Sobeys Expanding In-Store Vertical Farms Across Canada

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Grocery store chain Sobeys is expanding its unique Infarm vertical farming units to more stores across the country as it takes advantage of the growing consumer appetite for made local products.

Niluka Kottegoda, Vice President Customer Experience, Sobeys, said Infarm is a vertical farming company based out of Germany.

Niluka Kottegoda

“We searched far and wide to find a really great best-in-the-world, unique, innovative solution for our customers as we were looking for a vertical farming solution,” she said.

“Infarm provided us with an opportunity to get farms into our stores, with end to end service. So they made it very easy for our stores and most importantly our customers’ best experience when it came to vertical farming globally. Each unit that you’ll see in the stores is a farm unto itself. The plants grow right in that module and they control all of the nutrients, the amount of water, the amount of food our plants get, and the amount of light that they get from a central farming platform.

“Just before COVID hit, I had the opportunity to go and see their office. And it’s really very special. On a screen you can see every farm that they have around the world. They know exactly the condition of that plant and what it needs and if there’s a problem they can quality control. It’s all managed through the cloud and each one of the farmers has a tablet and information is passed on to the units and the farmers through their central platform.”

Local farmers manage the vertical farming at the individual grocery stores, where a variety of herbs, microgreens, leafy greens, and lettuces are grown year round. Produce is grown directly in store in a controlled energy-friendly environment and harvested sustainably.

Sobeys first unveiled its partnership with Infarm in 2020 and began its national rollout by unveiling Infarm vertical farming units in Safeway and Thrifty Foods stores in Vancouver and Victoria, B.C.

Kottegoda said generally there are two units per store but in larger stores more units can be added.

“Right now we have them across Vancouver and Victoria. We have one installed in Halifax with 25 more coming. We have two installed in Calgary with 22 more coming. And one installed in Edmonton with 18 more coming,” she said.

“Once these latest ones are installed we’ll be closing in on 100 stores across the country. At the moment, we’re probably about 55 percent of the way there. We’re expanding across seven cities in the country.”

Kottegoda said the company does an assessment of all of its stores across the country to see whether it’s viable to put a farm into certain locations.

“The reason we’re going city by city is to make sure that we have the farmers ready. You just can’t put a unit in the store and hope for the best. You have tons of farmers there to support it. We have to make sure the local infrastructure is there and then we can expand across the country which is why you see us going city by city,” she added.

The company said these crops are harvested using 95 percent less water, 90 percent less transportation, and 75 percent less fertilizer than industrial agriculture.

“One of the great appeals of them is you can get fresh herbs, and leafy greens, all year round even through the winters as fresh as possible in our stores,” said Kottegoda.

Rendering of the new Sobeys Infarm station. Rendering: Sobeys

“We can change up the assortment every five weeks. So the five-week cycle is from when our herbs and leafy greens and plants grow from seedlings until they’re ready to harvest. We can switch up the assortment anytime we need to. We can be really relevant to all of our local customers which is pretty exciting.”

She said locally-grown products are very important for consumers these days and the company has seen the importance of partnering with local producers in its stores.

“It’s also about the freshness and the taste experience. All of our customers are always looking for the best in terms of food and we pride ourselves in being able to give that to them. This is the freshest possible product, locally grown all year long,” added Kottegoda.

“And it’s been an interesting journey because we have been expanding during the pandemic and we have seen incredible trends in terms of at home cooking, getting more and more popular. Going along with that people are getting more adventurous with the ingredients that they use, and the different herbs that they use.”

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior National Business Journalist with Retail Insider in addition to working on his own as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training.

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