The next Uber or Tesla? Pitt Meadows’ CubicFarms has a field of dreams

The agtech company is poised to disrupt the farming industry, helping preserve land and resources in the process.

CubicFarms CEO Dave Dinesen addresses the crowd at CubicFarms Amplified

The agtech company is poised to disrupt the farming industry, helping preserve land and resources along the way

The future of farming is everywhere in a massive Pitt Meadows airplane hangar, both literally and figuratively, with the phrase projected onto walls in bright green font.

But CubicFarms Amplified walks the talk, too, with a video presentation featuring various experts in their fields (including astronaut Chris Hadfield) wax poetic about how the company is changing agriculture and an offering of some of the freshest lettuce we’ve tasted in some time.

As the conversation shifts to the company’s nearby headquarters, it’s hard not to believe CubicFarm Systems Corp. CEO Dave Dinesen’s promise of an “agricultural revolution.”

In what is ostensibly the middle of nowhere sits a white shipping container. Inside are rows of lettuce varietals on a conveyer belt, extracting exactly as much light and water as they need to grow. The company’s technology uses 95 percent less water than field farming and lets farmers grow 365 days a year, regardless of climate restrictions.

That’s not the only way CubicFarms is helping farmers. The other half of its business is in reliably growing nutritious feed for cows, the biggest cost for a cattle farm. CubicFarms’ HydroGreen system goes from seed to feed in just six days and helps ensure that dairy and beef cows produce the highest-quality milk and meat.

The company is one of a growing number of B.C. agricultural technology companies making game-changing advances.

“Uber launched ride-sharing; Tesla did electric cars,” Dinesen says. “We are launching local-chain agtech. A new category is being invented.”

A CubicFarms shipping container

“Do you want to go again?”

CubicFarms is Dinesen’s second company. The first was BackCheck, an HR tech business focused on background screening and similar services that he launched in 1997. Surrey-based BackCheck became one of the world’s largest such players, especially after 9/11, Dinesen says. 

After selling the company in 2012 to Sterling, its biggest U.S. rival, he rolled half of his proceeds into the combined entity. Dinesen ran non-U.S. operations until Goldman Sachs Group bought the business a couple of years later.

During all of that, his close friend Leo Benne, a greenhouse farmer, was developing automated indoor farming. “I was watching him do this over several years and said, Boy, if I ever had the time, I want to get involved in that, because that is actually going to change the world,” Dinesen tells BCBusiness. “When I retired at the ripe old age of 45 and had a blissful year off, he phoned and said, Hey, enough sitting on the couch; do you want to go again? And so I jumped at it.”

Benne and his father, Dutch immigrant Jack Benne, had grown Langley-headquartered Bevo Farms into arguably the largest propagation greenhouse operation in North America, Dinesen says. Langley-headquartered Bevo seeds and grows vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and eggplants before shipping them to production greenhouses. 

More than a decade ago, the Bennes were invited to help solve some agricultural challenges in Puerto Rico. The U.S. territory has terrible outdoor and indoor growing conditions, Dinesen explains, thanks to its hot climate, regular hurricanes, expensive electricity and poor soil. As a result, it must import nearly all of its produce.

“It was on the plane ride back that Jack developed the concept of what is now our patented Crop Motion technology that lets you have one row of lights at the top of the machine but hundreds of trays of plants that move up from the light and away from the light, and ultimately come to the front about every 90 minutes for harvesting and planting,” Dinesen says. “So it literally reduces the energy you use, reduces the labour, but maximizes every cubic foot of space—thus the name CubicFarms.”

The company, which focuses on large, commercial-scale installation, typically doesn’t do farms smaller than 24 machines, Dinesen says. It recently installed an operation that size for an entrepreneur in Calgary. “Right now, most of those products have to be imported into Alberta,” Dinesen says of the produce grown on the farm. “Now he’s able to grow and supply locally year-round.”

CubicFarms’ HydroGreen system provides cows with high-quality feed at a fraction of the price of traditional methods

Whats good for the calf

On the HydroGreen side of the business, the typical customer is a dairy or beef farmer who wants reliable on-farm nutrition for animals, Dinesen adds.

CubicFarms is moving toward installing 100 machines at a time, he says: “To be able to supply a large foodservice company, a large retailer, that’s the scale that’s needed.”

As for the competition, several other companies are plowing a similar indoor field. Probably the highest-profile name is Plenty, along with AeroFarms and Infarm. “These groups have raised large amounts of capital, have developed some technology,” Dinesen says. But rather than compete with farmers, CubicFarms makes its technology available to them, he explains. “We’re really focused on supporting that local farmer with commercial-scale indoor agtech.”

Asked what problems CubicFarms will help solve, Dinesen zeroes in on a couple of things.

