Growing up: Humber graduates teach Etobicoke high school students about vertical farming

October 3, 2013

Skyline Farms' co-founders Jake Harding and Gustavo Macias at the Thistletown Collegiate Institute Tower Garden farm

This fall, the students at Thistletown Collegiate Institute (TCI) are harvesting the first crop from their new on-site farm, providing a bounty of lettuce, chard, kale, zucchini, baby bok choy, cucumbers, tomatoes and a variety of herbs for students to cook and enjoy. Contrary to what you might expect, TCI’s farm occupies less than 200 square feet and is located in the heart of Etobicoke. It is also the first commercial vertical aeroponic tower garden farm in Canada, made possible by Humber College start-up Skyline Farms.

Skyline Farms’ co-founders Jake Harding and Gustavo Macias want to re-connect urban populations with their food and bring back a sense of community to metropolitan environments using their vertical farming technology. As urban demand for locally grown food increases and arable land (land that will produce crops) is often limited or unavailable, growing produce isn’t an option for many city dwellers. For Skyline Farms, the solution was not to grow outwards, but grow upwards. The company’s Tower Garden product uses vertical aeroponic technology to produce the same results as traditional farming methods, but need only 10 per cent of the space and a fraction of the nutrients. The towers require water but no soil, making them ideal for urban spaces such as rooftops, balconies, patios or other small spaces.

Skyline Farms’ innovative vertical farming methods earned it a finalist spot in OCE’s 2013 Social Enterprise Student Competition and a winning spot in Humber’s Friendly Fire Pitch Competition. In spring 2013, the company, supported through OCE’s Experiential Learning Program, partnered with the Toronto District School Board and Toronto Education Workers union to bring urban farming to Toronto’s public schools as part of the My Food My Way student nutrition campaign.

“My Food My Way shares a similar vision and was a perfect collaboration for Skyline Farms because it created a full-circle food culture program,” says Jake Harding, co-founder, Skyline Farms. “Now students not only learn how to cook on a commercial scale through My Food My Way, but they also farm the food that they cook with, all while never having to leave school grounds.” 

Launched in June 2013, the TCI farm currently consists of 10 Tower Gardens, the equivalent of 280 plants. The pilot project has been a great success in teaching students the facets of urban agriculture, equipping them to make healthy, sustainable life choices as well as providing training for possible future careers. Skyline Farms has taken on three student interns who have been actively engaged in maintaining the TCI garden and are now capable of being farm managers as Harding and Macias expand operations.

“Our students undergo a training process where we teach them to operate the equipment while modelling entrepreneurship, opening their minds to bigger picture sustainability issues, and inspiring them toward being leaders in making more sustainable lifestyle choices,” says Harding.

Although the fall harvest will soon give way to winter frost, things are just getting started for Skyline Farms. The company was recently approved to build a greenhouse at TCI as the second phase of its pilot project, which will increase production to approximately 1,100 plants and allow for year-round growing. The expansion will also encourage further student engagement on the initiative, as two more interns will be added to the project, and more food will be available to TCI’s reputable culinary program, which provides creative and nutritious meals for students.

Outside of TCI, Skyline Farms will continue to partner with My Food My Way to build Tower Garden farms at other schools in Toronto. The company will also remain dedicated to bringing the benefits of urban farming to the wider community by partnering with institutions such as hospitals and seniors’ residences, and also establishing central locations where community members can participate in workshops on aeroponic agricultural techniques.