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'Tastes like lettuce really should': Local hydroponic farmers seeing boom amid leafy green shortages

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For Mike and Becky Newhook, the duo behind Vertical Roots Canada, business is booming amid drought-caused production shortages and high prices in box grocery stores.

"Unless you walk to your backyard and pull it out of your garden, we're the next best thing," Mike told CTV News Edmonton on Friday, speaking at the high-tech farm in south Edmonton.

The couple first ventured into aquaponics farming – which uses fish – in The Philippines.

Then, about two-and-a-half years ago, they launched Vertical Roots Canada.

Vertical Roots' plants float 24/7 in about six inches of water.

"Everybody asks, 'How come you're not drowning your plants?' Well," Mike explained, "we provide fresh nutrients, fresh oxygen, all day, all night, so the roots are able to absorb all those things in the water."

With 14 feet of vertical growing space, the company is able to put out stock at the Bountiful Farmers' Market, deliver to a few locations across the city, and supply a handful of restaurants.

Heads of romaine, green and red lettuce, as well as arugula and kale sell for $5 or $6. The Newhooks say they are committed to holding the price there.

"As we've moved into the cold season and the markets are shut down and the gardens are gone and then we have drought and disease in California, we find people are just desperate for greens that are locally produced but also so clean and not coming from a major corporation," Becky told CTV News Edmonton.

That was the sentiment of customers at the market on Friday.

"I'm buying it from people that grow it – that's important to me. And I just think it's fresher and less likely to have all kinds of crap and stuff on it," a first-time customer commented.

"It's nice and fresh. It's nice and clean. … And it's great tasting. It smells and tastes like lettuce really should," another shopper echoed.

The Newhooks plan to expand production with more farms in Edmonton and east of Alberta's capital city, and want to train others in the business.

"We're making a dent, we believe, and if everyone else would join in, we really could make a dent in local production," Mike said.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Nahreman Issa

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