GoodLeaf Farms is helping make Canada self-sufficient in leafy greens, operating a large vertical farm operation outside of Toronto. It looked for technology to maximize the advantage offered by data harvested from its production environment and partnered with Adastra to introduce Microsoft Azure Synapse Analytics and Microsoft Power Platform to improve yield and quality and gain increased visibility into its sustainable farming business.
We’re engaged in pioneering efforts in the vertical farming industry, and we’re working with Microsoft Azure products and services to help us succeed.
Farming: A stressful occupation
Business hates uncertainty, and among all occupations, it might affect agriculture the most. Farmers face uncertainty at almost every turn, and the threat of crop failure and economic catastrophe is ever-present.
The weather, of course, has always been difficult to forecast in the medium and long term, and seasonal changes are now becoming even more unpredictable. Pests that defeat chemical defenses and a wide variety of diseases can appear out of nowhere despite constant vigilance. Local availability of abundant, uncontaminated water can be a challenge. Crop values are dependent on a multitude of variables, and profits suffer from unexpected jumps in fuel cost, logistics and distribution problems, and dips in global market values. All of these unpredictable factors and more combine to increase risk and make farming one of the most stressful occupations.
Remove the variables, lower the risk
GoodLeaf Farms President and Chief Executive Officer Barry Murchie and his team don’t lose any sleep, though—not because they’re made of tougher stuff or because they practice meditation, but because they employ vertical farming. Vertical farming is a highly efficient method of growing leafy greens that removes unknowns from the equation. “It’s fully environmentally controlled,” he says. “You don’t worry about the weather, and you don’t need pesticides. We’ve made the whole production process from seed to packaging a lot more predictable and sustainable.” Intensive, high-density, and high-yield agriculture uses vertical racks of plants stacked inside buildings that are more like windowless warehouses than greenhouses, so these farms can be located almost anywhere. Controlled lighting, water, temperature, and growing mediums avoids pests, disease, and provides optimal growing conditions for a year-round sustainable operation with a dramatically lower carbon footprint, which is around half that of conventional open-field farms. “There’s really no downside to what we’re doing,” says Murchie.
As Vice President of Corporate Development at GoodLeaf Farms, Juanita Moore is deeply involved in the production process. “We don’t have to grow food that will withstand transport, so we can grow it to be more flavorful and nutritious,” she says, noting that because farms can be located anywhere, they’re often closer to consumers. Murchie adds that this is true on a local and national scale. “Because of our climate, 90 percent of Canada’s leafy greens are imported,” he says. “Canada now has an opportunity to develop our own self-sustaining produce market, and we can bring the farm and the promise of fresh, local fruit and vegetables almost anywhere in the world.”
Help from the cloud, not the weather
Conventional open-field farming runs on labor, tractors, chemicals, and meteorologists, but GoodLeaf Farms runs on data. “We have control over all the inputs and access to all the outputs,” says Moore. “It’s a data-rich environment that offers the opportunity to optimize around ideal conditions and outcomes for the best possible quality and yield.” Cameras monitor seed density and growth, and hundreds of sensors monitor lighting, growing media, and air quality. It’s a complex, interconnected system that requires ongoing monitoring and proactive adjustment and that produces and consumes one of the farm’s most valuable assets: data. And not a little data, but massive and growing amounts of data that GoodLeaf turned to partner Adastra to help manage. Because it’s a relatively new industry, there are no off-the-shelf solutions. “We had done some initial work with our horticultural team to understand the scope and all of the variables we currently needed to consider,” says Moore. “We took that to Adastra, who really understood how data-driven farming works, what we were trying to do, and who had the expertise to put together a solution.”
Adastra examined the big picture, including operations strategy, production, financial management, and order fulfillment. Its Finished Goods Inventory (FGI) platform provides a solution built around Azure Synapse Analytics to streamline data acquisition, reporting, and management, while financial data is now fed into Microsoft Power Platform. With FGI, Adastra provides GoodLeaf greater real-time operational visibility into operations, helping manage inventory and tracking product as it’s packaged, palletized, shipped, or discarded.
According to Moore, the efficiency and scalability of the Azure platform offers valuable opportunities for GoodLeaf, and she’s pleased to have a partner onboard who can help turn those opportunities into business advantages. “In addition to growing our overall business, we’re also bringing new IoT equipment and more sensors and telemetry online, which will inevitably increase our data processing needs. We’re still developing our understanding, so we need a flexible, responsive infrastructure and a partner who will work with us.”
More nutrition, more flavor
Murchie emphasizes the collaborative nature of the effort among GoodLeaf and its technology partners. He’s enthusiastic about Microsoft’s work to support conventional farming with its Microsoft FarmBeats research program and what those learnings can bring to GoodLeaf. “Microsoft has the resources to assist our evolving industry, and that’s very important for us,” he says. “We’re engaged in pioneering efforts in the vertical farming industry, and we’re working with Microsoft Azure products and services to help us succeed.”
Among those future projects that Murchie and Moore have in mind are growing existing plant varieties with higher nutrient values than conventional open-field farming can achieve. GoodLeaf horticulturalists are analyzing the genetic potential of those seeds to learn how to configure growing conditions to extract the maximum nutritional value. “Right now, farming isn’t using the full genetic potential of seeds,” says Moore. “Are there ways we can grow spinach with more vitamin K, for example? When you don’t have pests and disease resistance in mind, you can instead grow for nutrition and flavor. That’s where we’re heading.”
A sustainable future through innovation
GoodLeaf will also be evaluating Microsoft services and solutions like Azure AI and Azure Machine Learning as it continues trying to streamline and automate farm operations, produce more healthful and abundant crops, and more effectively and efficiently take advantage of its data. “Our operation outside of Toronto makes Canada first among commercial scale vertical farming, and we’re building two more farms in Montreal and Calgary,” says Murchie. “So, the question for us as we expand our footprint is, ‘How do we continue to innovate in farm design?’”
Moore is tasked with figuring that out. She notes that while no off-the-shelf solutions currently exist, Adastra and Microsoft have brought people into the equation who can identify the right technologies and develop and adapt them to help GoodLeaf move forward. “Microsoft shares our sustainability goals—it’s in our DNA, and we attract a lot of people to work at GoodLeaf Farms who care about helping create a sustainable future,” says Moore. Sustainability is central to the GoodLeaf mission, with its vertical farms currently using 95% less water than conventional growers. “But beyond that, it’s really rewarding when people try our healthful food and get excited about the flavor of our greens,” she adds.