GoodLeaf’s architectural illustration of its planned Calgary “vertical farm” (Image: GoodLeaf Farms).

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Alberta’s United Conservative Government has been reduced to doing what market fundamentalists like Jason Kenney usually vow they’ll never contemplate: picking winners and losers.

Or, the way these things often seem to turn out, picking winners and discovering later that they’re actually losers.

Doug Schweitzer, the UCP’s minister of jobs and stuff (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The UCP announced yesterday it had picked a producer that promises to provide a peck of pea shoots and the like at an indoor farm in southeast Calgary. Many details are murky. 

In addition to pea shoots, GoodLeaf Farms says it grows radishes, arugula, micro broccoli, baby spinach, and kale at its indoor farm in Guelph, Ont. 

“The country’s largest commercial vertical farming company will build a 74,000-square-foot indoor farm in the city, after receiving a $2.73-million incentive to locate to Alberta,” the Kenney Government’s press release proudly proclaimed yesterday. “The company will create 50 jobs during construction and 70 permanent jobs upon start-up.”

The “incentive” to GoodLeaf comes out of a new “Investment and Growth Fund” set up by the government with a rather insignificant $10 million. The fund’s job, says the presser, will be “attracting well-established companies to Alberta.”

The brainiacs behind this effort to pick winners will find that $10 million won’t go very far to create jobs in the numbers the UCP is going to need to build up credibility with voters, but in the mean time they can spin up some optimistic press releases and give the impression of being busy. 

Now, $2.73 million may seem like a lot to pay for 70 speculative, largely unskilled jobs that don’t actually exist yet in a business that may or may not be able to put down roots on the Prairies, but when you’re as anxious to prove you can create employment as Mr. Kenney and the UCP are, any old plan will probably do.

If it happens, the Calgary operation will more than double the size of the company’s current workforce, mostly in Ontario and Nova Scotia, judging from its corporate page on Linked-In. The company is privately held, so details about its revenue, operations, and relationships with sister companies are not particularly easy to come by. 

Agriculture Minister Nate Horner (Photo: United Conservative Party Caucus).

But for sure it’s a better bet than the $1.3 billion Mr. Kenney sank into TC Energy, the former TransCanada Pipelines, to build that Keystone XL Pipeline to the Texas Gulf, the project U.S. President Joe Biden famously killed on his first day in office. 

Readers may have thought the government was promising a lot more than 70 jobs. Indeed, the headline on the news release said, “Nearly 2,000 jobs created through investment in Alberta.” Turns out, however, that’s a rather speculative estimate based on four projects that will be financed by the investment fund, three of which will remain a secret until new press releases are approved. One might even say it’s fanciful. 

“The Investment and Growth Fund helped to close this investment in a competitive global market,” Jobs Minister Doug Schweitzer bragged in yesterday’s news release.

Well, sort of. GoodLeaf said last February in a news release it would be using some of the $65 million McCain Foods Ltd. had invested in it to open an operation somewhere in Western Canada, which suggests its ambitions were more regional than planetary. 

Naturally, yesterday’s news release also quoted Alberta’s new agriculture minister, Nate Horner, saying, in language that reminded me of my days as the Calgary Herald’s agriculture reporter back in the 1980s, “we will be looking to the agri-food sector to help lead Alberta’s economic recovery plan and spur growth, and this innovative project is a step in the right direction.”

NDP Economic Development Critic Deron Bilous (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

That’ll be a tall order, even for an indoor food factory with some serious funding from McCain’s, if this is supposed to replace the jobs lost in the fossil fuel industry on Mr. Kenney’s watch. 

Of course, this is not to say that the winner the UCP has picked will end up turning out like Newfoundland’s notorious hydroponic indoor cucumber grow-op in the 1980s – fondly remembered on the Rock as Premier Peckford’s Pickle Palace for the $13 million the province sank into the doomed operation dreamed up by the late Philip Sprung of Calgary. 

But it will face some of the same competitive pressures as did the Mount Pearl pickle palace, which the CBC reported was undone when greenhouse-grown cukes from outside the province inundated the place and the expensive hydroponic cucumbers had to be sold off for half the cost of production. Cattle ended up eating the surplus. 

As the Globe and Mail explained in its report on the McCain’s investment last spring, vertical farms compete with conventional horizontal ones, which are located outside in fields or in greenhouses, “where the awesome power of sunlight is free.”

