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These in-their-own-words pieces are told to Patricia Lane and co-edited with input from the interviewee for the purpose of brevity.

Ben Feagin is bringing fresh produce and food security to northern Ontario.

As founder and CEO of AgriTech North, I spoke with him at his vertical hydroponic farm and research site in Dryden, Ont.

The AgriTech North team, from left: Janelle Tickner (hydroponic research assistant), Dustin Potter (hydroponic technician), Fabian Prince Velez (master grower), Ben Feagin Jr. (CEO), Lennox Hawkins (growers' assistant), Sam Allan (hydroponic farm manager), and Kerri Howarth (community engagement developer). Photo by Samantha Hawkins Photography

Tell us about your company.

AgriTech North has a mission to bring food sovereignty to this region.

A head of lettuce at our local Walmart is $7 today. Fresh produce is often not available in the north and because it is grown hundreds of miles away, transportation costs and delays mean it is expensive and often not very fresh when it arrives.

Food grown or produced here is sent first to Thunder Bay and then back for sale, adding cost and further delay. With so many middle players, local growers and producers see only one-third of the sale price, and since our food dollars are mostly spent at large multinationals, the profits go elsewhere, depriving communities of much-needed revenue for amenities. People leave, further reducing market size and labour is scarce. The absence of sustainable distribution infrastructure means fly-in communities often lack fresh milk or produce. We set out to tackle all these issues.

We began with produce. Less than a year after we opened, 400 to 500 families in Dryden, Kenora and Sioux Lookout have fresh greens, fruits and herbs each week, often at less than the price charged by other food retailers. We control our own distribution and plan to eventually use drones to deliver fresh produce to fly-in communities.

As founder and CEO of AgriTech North, Ben Feagin is bringing fresh produce and food security to northern Ontario. #YouthClimateAction

We cut more costs by helping to found the Dryden food co-op, which runs as a not-for-profit. We package deliveries with other local vendors to include, for example, local wild rice and locally roasted coffee.

Encouraging food workers to stay means both paying fair wages and improving access to amenities like recreation and sports, so we work in partnership with Indigenous Sport & Wellness Ontario to improve opportunities for everyone. I really enjoy teaching high school students how to set up local enterprises.

Dryden’s climate is harsh, with high levels of snowfall and temperatures of -40 C in winter rising to 30 C in summer. We invited the federal government to test a combination of solar, modular batteries and radiator technology to both heat and cool our energy-intensive farm. This will allow us to almost eliminate our $6,000-a-month energy bills and if it can work here, it can work almost anywhere in the north, so we are training small communities in our farming methods so when they have this inexpensive renewable energy, they will know how to use it for their own food production.

In our first year, our operating budget has grown to $1.6 million. We won the $100,000 Bears’ Lair competition for Indigenous enterprises, the RBC FuturPreneur Emerging Indigenous Entrepreneur Award, and the RBC Innovation Awards Project of the Year. We are just getting started.

Ben Feagin graduating with his bachelor's degree from the University of British Columbia in 2008 with his stepfather Garth Guenther and mother Jeannine St. Aubin. Photo submitted

How did you get into this work?

I was raised here but moved to the U.S. for school and work. When the pandemic began, I was working for the US Department of Energy in Portland. During the lockdown, my fiancé Fabian Valez and I talked a lot with my family in Dryden who helped us understand how hard people were hit by food shortages. We approached the Dryden city economic developer and asked if we might combine Fabian’s expertise in agriculture and mine in research and innovation to address food insecurity in the region; he was immediately supportive. We spent more than a year doing market and technical research and opened our doors in January 2022.

What makes it hard?

Small towns are often not as accepting of LGBTQ2S+ people as the large cities in which I had become used to living and racism is also real. It is hard facing rejection based solely on prejudice. Fortunately, many local people are interested and once they understand our approach, it makes sense. Our single biggest challenge is cynicism. I like to think we can begin to expand hope.

Fabian Prince Velez and Ben Feagin Jr. enjoying the sunset in Portland, Ore. They met in Portland before moving back to Dryden, Ont. Photo submitted

What keeps you motivated?

My mom passed away from cancer about 10 years ago. I was too slow to come home and by the time I arrived, she was in a coma. My regret that I was too busy to prioritize our love lit a fire in me. I am determined to use my experience, skills and talents to make life better here. She raised me to value curiosity, to believe in my sense of possibility and to see the power of community. I want my work to be her legacy.

What do you see if we get this right?

Every community in northwestern Ontario has sovereignty over their food production and shortages of healthy sustainable fresh food are a thing of the past.

Fabian Prince Velez and Ben Feagin Jr. hug after making their pitch on the Bears' Lair, a national Indigenous business competition on APTN, where they were awarded the grand prize of $100,000. Photo submitted

What would you like to say to other young people?

If you follow your passion, work hard and lean into new areas of interest, you can go further than you think to make the world better.

What about older readers?

I am so blessed to have so much support from the open-minded elders around me. Shop local to support your community.

Keep reading

I LOVE that this team is gay and out/proud. Fantastic. HOWEVER I find it annoying that RBC gets to have its name associated with the project. RBC is doing more to hurt indigenous food sovereignty by supporting CGL and the pipeline through Wet'suwet'en territory without consent, and gets to hide behind good projects like this to mask the reality of their role in fossil fuel continuance.