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  • 8 November 2018

How two tech-savvy companies are trying to reduce food insecurity in the north

Eight-dollar heads of lettuce in Churchill, Manitoba. Twenty-seven-dollar bunches of asparagus in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. Thirteen-dollar cauliflower in Iqaluit, Nunavut. For any Canadian paying attention, it’s no longer a dirty secret that food costs a lot more in the north than other parts of the country and that people are struggling to afford it. 

The reasons for these sobering numbers are complex and multi-faceted, ranging from high shipping costs to poverty to declines in plant and animal populations to climate and geographic challenges. Yet as seemingly impenetrable as these barriers appear to be, there’s a growing number of tech-savvy entrepreneurs who disagree. And they believe indoor farms and greenhouses are one of the keys to begin getting more nutritious, affordable food into the hands of people who need it most.    

Growing North

About five years ago, Ben Canning and Stefany Nieto launched Growing North as Ryerson University students. Their goal was to help northern communities — particularly in Nunavut — become food sovereign by building infrastructure that sustainably grows fresh produce. They purchased a Growing Dome greenhouse kit from a Colorado-based company called Growing Spaces and took it to Naujaat, Nunavut. Inside they use raised soil beds and 1.5-metre-tall vertical hydroponic towers to grow a wide range of leafy greens — kale, spinach, lettuce, chard — and other veggies like carrots, turnips, potatoes, beans, beets, radishes and cauliflower. It all gets sold at farmers’ markets and to a food bank at about half the cost of what’s available at local stores. 

All of the technology has been working quite well, says Canning, but the biggest challenge has been figuring out how to best deliver education around growing food. What some may perceive as common knowledge — like where a bean comes from or potatoes grow underground — is not necessarily known due to cultural and geographical differences. To address these knowledge gaps, they’ve incorporated a few different educational pieces including an Arctic Farmers Program wherein they teach horticultural practices, entrepreneurship and healthy eating in the local high school.  

The Growcer

The Growcer’s year-round indoor farms couldn’t be more different than those of Growing North. Instead of polycarbonate domes, these are 40-foot-long enclosed steel rectangles — as in refurbished shipping containers once used for transporting food. Inside, it looks like a mini supermarket with a central aisle and shelves on the left and right where usually leafy greens, some brassicas and herbs grow.

For most communities, these are also commercial systems intended to generate a profit for owners. Which is another reason why they went with shipping containers, says Ellis. “We’re finding that as people make investments and earn money, they reinvest those and buy more systems that can be locked right into the other containers.” Some of those systems are commercial kitchens and dry storage units, which The Growcer also sells. “It’s kind of like Lego pieces coming together to adapt to each customer and what they’re trying to do.

For northern consumers, who usually buy Growcer-grown veggies from grocery stores, it all means lower prices. That eight-dollar lettuce in Churchill, Manitoba, for example, now costs about half that. 

It’s clear that only through creative and somewhat non-traditional ideas like these — and like the technological ideas Growing North and The Growcer have put in place — that those appalling food insecurity numbers in parts of the north will begin trending in the opposite direction.  


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