This article is part of our Dream Big(ger): York Region’s Innovators series. This series aims to create awareness and understanding of the robust innovation ecosystem in York Region, and takes a dive into the stories of local entrepreneurs and how they’re shaking up their industries.
Growing up in Toronto and studying environmental sciences at McMaster University, Brandon Hebor always dreamed of being able to use innovative forms of agriculture technology to produce nutritious local food year-round in urban environments, a goal he accomplished through the creation of Boreal Greens Co.
He launched the vertical farming agribusiness a little over two years ago in Markham after participating in Seneca College’s innovation and entrepreneurship incubator, HELIX. The company has since moved to the Township of King where, just like the plants it grows, it has flourished.
“As I have evolved as an entrepreneur through Seneca, a strategic partnership in Markham and now a facility in King Township, I’m very appreciative at how receptive the York Region business community has been for myself and Boreal, as well as the team at the Kingbridge Centre and the Kingbridge Innovation Hub, which have supported me as both an entrepreneur and a futurist in terms of helping to support and redesign local food systems,” says Hebor, who also did a post-graduate certificate in sustainable business development at Seneca College.
“York Region has always been very dynamic and supportive, especially when it comes to general knowledge and support for agriculture and agriculture technologies, and has quite a diverse and strong agriculture community and business ecosystem. When I have presented my ideas in other communities, the looks and comments I received were very different than in York Region, where there’s more understanding and a willingness to experiment and support agricultural innovation.”
A vertical farm with a purpose, Boreal Greens grows a variety of herbs, specialty greens and small vegetables indoors using a hydroponic, multi-tiered growing infrastructure that is completely soilless, making it ideal for urban agriculture and harsh environments.
Using a combination of LED lighting, precision nutrient dosing and a recirculating hydroponic system that exposes the plant roots to water for hydration and fertilization, Boreal Greens farming systems can produce food 365 days a year, and at a higher density than through regular farming methods. This technology helps buyers by supporting resilience in the local food supply chain and improving purchasing security so that consumers experience less price volatility.
It also produces a variety of specialty and culturally diverse produce that complements mainstream agriculture outputs that mostly include wheat, soy, potatoes, rice and corn.
“Boreal is an ag-tech enterprise that is supporting the development, deployment and training for local food systems through vertical farms and our commercial demonstration and R&D farm here in King. People from around the world can visit to train and learn and go back to their communities to support food security and move away from the centralized farms infrastructure we see around the world,” says the founder of the company.
“Boreal is leading with a purpose, so we’re a mission- and purpose-led company and we want to support farming and farming knowledge, as well as other entrepreneurs and farmers with passion and purpose.”
Hebor was able to transform his passion into a career through entrepreneurship and the support of different people and organizations in the region, including The Regional Municipality of York’s Economic Development team as well as Seneca HELIX, ventureLAB and the Kingbridge Centre.
For Hebor, the future of the local food movement is bright.
“It’s just a matter of time as people are being more supportive not just on the basis of intent and goodwill for local food, but on the basis of necessity because of what we’re experiencing from inflation as well as who is growing what, where, and what the global impact is,” he says.
“With COVID, a lot of systems had to change. One in particular is the farmer’s market, which had to adapt to an online platform. So, now that we’re looking at different platforms that people are comfortable using, we are finding that accessing local food can be as easy as buying food at the grocery store, if not easier.”
After getting his start as a social entrepreneur in Toronto by building an urban farm that consisted of a shipping container with a greenhouse on top and moving to York Region to continue his journey, Hebor is committed to growing healthy crops using sustainable agriculture technologies and maintaining and evolving best practices beyond the industry standard.
He is also interested in working with local businesses in the region to help resonate their collective values, and improve access to local food for everyone.