First, agriculture has a huge environmental impact. “We live in a world that is now accustomed to long-chain agriculture, where we have big, centralized farms in certain places in the world, and then we rely on diesel fuel and jet fuel to get that food to where people live,” Dinesen says. “There’s two problems with that. One is, you’re now actually more reliant on your supply chain infrastructure than you are on a farm. And of course, that is burning an enormous amount of greenhouse gases to get that food to where people live. And so it’s not sustainable; it can’t keep happening.”

Second, with the world’s population projected to grow dramatically in the next four decades, we’re already using all of the fresh water available to us for human consumption and farming, Dinesen says. “And we’re already using all of the land that’s available for agriculture. And so we’re going to have to use technology to localize food production and then to maximize what we actually can do with every drop of water and every bit of land that’s available.”

Oh, and don’t forget our dwindling prospects for feeding livestock outdoors, partly thanks to droughts triggered by climate change. “There are so many places now in North America and around the world where irrigating grazing lands is simply not possible.”

In Dinesen’s view, the situation is urgent. “These are world-shaking changes that are so acute and so serious, and I’m not sure that they’re quite making the headlines they probably should,” he says. “But the technologies that we’ve developed allow you to feed thousands of animals with a fraction of the water. And the same with growing the food. You can grow far more locally, so you’re not burning the greenhouse gases and using far less water. And then of course, no pesticides and other harmful things.”

How much room do these systems take up? For every 50 CubicFarms machine, you need about an acre of land. “But that is going to replace hundreds of acres of farmland,” Dinesen says. “It doesn’t matter how much land you have here. Most of the year, you can’t grow a lot of the crops that our system could grow. So it’s almost like it replaces an infinite amount of land.”

One CubicFarms module can grow as much as a football field–sized farm

Farmed out

If CubicFarms takes away worries about drought, pests and disease, it could also solve a chronic labour shortage for Canadian farmers, Dinesen reckons. “Canada grew a lot of stuff this year that just died literally on the vine because they couldn’t get enough labour,” he says. “And I don’t think there’s a lot of little boys and girls anywhere in the world that are running home from school going, Mommy, Daddy, I can’t wait to be the best produce picker in the world. We need automation. We need machines to feed us.”

For B.C. and the rest of Canada, one benefit of local automated farming is better food security, reducing our reliance on produce from California and other places. “We can’t keep doing what we’re doing,” Dinesen says. “First of all, California is running out of water. It’s not going to be able to keep doing what it’s doing.”

Making the switch to growing locally doesn’t mean doubling your grocery bill, he maintains. “This can now be done in an economical way that’s very cost-competitive. Especially when you consider that products grown locally and then harvested live, they live so much longer, so the odds are you’ll eat it before you throw it away.”

Also, as the pandemic has shown, global supply chains for produce and other goods are unreliable. They’re unsustainable, too, according to Dinesen. “Why are we running out of water? Because of climate change. What’s driving climate change? Endless burning of fossil fuel. What’s doing that? Well, a whole lot of it is shipping produce long-distance. It’s the world’s most ridiculous cycle.”

Dinesen is an enthusiastic pitchperson for the food grown in CubicFarms greenhouses. “On the live green animal feed side, if you treat animals well by giving them absolutely optimum feed, which is what our systems grow, that animal will perform better, live longer, give you more milk, better-quality meat and reduce greenhouse gases significantly,” he says. “And the food that you will get from that animal is the most delicious you could ever possibly imagine.”

The same goes for the plant side, Dinesen says. “The vegetables that our systems grow are the best you will ever possibly taste. So it’s not just that we can grow locally using technology; it’s ridiculously fantastic.” Nutritionally, the produce is “off the charts,” he adds, “because you’re not harvesting it, really, till you eat it, so it doesn’t begin to decay and lose its nutritional value.”

As they preach the virtues of locally grown food, Dinesen and his team of about 130 are preparing to go global. CubicFarms, which has patented its technology and sold several Crop Motion systems, will install several more in North America over the next year, he says. Having closed a HydroGreen deal in Australia, it also has a system in Italy and has sold one in Japan.

“In certain key markets, you’ll begin to see our growth,” Dinesen says, adding that Asia and Europe are its top choices for expansion. “It’s a globally applicable agtech that was developed in B.C. but for the world. And in fact, there’s many places in the world that need it far more than we do. I’m not saying that we don’t need it, but it’s needed.” 

Here at home, government has a role to play in supporting agtech companies that help secure the food supply, Dinesen argues. “If there’s one thing that we should do in Canada, just like governments got behind clean energy for solar, wind and other green alternatives, we should have the same kind of subsidies, supports, incentives, et cetera for agtech so that we can localize our food production.” 

Dinesen calls on the province to back B.C.’s agtech cluster in tangible ways. “Just like they’ve supported the wine industry, they’ve supported Hollywood North, I think we could have Holland West here,” he says. “But it’s going to take a significant investment by the provincial government. If they did it and did it quickly, I think there’s a great opportunity for agtech.”

CubicFarms’ end product