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Sylvain Charlebois

Canadians have started to notice that grocers have begun to sell plants in miniature greenhouses.

We’ve seen gardens on rooftops, vertical farms close to stores and even some selling gardening equipment to gardeners who are shopping for food. The farm is essentially merging with the food retail spaces we roam as consumers. It’s quite interesting.

We’re slowly witnessing the rise of the ‘grow-cer.’

For years, customers accepted the myth that food just magically shows up at the grocery store. But COVID-19 got many of us to think differently about supply chains – how food is grown, produced, transported, packaged and retailed.

With the addition of new farmgate features for city dwellers, grocery stores are slowly becoming the gateway to an entire world most of us rarely see: farming.

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Sobeys has provided one recent example of what’s going on. The second largest grocer in Canada recently signed a partnership agreement with German-based Infarm to get greenhouses into many outlets across the country. Infarm units were installed last year in British Columbia and can now be found in many other locations across the country.

Infarm units enable Sobeys to offer fresh herbs and produce grown hydroponically, which requires 95 percent less water, 90 percent less transportation and 75 percent less fertilizer than industrial agriculture. And no pesticides are used.

Available produce grown inside the store includes leafy greens, lettuce, kale, and herbs such as basil, cilantro, mint and parsley. Expansion plans include chili peppers, mushrooms and tomatoes. The growing cycle for most of these averages five weeks.

While Sobeys doesn’t have to worry about infrastructure and extra capital to change a store’s allure, it can get rid of these miniature vertical farms if proven unpopular or unnecessary. That works well for Sobeys and the consumer.

But it’s not just Sobeys. Other grocers now have decent-sized vertical farms inside the store or close to them.

The gardening rate in Canada has gone up by more than 20 percent since the start of the pandemic last year. For consumers, growing their own food was about pride and taking control of their supply chain in some way.

For many others, though, gardening remains a luxury due to the lack of space or time. Since a trip to the grocery store is inevitable for most of us, grocers are bringing the farm to the store so consumers can have both the farming and the retail experience at once.

Before COVID, farmers desperately tried to get closer to city dwellers so their work could be appreciated. Campaigns over the years brought mixed results. Farming is still largely misunderstood.

Debates on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the use of chemicals have also divided urban and rural communities. City dwellers have always respected farmers and the hard work they do. But many consumers who are/were looking for natural and organically-produced goods have grown leery of farming in general.

This has attracted the attention of environmental groups opposed to many farming practices.

Grocers are starting to realize that bridging two worlds under one roof can help elevate their roles as ambassadors to an entire supply chain. Farmers can’t be replaced, of course, and they can’t be in stores.

For years, we saw pictures of farmers on packages and posters. It was nice, but it wasn’t real. The hard work, and everything else that comes with farming, can only be properly conveyed when visiting a farm or working on one for a while.

The pictures likely won’t disappear from grocery stores but they don’t really tell the whole story.

The new grow-cer brings the imagery of farming in retail to a new level. Grabbing a living plant or produce off a living plant is certainly real and increasingly valuable for Canadians longing for local and freshness. It just can’t get more local than growing it in the grocery store.

COVID-19 eliminated many rules for grocers. Every business played a part. Grocers sold food, processors manufactured it, and restaurants provided ready-to-eat solutions. Lines between sectors were already becoming blurred before COVID, given the crossing of concepts and elimination of lines between sectors.

For example, some of us have heard of the ‘grocerant’ concept, which has embedded food service into grocery stores. Consumers can relax, enjoy food before, during or after their grocery shopping.

But COVID blew up the blurred lines.

Grocers are becoming brokers, connecting various functions of the supply chain. Farming connects with retail by way of new initiatives that we’re now seeing everywhere.

For example, restaurants are selling meal kits through grocers’ apps. Few saw that coming.

Food brokering for grocers is no doubt the next frontier of growth.

Whether it will last is unknown. But grocers are embracing the fact they have the privilege of interacting with consumers every day. That privilege, more than ever, comes with a responsibility to show consumers the true value of food by being knowledge brokers.

If that means growing more food in stores, so be it.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Sylvain is one of our contributors. For interview requests, click here.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the authors’ alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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