Microgreens — those little leaves and stems that are most often seen carefully placed on plates with tweezers as a garnish at fine dining restaurants — are suddenly in high demand.
The baby vegetable plants are harvested when they’re just starting to grow tiny leaves and not only look lovely on a plate, but they’re packed with flavour and nutrition. While microgreens have long been a common sight in restaurants, with some places even growing them in display cases as living décor, they’re starting to become a regular ingredient in home kitchens as well.
Which is where ALLPA, a new vertical farming operation in Calgary, comes in. Fueled by a love of science, engineering, sustainability, and nutrition, the company was launched in 2019 by three young friends with varied backgrounds. Founder Andrey Salazar moved to Canada from Columbia as a refugee in 2007. Having grown up on a coffee farm he had a good understanding of agriculture and also a passion for science and engineering, leading him to study physics at the University of Calgary and electrical engineering at SAIT. Like many young entrepreneurs, Salazar is also concerned about climate change, and set his mind to thinking how he could channel his various interests and skills into a potential business.
“Traditional farming produces a lot of CO2 and herbicides and pesticides, and uses so much water,” Salazar says. “I had a conflict — how can we do this humble and character-building job without destroying the environment?”
To help resolve that inner struggle, Salazar started building a vertical farming system in his garage. While there are commercial vertical farming systems available, Salazar went the DIY route, building stacks of plant beds that relied on artificial light and irrigation. After taking a job at a local Lowe’s store to help fund his habit (the employee discount on building supplies and tools came in handy), Salazar met his co-founder Guillermo Borges (who originally hails from Venezuela) and ALLPA’s Head of Production Zakk Tambasco, who grew up on a cattle farm near Edmonton.
The three got to talking about the possibilities that came from vertical farming (which is quite popular in other places in the world that don’t have Alberta’s access to farmland and large scale greenhouse space), the potential to brand vegetables for better marketing, and agriculture’s impact on the environment. “We kind of modeled it after what we thought were the best companies in the world,” Borges says. “We looked at initiatives like MEC and Tom’s and all of these other companies that aligned with our values, which means being charitable and giving back to the community, technology, focusing on local, and being environmentally sustainable.”
ALLPA adheres to those core values by donating a portion of its sales to charities, using green-friendly packaging, and limiting the mileage that the product has to travel by growing in an industrial facility right in the city of Calgary. Microgreens seemed like the perfect crop for the trio to build their company, since the quick growth period and small size of the greens are ideal for indoor farming. ALLPA grows to order, which means it is also able to reduce food waste by only producing what they know will be sold.
Microgreens traditionally are a bit of a tough sell because many people think they fall into the realm of unnecessary garnish, but the ALLPA crew are aiming to change that. While there is a demand for local microgreens from restaurant chefs, the company is focused on the retail market and is trying to convert customers into microgreen users one tub at a time.
They’re currently selling broccoli, arugula, sunflower, and radish greens, and each variety has a very distinctive and well-concentrated flavour. The most obvious application is to throw the greens into salads by the handful, but the concentration of nutrients means they can also go into green smoothies, on pizza, pasta, and tacos, but as a flavour enhancer rather than a mere garnish. Since a microgreen is so much more nutrient-dense than a full-size plant, the company believes in making them more accessible to the public as a means of “democratizing” nutrition.
“Microgreens are usually looked at as this expensive, luxury thing,” Borges says. “But we do them quite cost effectively, and that’s where the technology comes in. By focusing on retail, we’re able to bring it to as many people as possible.”
ALLPA started selling its wares at small farmers’ markets but their move to position microgreens as an “everyday” food seems to be working. Their products are now available at the Italian Centre Shop and Sunterra stores across the province, including the brand-new Sunterra location in Red Deer. For more information, visit allpaverticalfarms.ca.