by Tanner Stewart
Tanner Stewart on why he is bringing Canada’s biggest vertical aquaponics farm to St. Stephen, New Brunswick.
Growing up in Miramichi, New Brunswick, was probably one of the greatest childhood experiences a kid could ask for. I spent countless hours running around in the woods with my friends – following brooks, falling in brooks, having epic crabapple wars, hopping across dangerous ice chunks along the river in the spring, hacking down trees with an axe, swimming under bridges, protecting small animals from the aim of my cousin’s BB guns, and staring up at the clearest, brightest night skies on earth. On summer nights, the bright yellow flicker of fireflies filled the quiet fields surrounding my house. On winter nights, the shining white snow reflected moonbeams towards that sparkling sky. It was magical. I dreamt of accomplishing great things and imagined larger-than-life possibilities: saving the world and occasionally having Gandalflevel wizard powers.
When I left New Brunswick in 2006, I felt lost. I had been out of high school for over two years and was working as a seasonal tree planter. I loved the work. It was physical, environmentally beneficial and mentally satisfying, in the sense that I planted thousands of something every day. But as fulfilling as tree planting was in some ways, this was not what I had been dreaming about. So, like many of my peers, I decided to head west, to Canada’s great economic engine.
When I landed in Fort McMurray, Alberta, I was blown away by what I saw. Cranes, hard hats and trucks were everywhere. I had never witnessed so much economic activity in my life. At home, when a new Tim Hortons or Subway opened, it was the talk of the town. This wasn’t the case in Fort Mac. The energy in the air was intoxicating, and I instantly became addicted. Over the next eight years, I built my first business, an industrial steel fabrication and installation company that employed hundreds of people and executed millions in construction scopes. I always made it back to New Brunswick at least two or three times a year. As each year went by, my home province seemed to get more and more beautiful, and I felt less and less lost.
In late 2013, a peer introduced me to a tech start-up company based in Alberta called NutraPonics, which was using a method of indoor, controlled-environment farming called aquaponics. This term is relatively new, but the marriage of aquaculture (the farming of aquatic plants and animals) and hydroponics (farming without soil) is a practice that dates back thousands of years, when koi were first raised in Chinese rice paddies. To top it all off, NutraPonics was growing its leafy greens in a vertical format. Rows of blue and red LEDs, emitting a pink hue and stacked on top of each other, reached towards the sky. The system was described to me as a protected closed-loop ecosystem that utilizes over 95 percent less water than traditional farming and has zero need for chemicals, pesticides or GMOs. The farmed fish provide the nutrients required by the plants, and the plants clean the water and then send it back to the fish. This repetitive process creates a closed-loop ecosystem.
Learning about this technology and its potential effect on the world was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. (Besides getting married!) It was my very own eureka moment and an opportunity to chase some of those big dreams I’d had under New Brunswick skies. Exactly one week after my first child was born, I brought him to his first business meeting, invested in NutraPonics, and began my journey into the world of indoor, vertical farming. When I handed over that first cheque, I knew it would be the most important investment I could make towards a better future for my newborn son. I reassured my extremely supportive, beautiful wife that if things went south, I still had 18 years to earn his college fund back. In early 2015, I began thinking about what else my son’s future would hold and about my childhood and how great it had been. How could I give him as good an upbringing as I’d had? The pull of home was growing stronger, and I hadn’t found that small-town feeling or tightly knit community experience in Edmonton. After living in the same neighborhood for over seven years, I had really gotten to know only one of the neighbours, the Italian who always wanted me to paint my side of the fence.
I decided it was time to explore another business opportunity in New Brunswick. My previous effort to open a construction branch in the Miramichi area hadn’t panned out, but I believed that indoor, vertical aquaponic farming would be a perfect fit for the province. In March 2015, I hopped on a plane with my one-year-old son and headed home to begin studying the market and the cost of doing business in the region. Kids under two fly free, and he ended up going on about eight more business trips home over the next year.
At first glance, with a 15 percent sales tax, an aging demographic, and fewer than eight hundred thousand people spread over the entire province, New Brunswick appeared to be a very challenging place to do business. As I started scratching below the surface, however, I found a very different story. I was looking for some very specific advantages to determine the viability of building an indoor, vertical aquaponic farm.
First were electricity costs. Electricity is our number two operating cost after labour, and it turned out that New Brunswick’s electrical rates are among the lowest in Canada. This equates to some of the lowest electrical rates in all of North America.
Next, I needed to explore real estate costs and to scout potential locations. Of course, I began my search for the perfect building in my hometown of Miramichi. Farming, be it indoor or out, is a volume game, so I needed a large building with lots of power and water feeding it. I briefly explored a potential building an hour north of Miramichi, but when that deal fell through, I gave up on staying close to my childhood home and began a province-wide hunt for the best building at the best price. I’m glad I did because the perfect building was waiting for me in the small town of St. Stephen, population 4,810. It was a massive warehouse, 41 feet high with 100,000 square feet of space. It had been on the market for over four years, and it was perfect. Although 99 percent of companies would have no need for a ceiling height of 41 feet, in this business, vertical equals volume and volume equals profit.
By the time I had decided to make an offer on this perfect property, it was October. I had met with numerous government officials over the past months and had received nothing but extremely positive feedback on the venture’s potential. I had also verified that New Brunswick’s underemployed workforce was highly trained and educated with, more specifically, a tremendous amount of aquaculture expertise. A large-scale aquaponic farm would not just survive in the province – it would thrive. I was in! After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a building that would have cost millions anywhere else, it was now time to start building the company. On February 16, 2016, about a month before my little girl was born, we incorporated Stewart Vertical Farms Inc. We got to work fleshing out our business strategies and engaging heavily with the New Brunswick business community.
What I found in this community was not unlike what I had found in Fort McMurray years ago. As in a game of connect the dots, I was introduced to a network of energetic, passionate and socially driven entrepreneurs. One exciting person led to another and the next thing I knew, I was sitting in a group of 32 amazing entrepreneurs. We had been chosen from more than 700 applicants taking part in a selection process to be part of the Wallace McCain Institute’s year-long business program. The McCain family pretty well popularized frozen french fries and is one of many family-named, family-owned corporate success stories in New Brunswick. To be involved in any program with the McCain name on it was an honour, to say the least. (I didn’t make it into the final 16 chosen, but it was still an honour!) In almost 10 years of doing business, I had never been networked with so many amazing people so quickly. It was almost overwhelming. Throughout the remainder of 2016, the Stewart Farms team finalized our business plans, completed our preliminary design engineering and received regulatory approvals from the proper government agencies. In every meeting, I was met with positive support. Individuals at each government agency kept asking me the same question: “How can I help?”
So when people ask me why I am building North America’s largest indoor, vertical aquaponic farm in New Brunswick, I have two answers. My business answer is based on the economics and the access to markets. The costs make sense, and within a 10-hour commute from our facility, we have access to over 39 million consumers. Boston is 6 hours from our facility, and we are located within hours of main Atlantic Canada distribution centres.
My personal answer is that it’s about family, the chance to become a family member in the local business community. Everyone eventually gets to know everyone else, or at least, you know someone who knows that person. It’s as nerve-racking as it is thrilling, but I know that in a tightly knit ecosystem, things can happen faster than they ever could in a large centre where, for the most part, you remain a number in line as opposed to “Tanner, the guy who’s doing that vertical-farming thing.”
Most of all, it’s about giving my kids the chance to experience those big, beautiful night skies, to dream about accomplishing great things, and to imagine larger-than-life possibilities – saving the world and occasionally. . . having Gandalf-level wizard powers.
Facebook: Stewart Vertical Farms