It may look like a piece of PVC pipe stuck in a flowerpot, but for Jake and Gustavo of Skyline Farms, it’s the future of farming.

The two Sustainable Energy and Building Technology (SEBT) students were awarded one of Humber’s New Venture Fund grants to develop vertical farms on the rooftops of some of Toronto’s neediest areas, starting with Regent Park, east of the city’s downtown core.

Using hydroponic farming techniques, which require water but no soil, the pair plans to grow leafy greens, herbs, and heirloom varieties of tomatoes and peppers. They’re planning to sell the fruits of their labour at the farmers’ market in Regent Park and to a few local restaurants.

Keeping their produce – and their profits – within their community is key to Skyline’s business plan.

“We determine the radius of where our produce can be sold by whether or not we can bike there,” says Jake, who came to the SEBT program after spending a year in a construction program at another college. “Everything we grow within a community has to be sold within that community. We don’t want to use any fuel or refrigeration to get our produce to places.”

Gustavo, 28, went to St. Mary’s University in Halifax, then worked and travelled before coming to Humber. He says the philosophy of Skyline Farms is to redefine what “local” means.

“Essentially, anything grown in Ontario is considered ‘local,’” he explains. “That seemed ridiculous to us, so we’re not just local – we’re hyperlocal. We’re also giving back to the community by donating waste produce for community garden composting and food to neighbourhood organizations, and eventually by providing educational programs for kids and seniors.”

The hydroponic farming system they’ve planned has plants growing in nutrient-enriched water. The water is filtered by the plants, which means it can be used over and over. The vertical orientation of their planters means they can grow more produce in less space. And unlike conventional gardening, there’s no water lost to soil absorption.

All this means better efficiency and less weight on the roof – which is an important consideration when planning a farm up in the air.

For their pilot year, Jake and Gustavo will be starting seeds in the Humber greenhouse in April, then planting them on their first rooftop farm once the weather is warm enough. They plan to be market-ready by June – and both say that wouldn’t have been possible without Humber’s help and support.

“We’ll never forget Humber,” says Gustavo. “We came to school here, we learned incredible lessons here, and now they’ve given us this grant. This is a great community.”

Image: One of the vertical hydroponic towers built by Jake and Gustavo.