Innovative Hydroponic Farm in Moncton Survives Fire, Grows Stronger

Jesse Howatt accepts the innovation award from The Greater Moncton Chamber of Commerce. Image: Local by Atta Facebook page.

MONCTON – In 2016, brothers Jesse and Julian Howatt saw their business literally go up in flames. A fire engulfed their indoor hydroponic farm, Local By Atta, forcing them to rebuild everything.

The company has since expanded and in October, it was rewarded for its perseverance with the innovation award from The Greater Moncton Chamber of Commerce (GMCC).

“[Local By Atta] won because one of the key things [the brothers] proved as entrepreneurs is that they were able to move back into business,” said Chamber CEO Carol O’Reilly. “It’s really their tenacity and their drive to want to make their business a success a second time.”

The company was founded in 2013 by the Howatt brothers, who were raised on their mother’s pig farm in New Glasgow, P.E.I. Having studied land-use planning in university, they felt most cities in North America were missing urban agriculture.

Julian moved back to the Maritimes to form a company with his brother to help address food insecurity in their home region.

We want to own a business we’re proud of in the Maritimes, because that’s where we’re from and that’s the community we want to help and that we want to be a part of,” said Jesse in a recent interview.

The brothers chose Moncton because of the affordable warehouse space and labour force, cold winters with a lot of snow and the city’s entrepreneurial spirit. The support Local By Atta received after the fire was “almost overwhelming,” Jesse said.

After more than a seven-month rebuilding process, the company opened a new 7,000-square-foot warehouse on English Drive that’s nearly five times larger than its previous space.

Sales of its pesticide- and GMO-free greens have since grown to around $300,000 from $120,000. Local By Atta sells its products at farmers’ markets in Moncton and Dieppe, and also through restaurants and local retailers.  

“We don’t know of many farms doing what we’re doing and selling [produce] at farmers’ markets. A lot of them just try to go directly to a larger scale, selling to Sobeys or Superstore or the equivalent to a store like that in their town,” says Jesse, adding his company isn’t opposed to supplying larger retailers if it makes business sense.

A staff member harvests produce at the Local by Atta facility. Image: Local by Atta Facebook page.

The indoor farm relies on technologies that require a lot of upfront capital investment, including horticultural LED lights and other climate-control technology.

Unlike traditional farms, Local By Atta uses water instead of soil for the plants to grow.

The water can be recycled continuously, dramatically cutting down usage. The crops grow their roots into peat moss and rockwool, a material made from molten rocks.

Jesse said his farm’s innovation lies in the usage of an air-conditioning system generally used for indoor swimming pools. This is the “hidden gem,” he said.

The farm needs a certain amount of CO2 and dry air to ensure the plants grow properly. So, instead of pumping humid air out and bringing dry air in, Local By Atta uses the dehumidifier to manage these needs and cut costs.

Local By Atta hopes to be in full capacity by early 2019, with the warehouse being only half full currently. The company plans to eventually expand into greenhouse technology, which would allow it to grow tomatoes and cucumbers.

Even though it’s not yet at full capacity, it’s still more productive than conventional farms, says Jesse. The vertically stacked shelves allow them to grow more crops in a small space compared to outdoor farms. The controlled conditions also allow for pesticide-free farming and year-long harvests.

“We harvest five days a week, we plant six days a week,” says Jesse. “It’s really high intensity. Our quickest lettuce takes about four-and-a-half weeks from seed to pulling it out.”