Virginia Muswagon’s parents grew tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and potatoes in a greenhouse when she was young. In Norway House Cree Nation, where she’s from, the growing season can be as short as two months. So when an Ottawa-based startup helped Muswagon put a hydroponic farm on the reservation, she jumped at the chance to start growing leafy greens year round.
“I used to love what (my parents) would grow — the colour and the taste of the vegetables were really good,” Muswagon said. “So it was a no-brainer to try growing myself.”
In 2019, Muswagon and her co-manager, Ian Maxwell, started Pimâtisiwin Nipî Kistikânihk, or Life Water Gardens, a hydroponic farm inside a refurbished shipping container from a startup called The Growcer. Almost four years later, Muswagon and Maxwell harvest about 450 plants each week and supply greens to a local high school, hospital and grocery store.
They are one of about 70 communities across Canada to purchase a hydroponic farm from The Growcer. Now, Muswagon said she hopes her community can get a second one.
“Fresh vegetables just can't be compared to what you buy at the store,” Muswagon said.
The Growcer co-founder Corey Ellis started the company with his business partner, Alida Burke, when they were students at the University of Ottawa. Ellis and Burke would travel to Iqaluit each reading week with a school club meant to help students create social purpose businesses. There, Ellis said he realized remote communities faced challenges securing fresh produce.
“Walking to the grocery store, it becomes pretty evident that what we take for granted here in Ottawa is not the lived reality of a lot of people across the country,” Ellis said, noting a case of water could fetch $80 in a grocery store and a head of lettuce could sell for $10. “This is what people are willing to put up with, what they have to pay every day.”
Ellis and Burke developed a farm inside a shipping container. Now, in slightly larger units of about 400 square feet, the farms can produce 8,500 pounds of greens each year. All the farm needs, Ellis said, is space, a person to farm inside and an electricity connection. Each unit consumes up to 86,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year in a four-season climate — 3.5 times the amount of energy consumed by the average Canadian household in the same time — and about 76,000 in the frigid North where air conditioning is unnecessary.
According to The Growcer’s website, in Ottawa, one farm would reach an electricity bill of about $680 per month. In Nunavut, a monthly energy bill could reach above $1,900.
The Growcer, an Ottawa-based startup, helps remote communities run shipping container farms capable of growing up to 8,500 pounds of food per year. Now, some are close to breaking even and others are looking to expand.
In December 2017, Ellis and Burke’s starter farm held its first harvest in Churchill, Man. Ellis said it wasn’t long before other remote communities started reaching out for containers.
“Honestly, it was word of mouth,” Ellis said. “The Far North is a small place, and everybody hears about everything that's going on.”
More than 450 kilometres north of Winnipeg, Maxwell said frost can continue into the second week of June and return to kill crops as early as September. With funding from non-profit Food Matters Manitoba and accounting company Binder Dijker Otte Canada, Norway House Cree Nation was one of the first communities to purchase a farm.
The hydroponic farm is equipped to grow food year round in the extreme cold. Muswagon said the unit at Norway House Cree Nation grows greens, including oregano, cilantro, spinach, butterhead lettuce and even bok choy.
“In the dead of winter, we've gotten as low as -50 C,” Muswagon said. “When you go in (the farm), it's like you walk into another dimension.”
The startup also caught the attention of the Gitmaxmak'ay Nisga’a Society, a non-profit that represents the 1,400 Nisga’a people living in Prince Rupert, B.C. The society had been trying to grow fresh produce in Prince Rupert for years, said Blair Mirau, the economic development officer for the society. Prince Rupert is almost 1,000 kilometres north of Vancouver, at the end of British Columbia’s Highway 16, near the end of the supply chain.
“The terrain here is either rock or muskeg,” Mirau said. “What we understand to be traditional agriculture or farms, there’s nothing within 140 kilometres that looks like that.”
Earlier attempts to grow produce in a greenhouse fell flat. In 2020, Mirau said, the organization was able to get funding for one of The Growcer’s first shipping container units and since then has had better luck.
“When the pandemic hit, there were a lot of empty shelves in the grocery store,” Mirau said. “That just kind of added fuel to our fire to get this project done faster.”
Now, Mirau said the farm produces about 600 leafy green plants per week, including lettuce, spicy mustard, spinach and bok choy. While each plant is only about 60 per cent as large as its ground-farmed counterparts, Mirau said the plants are much fresher than produce transported from mainland B.C. or California.
“If you buy a head of lettuce and you leave it in your fridge for three or four days, it's gonna start to deteriorate,” Mirau said. “With our stuff, you can probably stretch it three weeks in the fridge and still eat it without feeling compromised.”
Mirau said the society sells about half its greens through a subscription service that offers weekly and biweekly packages of produce. Each package contains five to seven fresh plants, and the shipping container farm can sustain up to 60 customers. Just by selling produce, Mirau said the farm was able to start making revenue in less than eight months.
The other half of the farm’s greens are sold to a cafe the society opened in late May. The cafe’s revenue, Mirau said, helped offset the cost of the units, which Ellis says can cost anywhere from $200,000 to $300,000 to install.
In Ottawa, Ellis said the container farm startup is launching up to four farms every month. The company’s farms include projects in the northern Quebec community of Kuujjuaq and in Yellowknife. One farm grows greens on the University of Ottawa’s campus. Ellis said he even had visitors arrive from the Bahamas to tour the experimental unit in Ottawa. Ellis said he sees the farms as a way to help communities protect their food security.
“There's a huge risk from a food security point of view in the North, where it's acute and where the need is most present,” Ellis said, “but also in a place like Ottawa, where COVID made us realize maybe our food supply chain isn't as secure as we once thought it was.”
Back at Norway House Cree Nation, Maxwell and Muswagon said they are considering getting another unit. Muswagon said some of the growers have experimented growing strawberries in the hydroponic farm.
Isaac Phan Nay / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative