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Winter's arrival in northern Ontario once meant months when cheap, fresh produce would be scarce on the Nipissing First Nation.

This winter is different. Late last year, the nation purchased a specialized hydroponic "farm" built in a steel box about the size of a shipping container. The farm now produces enough fresh greens for the community of about 3,000 and nearby restaurants year-round.

Gone are wilted romaine and broccoli from California. Now, kale, lettuce and other Nipissing-grown greens are readily available. Plants sit in a shallow pond of water with nutrients to help them thrive inside the new farm. One 400-square-foot container can produce over 787 plants a week.

"The quality and taste of these products is unlike anything I've tasted or seen for purchase anywhere," said Geneviève Couchie, Nipissing First Nation business operations manager. "That's extremely exciting."

The farm is one of more than 70 similar projects across Canada supported by Ottawa-based social enterprise Growcer. Founded in 2015 by a group of university students trying to bolster food availability in remote parts of Canada, the company has since helped dozens of Indigenous communities, public institutions like schools and a handful of farmers run hydroponic farms to supply local markets.

About half the fruits, vegetables and nuts in Canadian diets are imported, mainly from the U.S., according to researchers at York University. Nearly 90 per cent of all leafy greens are imported, and Canada is "heavily dependent" on California and Arizona for vegetables like spinach, celery, broccoli and cabbage.

This reliance on imports is particularly evident in rural and remote towns, especially in northern regions where fresh food must be shipped by air. Food prices in northern fly-in communities are routinely two or three times higher than in southern centres, exacerbating widespread food insecurity. In Nunavut alone, nearly half of households can't afford enough to eat, with Inuit disproportionately hard hit.

Growcer was initially created to help remote communities where it’s impossible to grow food year-round rely less heavily on these imports by producing fresh, local foods, explained co-founder Alida Burke. The company has since expanded its focus to support projects across the country.

"This type of growing technology can be used to support food sovereignty and food security no matter where you are," she explained.

Winter's arrival in northern Ontario traditionally means months when cheap, fresh produce is scarce on the Nipissing First Nation.

While the company works with many Indigenous communities on projects like the one on Nipissing First Nation, they are not the only clients. Universities like Acadia and Durham College purchased Growcer farms, modified to be wheelchair-accessible, as part of their educational program. A few commercial farmers selling to local grocery stores have also purchased the units, Burke said.

Still, Burke admitted the units are not an all-encompassing solution for food security, particularly in remote northern communities. They are "complementary" to local food programs, offering an alternative source for foods like produce that would otherwise need to travel thousands of kilometres.

"The way we view it is working in collaboration and not necessarily against different types of options," she said.

Back in Nipissing, Couchie said the farm's only downside has been its electricity use, which has increased the community's power bill. But those costs are offset by the unit's benefits — enough fresh, affordable veggies to go around and sell online to restaurants and at farmers' markets.

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spread this widely. wise advice is ignore the deniers nd focus on the solutions for the future! this is how we do it.
heat pump cost effective and healthier alternatives to gas and coal are making more people get them ,NOT telling folks the planet is burning ( even though that is true)
I see it like good coaching: tell your athlete exactly what to do , not “ that’s wrong! try harder!”

Where these heat pumps are cost-effective, what is the electricity rate being paid?
And where does one find disclosure as to the amount of electricity required to run the things?
I already pay a fortune to run the fan on the gas heater (only 5 years old: I sprang for the type with the highest efficiency on offer: it was being plugged as the environmentally conscious choice at the time.
The old furnace lasted about 45 years. This one is probably safer, and the fan is stronger so the upstairs and basement (which I don't use much) are warmer, but I also use just as much gas in it as I did in the old one. So now when I hear about cost effectiveness, I want to be able to do a breakdown, based on my own situation. I'm also concerned about the ozone-layer-depleting fluids used in them ... and which apparently need to be topped up from time to time. Or maybe those on the market now are designed according to a model based on planned obsolescence so that when they need to be refilled, they need to be replaced? I've not heard, either of models that will use a less environmentally damaging coolant being available in Canada, or any that iwll be able to convert to use of a less damagintg coolant if/when that becomes available.

But back on topic: the article doesn't mention the cost of those units, and how much they cost to run. While hydroponics is mentioned, there's no information as to where the plant nutrients come from, and what is used for pest control. It seems to me that the problem with cabbages and other products that we used to store in a root cellar is that fast-to-market genetics have been favored over disease resistance and good storage qualities are built into the strains now available. And it now costs handily over $10 for a package of such hybridized seeds that haven't been pre-treated with toxic substances ... and you can't collect viable seeds from them to "go again" next year). Given the poor performance of some seeds I've planted lately, one's almost better off just buying whatever the grocers import. But for summer greens, you can't beat some of our local weeds. Some of them freeze well, too.

It's high time that northern arable land be devoted to crops that will store well during winter, and that don't necessarily all hit maturity at the same time. Our seed producers are more and more geared to the needs of market gardeners, rather than home gardeners ... and anyone buying "starts" buys unknown varieties.

I'd like, as well, to know how green onions rose in price so rapidly from 2 bunches for a dollar, to 50 cents per single green onion. Prices levelling off? My foot! The only thing "levelling" in grocery stores is quality ... and it's been consistently "levelling down."

Also, I'd observe that Canada is not rife with climate areas conducive to year-round growing ... and that when you go further north, the hours of sun in summer are longer, offering considerable compensation for the shorter growing season.

An excellent piece that outlines our national predicament on food security.

In the North there is a lot more sunlight during the traditional growing season than in the South. That is one gigantic advantage. In winter wind power and grid scale batteries could feasibly displace diesel generators and extend the growing season indoors with full spectrum LED lighting and heat pumps, like the containerized option described.

Canada is largely dependent on the Colorado River for produce, mainly in the form of produce grown in California and Mexico. Given the record breaking drought and evolving water rights disputes in the SW US, that dependency could be cut off, perhaps suddenly.

Meanwhile, Canadian cities are surrounded by productive farmland, most of it unprotected from suburban encroachment. That land, referred to as greenbelts, is perfectly situated for market gardens producing food for nearby cities, saving millions in transportation costs. The southern Prairies have the right conditions for solar greenhouses to produce food during winter. Both have the capability for exports.

The provinces may have the constitutional right to control land use, for better or worse. Just look at Ontario's greenbelt and BC's Agricultural Land Reserve to see the night and day management versions of that right.

The feds could foster better management with a national policy on food security with incentives and rewards for best agricultural practices.

Great comment.

Gotta admit, I often don't pay much attention to these articles about some inspirational young person making some nice contribution. But this, this is impressive and important, tackles a key dependency and expense issue for northern First Nations and a lot of other relatively remote communities. The people who got this going seriously rock.

Now all they have to do is get some local renewable power to deal with the extra power bills.