Comment: The rise of the ‘grow’cer

Retailers are bringing agriculture right to the store floor

Canadians have started to notice that grocers are starting to sell plants in miniature greenhouses. Gardens on rooftops, vertical farms close to stores — some are even selling gardening equipment to gardeners shopping for food. The farm is essentially merging with the retail food spaces we roam as consumers. Quite interesting.

We are slowly witnessing the rise of the ‘grow’cer, if you will. For years, customers just believed in the myth that food just magically shows up at the grocery store. COVID got many to think differently about supply chains. 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.

Sobeys is just one recent example of what is 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 B.C. but can now be found in many locations across the country. Infarm units enable Sobeys to offer fresh herbs and produce that is grown hydroponically, which requires 95 per cent less water, 90 per cent less transportation and 75 per cent less fertilizer than industrial agriculture. No pesticides are used either.

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

While Sobeys does not have to worry about infrastructure and extra capital to change the allure of a store, it can get rid of these miniature vertical farms if proven unpopular or unnecessary. Works well for both Sobeys and the consumer. But it is not just Sobeys. Other grocers now have decent-sized vertical farms inside the stores, or close to them.

The gardening rate in Canada has gone up by more than 20 per cent 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 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 all at once.

Before COVID, farmers desperately tried to get closer to city dwellers, so their work can be appreciated. Campaigns over the years brought mixed results.

Farming is still largely misunderstood by most. Debates on GMOs and the use of chemicals have also divided both 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 cannot be replaced, of course, but they cannot be in stores either. Seeing pictures of farmers on packages and posters is what we saw for years. It was nice, but it was not real. The hard work, and everything else which comes with farming, can only be properly conveyed when visiting a farm or working on one for a while. Pictures likely will not disappear in grocery stores, but it does not really tell the whole story.

But the new ‘grow’cer brings the imagery of farming in retail to an all-new level. Grabbing a living plant, or produce off a living plant is certainly real and increasingly valuable for Canadians longing for local and for freshness. It just cannot get more local than when you grow it inside the grocery store.

For grocers, COVID eliminated many rules. Every business played a part. While grocers sold food, processors manufactured the food, and restaurants provided us with ready-to-eat solutions.

Lines between sectors were already becoming blurred before COVID as crossing concepts and eliminating lines between different sectors was happening. Some of us have heard of the ‘grocerant’ concept, for example, embedding foodservice into a grocery store. Consumers can relax, enjoy food before, during or after their grocery shopping. But COVID just blew “blurring lines” completely up.

Grocers are now becoming brokers, connecting different functions of the supply chain. Farming now connects with retail by way of new initiatives being present which is what we are seeing everywhere now. Restaurants are selling meal kits through grocers’ apps. Few saw that coming. Food brokering for grocers is the next frontier for growth. No doubt about it.

Whether it will last is unknown, but grocers are embracing the fact that they have the privilege to interact with consumers every single day. That privilege, now more than ever, comes with the responsibility of showing them the true value of food by becoming knowledge brokers. If it means growing more food in stores, so be it.

About the author

Contributor

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab, and professor in food distribution policy, Dalhousie University.

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