Strategy Firm and a business advisor for WEtech Alliance. Contact her at email@example.com
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