What’s more, since some jurisdictions (no names) generate electricity principally from fossil fuels, this also increases the carbon footprint of vertical farms, the Globe added, noting that “water and fertilizer efficiencies touted by vertical farming enthusiasts are overstated … as are the savings from reduced transportation costs.”

On the other hand, GoodLeaf said in a news release yesterday that could produce fresh veggies locally in the winter, which might be an advantage if current supply-line problems persist. The company said it expects to produce more than a million pounds of leafy greens each year in Calgary. 

Opposition NDP Economic Development Critic Deron Bilous observed yesterday that “it’s still not clear how the UCP’s new fund brought this company to Alberta, the application process, or how they were selected.”

“The government couldn’t even provide basic details such as how much capital investment or which other jurisdictions were being considered by the company,” he said. 

“If the UCP was actually creating the right conditions to attract investment – or if their corporate tax cut was working as promised – this fund shouldn’t be needed. Based on today’s announcement, this looks like a slush fund for the UCP to give away more money to profitable corporations in backroom deals.”

The UCP needs to shine some light on how this fund works before they hand out any more cash, Mr. Bilous concluded.

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  1. Oh dear. It looks like there won’t be any of those Sprung inflatables available on the insiders’ market when it all falls apart but those drawings look like Alberta’s care dealers, who have poured copious funds into the UCP, could use them at a substantial discount.

  2. My first thought reading this, was about the Sprung greenhouse debacle.

    If we take a tour through the UCP dictionary stopping at D, I suspect desperation comes just before diversification, and of course debacle comes before it too.

    So, a vertical farm in South West Calgary sounds intriguing, but maybe a bit off the mark. The big problem with vacancy is further north downtown with office space. The mostly commercial industrial space in more suburban areas is actually doing much better.

    In any event this is also all very nebulous. Did the company already have plans to expand to Alberta that the government was just not aware of? If so, then this funding was just a nice bonus for something they would have done anyways. Well perhaps that will be their secret, or a secret between it and the Alberta Government. This really needs to be clarified. It is not good for the UCP to keep secrets from us.

    If it comes to greenhouses, perhaps one that was solar heated somewhere in rural southern Alberta would check more of boxes for rural economic development and the environment.

    I suppose we shall see how this one goes, but it seems more like a hasty death bed conversion to diversification rather than a well thought out plan.

  3. I’m simply skeptical of anything these pretend conservatives and Reformers in the UCP say about job creation. $10 billion is gone from the UCP’s corporate tax cuts, and employment in Alberta isn’t going up. Peter Lougheed was right about not being able to trust Reformers.

  4. Pssst.

    The word on the streets is there’s a province in Canada that’s so desperate, they will hand over public money to anyone to get them to move something there.

    They have this Premier who throws money around on stuff, like pipelines to nowhere and all kinds of weird stuff that leaves people scratching their heads over why they even did it.

    Wait. The best part is that, after they give away the money, they will defend you for having the money — you don’t even have to do it yourself. They’ll say their “de-risking” or “investing in the future” or something like that. But the best part is, if you screw up, they will blame some guy —Trudeau I think his game is — if things don’t work out right or if they’re caught.

    I swear, this is the best deal going.

  5. I’m sorry, is today April 1? Every day seems like April 1 lately, so I can’t tell. Recently the premier talked about relaxing Covid restrictions for Christmas. Countries around the world are announcing measures to get tough with the new Omicron variant. So you see, it must be April 1 in Alberta. No government would open its arms to a fifth wave after failing to learn from waves one through four, right?

  6. I was under the impression that greenhouses were no longer financially viable with the increased cost of natural gas for heating during the cold winters, and the cost of the carbon tax on top, how is vertical greenhouse any difference. My bet is some UCP insider who is getting the money.

  7. “Alberta’s United Conservative Government has been reduced to doing what market fundamentalists like Jason Kenney usually vow they’ll never contemplate: picking winners and losers.”

    ??? That’s what he always does, but usually the “winners” are fossil fuel companies.

  8. So an Ontario company is getting $2.7 million to build and indoor farm in Calgary. Hmm. That would just about pay for the design, application costs and (probably) zoning changes and goodwill promises to the City of Calgary to get the project going. Probably.

    Considering the $65 million invested by McCain, this is chump change. But it’s better than offering to pay the whole shot for construction of the building.

