In Canada’s Northern communities, the general public is looking more to indoor growing for produce.
Harvesting crops year-round has never been easy in Canada’s North. Communities face subarctic climates, defined by harsh winters and short summers. Both make for poor farming conditions. However, the spread of containerized growing – also known as hydroponics – is making fresh vegetables accessible all year. Hydroponics is a way of growing plants with a nutrient-rich solution made of fertilizer and water. The unique growing method means plants can be grown in small spaces, without soil and sunlight.
In addition to year-round harvests, containerized growing is a step above imported produce in a number of ways. It is less packaged, less handled, less travelled, and of course, much fresher.
As remote towns continue to adopt indoor growing, there is less pressure to get produce from other sources. During the COVID-19 pandemic, pressure to buy local rose. When food imports were disrupted because of COVID, hydroponic container farms saw a boom in both Whitehorse, Yukon and Churchill, Manitoba.
“The attention shifted to local producers and people were scrambling to buy,” said Carl Burgess, CEO of Cold Acre Food Systems, a company based in Whitehorse, Yukon that fabricates and distributes hydroponic growing systems to clients in all three territories. They also sell fresh produce in Whitehorse. “Containerized growing captures attention.”
People have been stuck at home with little to do. Many have taken to cooking, and to trying new recipes. Carl noted that, despite their in-house unit being sold out, the pandemic led to many more calls about the availability of indoor-grown produce.
Retro-fitted shipping containers are popular products, known as CropBoxes. They house a vertical farming system that can grow different crops such as vegetables, herbs, berries, and microgreens.
Another community that has embraced containerized growing is Churchill, Manitoba. There, Carley Basler is the Sustainability Coordinator at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. She manages their Rocket Greens containerized-growing unit.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, she saw more interest in her indoor-grown crops. Locals were not travelling and importing opportunities were reduced.
“Some people who were on the fence decided what heck, let’s give it a try,” said Carley.
The Churchill Northern Studies Center is an independent non-profit in Churchill. It is a field station located outside the arctic circle. Since its founding in 1976, it has focused on research and education about the surrounding regions. While the Rocket Greens project doesn’t quite fit into the typical volunteer-learning experience adopted by the organization, it has found its place within their mandate.
“We started thinking about it, that our mandate is to understand and sustain the North,” said Carley. “We started to realize that it ticks all the boxes in our mandate. What can we learn about it and share with others, it was actually a really great fit with our function.”
The Rocket Greens project operates out of a shipping container called The Growcer, developed by an Ottawa-based company of the same name. The container farm is filled top to bottom with up to 40 plants like spinach, lettuce, and small peppers. It can provide the Churchill community with up to 350 fresh vegetables per week. If you are one of the program’s subscribers, Carley can have your spinach ready for consumption in as little as six weeks’ time. Local stores, cafeterias, and residents are all on the subscriber list.
Attitudes are shifting in remote communities
While indoor growing structures like greenhouses still use soil and sunlight, these retro-fitted containers do not. They use hydroponic growing.
These qualities make it ideal for growing crops in remote places with harsh climates, like most of Canada’s North.
“The capacity is there it’s just a new introduction. The technology is inherently flexible,” said Carl about hydroponics. “We’re trying to demystify it. We’re trying to make it accessible.”
Hydroponics equipment suppliers such as Cold Acre are starting to see more business as hydroponics become more popular. By making supplies and knowledge more accessible, they are seeing more interest in smaller scale indoor farming projects too.
“People have been asking for custom basement units or retro fitting a closet. They say we want to get six heads of lettuce and we want to grow cucumbers and tomatoes in our closet,” said Carl.
There is no reason to believe that crops grown without soil are any different than traditional produce. Yet, clients of Cold Acre Food Systems and the Rocket Greens project have come to expect a standard of quality from their greens.
“Northerners are asking if it’s fresh. It’s always expensive, so that doesn’t really even matter. Were used to paying a high price for food and that’s part of living here,” said Carley, “ But is it fresh, is it good, is it consistent? Those are the things I’m trying to shoot for.”
Grocery prices vary across Canada’s North and are generally more expensive in remote areas. In the 900-person town of Churchill, a head of romaine lettuce can cost over $5 at the grocery store. Carley’s Rocket Greens sell for just $3.50 per item.
Buying local is the new organic
In Canada, hydroponically grown produce cannot be classified as organically grown. While this could dissuade those looking for responsibly grown produce, clients and customers are trusting when they know where their food comes from. Growers like Carley are quick to tell their clients that their crops have all been grown without the use of pesticides or herbicides and have only passed through the hands of her and an assistant.
“Local is the new organic; the level of trust and freshness is driving the interest,” said Carl.
For decades, remote communities like Churchill and Whitehorse have looked to Southern Canadian imports for produce. Transporting supplies requires time, energy, and packaging.
However, both Carley and Carl are noticing an attitude shift in local versus imported food. Buying local supports neighbours, is better for the environment, and the food is fresher.
The success of indoor vegetable gardens is an exciting part of the goal to sustain Northern communities. The COVID-19 pandemic has driven demand for local suppliers and has shown how important food sovereignty is for remote communities.
Many believe indoor hydroponics are the logical next step in feeding remote communities. Carl also mentioned that Canada’s agriculture market is so big and that so little of it is controlled by locals.
“If we want fresh, healthy food in most of Canada, we’re going to have to figure out indoor year-round growing.”
Year-round growing is more than business; it is food sovereignty
Carley sees the Rocket Greens project as more than a business. To her, it is a step in achieving food security and food sovereignty in her community. “Food security is about being able to weather those hiccups in the supply chain, and sovereignty is about controlling it yourself, or community control,” she says.
The growing unit is at the center of a wider discussion about food sovereignty. It is the idea that the power to grow, produce, and distribute food should be in the control of the people it serves. A big part of that discussion is educating people and having community members get involved in food production.
“Food security is making sure your community has access to things all the time, with limited issues,” said Carley. She mentioned how in 2017 Churchill declared a state of emergency after prolonged blizzards prevented crucial food shipments from delivering to the town.
Reliance on food imports is a challenge that many subarctic communities face. It is those areas that Cold Acre Food Systems is looking to service. “It’s part of our core ethics to challenge the status quo and to strive towards a sustainable future. That is about a wide use of resources, education, and social enterprise,” says Carl.
Both Cold Acre and the Churchill Northern Studies Center offered tours of their growing facilities prior to COVID-19. That is just one way that hydroponic produce is being introduced to communities.
“The idea isn’t to sell a bunch of vegetables and make a bunch of money, the idea is to allow others and other communities, especially communities like us who are reliant on outside stuff for almost everything,” said Carley, “ to showcase that it’s doable.”
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.