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The pandemic hit, and our collective survival instincts kicked in. Right and left, people-focused squarely on food. We started feverishly fermenting it, cooking it, kneading it, and, in the case of brothers Lukas and Stefan Sirianni, learning how to grow it in a new way. As founders of etobiGrow, an urban farm dedicated to hydroponic, vertical growing methods, the brothers are bringing a modern, sustainable way to grow food to the GTA.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, my brother and I actually found ourselves unemployed at the same time,” says Lukas Sirianni, of etobiGrow. Like others, spurred on by circumstance, now-or-never bravado or mere curiosity, the pandemic gave the brothers the push they needed to finally get their hydroponic, vertical farm up and running. “My brother and I are both very passionate about food. We like growing it; we each have our own gardens. … When the pandemic hit, we just decided to start this urban farm together.”
To begin, the brothers turned their basement into the site of a very small urban farm to start raising the capital needed for a larger business. “It started back then with this idea of supplying our neighbours and neighbourhood and the rest of the city of Toronto with garden vegetable seedlings,” says Lukas. The duo sold plants and vegetable seedlings for delivery, using the money to “build the infrastructure necessary to continue farming.”
From there, the challenge was to create a hydroponic, vertical farm system that could monitor and nurture thousands of plants at a time. The brothers relied on their combined backgrounds in engineering, mechanics and construction to design “all of our own software and technology in-house,” says Lukas.
The Siriannis also had to find a way around what Lukas calls the city’s weak policy on urban agriculture. “Hydroponic, vertical farming is actually a very, very new industry still,” he says. “Vertical farming can only happen in what’s called ‘core employment areas’ in Toronto. Those typically are industrial areas and are usually far away from residential areas, which is kind of counterproductive to what an urban farm is supposed to do. It’s supposed to serve the community that they grow food in,” he adds. To circumvent the issue, the brothers sell their produce as living plants, or seedlings, rather than food.
Though they faced a steep learning curve, “at this point, the farm is fully-automated,” says Lukas. “The amount of work actually necessary to run this thing is quite minimal.” Today, everything from nutrient levels to light intensity is monitored by the brothers’ innovative sensors and software. The farming system uses up to 95% less water than conventional farming, eliminates the need for pesticides and creates zero food waste. It also produces fairly flawless plants, every time. It’s no wonder that etobiGrow has since expanded to several locations including, in October, 2021, a flagship facility in North York.
Curiously, as the company grew, its focus narrowed. Lukas and Stefan turned their attention to a plant tailor-made for vertical farming: compact Genovese basil. This dwarf variety grows shorter yet produces more leaves than field basil, making it ideal for vertical farming’s space constraints. The team now grows basil almost exclusively at the company’s micro-farms. “We noticed that in Toronto, there’s a huge lack of basil. It’s the kind of produce that we import from very far and we don’t grow locally at all,” says Lukas. “We import most of our large leaf Genovese basil from places like California, Hawaii, and that’s pretty much all year. We figured basil was the best way to go about it because it’s an in-demand crop.”
Today, the team has a weekly turnover of over 400 plants. Though the company’s new facility is only 500 square-feet, “the plus side,” says Lukas, “is that we have nice, tall, 16-foot ceilings in here. As our farm increases production and our business grows, we’re able to continue to build up, rather than out.” The plants have an eight-week growth cycle, including four weeks in a nursery followed by four more in the main growing system where they bloom.
The resulting fresh, locally-grown basil plants, available year-round, aren’t a tough sell. After trying some samples, Oretta chef de cuisine Raffaele Ventrone affirms, “we ended up loving it. … I worked in Italy for about six months and the executive chef is Sicilian, was born there. The basil plants themselves, they’re probably as flavourful as in Italy. The flavour is just so pungent, so aromatic. It reminds me as if you’re back there, picking herbs for the pasta of the night.”
All Oretta locations, as well as their sister spot, Capocaccia Trattoria, now rely on etobiGrow for their basil needs. Prior to partnering with etobiGrow, the restaurants received products that were “good, they looked good, but the flavour wasn’t like Lukas and Stefan’s basil,” says Ventrone. “On a scale of 1-10, the stuff we were getting was a two. Theirs is an 11.”
Compared to basil that arrives “in plastic bags, harvested who knows how long ago, especially with today’s shipping slowdowns,” etobiGrow’s basil is “grown all year in the city, from seed all the way until it’s fully grown,” says Lukas. “And we deliver it with roots intact so the plant is actually at its peak freshness right to the point when they harvest it,” he adds.
Though the team is currently committed to Genovese basil, they do grow other varieties by request. “We are currently growing some lemon basil and shiso basil. … We’re getting really good reception with those crops, as well,” says Lukas.
What might the future hold? "The growth is only up for us," quips Lukas. "My brother and I are really super excited about where the company is right now." The team hopes to expand etobiGrow into new, larger facilities and offer a wider range of products, including fresh-cut flowers.
Part of the Toronto Urban Growers, or TUG, the duo also wants to continue its mission of helping others. Last year, the team donated hundreds of seedlings to the Daily Bread Food Bank for its community gardens. This spring, the brothers will partner with the Thompson Orchard Community Association on a seedling drive to raise funds for the organization. "We're super passionate about food security," says Lukas. As their business grows, the Siriannis plan to increase the ways they support their community through even more donations, partnerships, and educational outreach programs.
With a devoted client base, the best basil this side of Sicily, and a way of farming that boasts a host of commendable characteristics, it's no wonder etobiGrow's growth spurt shows no sign of slowing down.