    I think, though, Deron Bilous is too optimistic about the amount of thought the UCP put into this so-called “initiative.” No doubt it’ll turn into a UCP slush fund/ pork barrel. So far it looks more like desperately reaching for better headlines than “even more Covid-19 deaths” and “even more job losses in the oilpatch” and “Kenney is even more unpopular than ever”.

    How’s this for a conspiracy theory? To answer Bilous’ points about why and how:
    • The UCP offered $1 million, and GoodLeaf CEO said, “well, maybe. How about $5 million?” They settled for $2.7 million.
    • Why GoodLeaf? Well, somebody said, “Hey, I saw this cool company on the news.”
    • Application process: see point #1.
    • Selection of candidates: easy, when there’s only one.
    • Capital investment: irrelevant, as long as they say “yes.”
    • Other jurisdictions: irrelevant, Saskatchewan can’t afford this level of corporate bribery.

    Anybody else want to try? This could be fun! Let’s guess who the UCP will “incentivize” (a.k.a. “subsidize,” maybe even “bribe”) next.

  9. Everyone who is responsible for signing off on the use of taxpayers money should be required to answer the question, “would I spend this much of my own money on this?” If the answer is no, they should not sign. If the answer is no and they sign anyway, they should be fired with no severance or pension. Why do we act as though wasting taxpayers money is okay?

  10. Oh ye of little faith!

    McCains runs Goodleaf now; the original founder retired from ops in 2019. But there are all sorts of vertical hydroponic operations out there, plenty of existing competition. Calgary has three of the regular kind already, quite big ‘uns.

    Plus, my local Sobeys sells hydroponic herbs and lettuces grown right there next to the sandwich section. It’s called InFarm, some German outfit. The result is dispirited, lightweight and not juicy or lush, but very green, well-formed and pretty. Delicate little leaves that beg to be given the starring role as the entree topping, finely misted with boutique olive oil. As a jaw-chomping salad ingredient they miss the mark by a country mile, being more like bulk pink creme wafers. Not filling.

    Goodleaf’s only advantage over the others is likely their LED light technology which they pride themselves on, presumably managing to somehow purchase consistent performance LED bulbs; the things are notoriously out-of-spec usually. That. and Goodleaf scientists and engineers have sensors all over the place monitoring growth vs nutrients versus light wavelength and exposure length, etc. I tell ya, they’re a data-driven company! Very hip. Wonder if the result has any real heft to it or is just a garnish.

    And anyone going back through Goodleaf’s news on their website can see the plan all along was a facility out West and one in Montreal, also abuilding. It goes back before the founder’s departure as CEO in 2019. So, the $2.7 million gift is somewhat, erm, ah, uh, to me. But look on the bright side instead, perhaps. Think of it as just a hearty Alberta welcome!

  11. Desperate times, indeed. premier Kenney should know better that you can lead conservatives to a salad bar, but you can’t necessarily make them eat their greens. As Covid showed, not all Albertans are willing to do what’s good for themselves and their province.

    He should know because other fugitive leaders of the political right have done the chameleon leaf-hop to either camouflage or distract restless voters. My province has experienced this kind of new-leaf-a-turning two-step, although many from away mightn’t have recognized Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberals as the far right party it was (and, currently lost in the foliage of political wilderness, might still be), or confused BC “green” with either the stuff BC Liberal crony insiders continually hunger for, the BC Green party which once organically cultivated supply and confidence with Horgan’s chippy Dippers, or that other kind of BC green—if you know what I mean, yo.

    Indeed, premier Gordo did implement a government program to encourage British Columbians to eat more greens (a pleasantly verdant facade camouflaging a litany of perfidious neo-right sabotages of public enterprises which will keep BC on a Spartan diet for decades to come). It was so long ago, but I think I can dimly recall it was sometime before Gordo’s popularity rating plumbed single digits and he was fired by his own caucus, thence rewarded a plumb patronage position in London, England (by prime minister Harper) where he could loosen that belt and tuck into all that rich Devonshire cream, heady pints of bitters, greasy fish and chips, and, doubtlessly, spotted dick—with nary a stick of carrot to be seen.

    However, there is a more recent lesson about growing green crops of which Alberta’s K-Boy should beware: in a yet another advertised bonanza, some of my buds inform me, reputedly lucrative medical Cannabis ventures morphed into even bigger prospects in the recreational marijuana industry of which BC was renown, pre-legalization. One acquaintance, a doctor, boasted a high-paid medical advisory position at one of the gigantic grow-factories popping up all over the province: “just nuts,” is how he described the company’s head-off expansion; more recently, however, he explained those visions of sugar-bongs soon danced out of their heads and he’s now compelled to be an independent consultancy to a dozen or so producers who found their prospects considerably trimmed down when they finally exhaled. Turns out the mom-and-pop shows so deeply entrenched in the BC economy are still pretty good at undercutting officially sanctioned bud—like, twice as good, twice as much, for half the price. Dude!—competition! That’s a market fundamental that market-fundamentalist UCPers should know about. So watch your peas and culs, Jason!

    Former Newfoundland Conservative Premier Brian Peckford was sprung from his office on the East Coast when his party got bonged on the head in the wake of his ill-fated hydroponic cucumber venture which my sources estimate cost Newfoundland citizens $22 million before just about everything went wrong— and the unemployed politician woke up on the East Coast— of Vancouver Island (not far from where I live), probably wondering why he smells but never sees any skunks around sunny Parksville. Anyways, like Kenney, he has passed himself around at wild parties of the right, including an advisory position with the little-known BC Conservative party, but most recently endorsing Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party on the farthest fringes of the right in the last federal election. Nonetheless, it seems his political salad days are over.

    So beware, Jason: you can lead BBQers to sprouts, arugula and broccoli, but making them actually eat it will probably offend their rights and freedom to worship Alberta beef. And Albertans have a lot of beefs these days.

  12. I would call kenney a loser however anyone who can hand all the women and children in Afganistan over to monsters who believe it’s their right to do as they please with them. And then convince the majority of the people that he is good people and voting for him makes you a good person looking out for other people. What you call someone like that is a freedom of belief issue. I’d have to say the people of the province who did and did not vote for the ucp are the real losers. It’s really a good sign that no political parties in Canada are talking about investing in a microchip factory because everyone knows North Americans will for sure be anti-technology in about five years and will never need microchips ever again. Next time I need surgery I’m calling my ucp mla because she is obviously smarter then all that exists. Give me pea shoots and keep your stinking microchips.

  13. So, here’s another brushing away the invisible hand of the market in favour of what jason’s OCG is best at; taking public money and finding corporate places in which to put it. In the immediate context of current events, my ‘mind’s eye’ sees a fundamental connection to jasons nixon and kenney’s Auzzie business-buddy connection…yes, the coal mines.

    With all the hurry up and wait by savage’s department regarding the ‘Coal Report’ and its lead-up, it gets lost in the legalities, the business, the chart and graphs and the complaints from Albertans of a variety of political stripes, that the water used by, or even passively flowing through coal’s operations will be contaminated with naturally occurring, but for now, largely locked up heavy metals, notably, selenium, something that adversely affects the health of all living things. So the water, eventually, to be used will be toxified for Auzzie profit and several jobs.

    One of the interesting characteristics of the heavy metals is that selenium, in this case, ‘bioaccumulates’. The smallest leaf has the smallest dose while a hundred leaves eaten by the next organism will be exposed to the same number of doses. The selenium enriched water used for irrigation of crops for later consumption will, correspondingly, pass these ‘doses’ up into the food web, into, well, anything that eats or drinks water. A brief glance at a Selenium MSDS will underscore the alarm I feel is largely missing from some Albertans, notably, the current members of kenney’s gang. (Apologies with my behaviour concerning punctuation, an action I cannot bring myself to incorporate into text describing party and members of this pretend government.)

    1. Most of the violence in the Middle East has at its root disputes over water allocation and contamination. As the glaciers melt Alberta will make the Middle East look like a rain forest.

      1. According to the Terms of Union in Alberta and Saskatchewan’s confederation with Canada, some of the meltwater from Alberta’s glaciers constitutionally belongs to Saskatchewan.

        But the 1905 Terms of Union for these sister provinces was originally intended to avoid water allocation conflicts between them—kinda moot when both are going to experience Levantine aridness, anyway, after climate change melts the glaciers away to nothing.

        Because the remaining meltwater flows through Alberta before entering Saskatchewan, water-users of the western sister have first opportunity to draw from the supply as it dwindles down to a trickle flowing into the eastern sister’s territory. There will be an interesting constitutional dilemma as Saskatchewan petitions for its fair share of glacial melt.

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