Local producers and communities are making the cultivation of fresh fruit and vegetables feasible in Northern Canada
By Treena Hein
It was really no surprise to those of us who grocery shop regularly when Statistics Canada recently revealed that fresh vegetable and fruit costs had risen about 11 per cent between April 2016 and April 2015. This revelation ties into the results of a recent survey of more than 1,000 Canadians done by researchers at the University of Guelph and Dalhousie University showing that due to cost, one quarter of respondents ate fewer fruits and vegetables over the past year. And two thirds of respondents admitted to avoiding certain high-cost produce items.
In Canada’s North, the situation is more serious. Fruit and vegetable prices have been extreme for some time, with prices commonly three to four times those of southern Canada because of the transport costs and small market size.
But if you’re wondering what Northern Canadians are doing about this, the answer is a lot. There are a relatively large number of established farms and greenhouses (most providing spring, summer and fall shelter for plants), as well as new year-round greenhouse projects getting off the ground that plan to utilize the latest technologies as well as alternatives to diesel generators for heating. Diana Bronson, executive director of the Montreal-based non-profit Food Secure Canada, agrees that there are some really interesting and innovative greenhouse projects going on across the North. “The trend,” she notes, “is toward more local food supply everywhere.”
And momentum is building. The Yukon government’s new Local Food Strategy for Yukon: Encouraging the Production and Consumption of Yukon-Grown Food 2016 – 2021, for example, features a commitment to develop farmers’ markets, community gardens and greenhouses, with a strong call for new project proposals. In March, the first Northwest Territories CanGrow Greenhouse Conference was held at the Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI) in Hay River, organized by the Aurora Research Institute. “Many growers [of fruit and vegetables in the North] have diverse operations, so greenhouses allow for longer seasons and higher production of heat-loving plants, while root vegetables continue to be cultivated in the ground or in raised beds and containers,” notes Aurora Community research co-ordinator Jessica Dutton. “There is [as yet] very little high-tech growing happening in NWT and growers tend to be more familiar with growing in soil than with the hydroponic (soil-less growth medium), aquaponics (fish cultivation in conjunction with hydroponics) and aeroponics (mist) systems that could maximize space and efficiency, so the workshop was a great opportunity to introduce technologies.”
Attendees learned, for example, about the new greenhouse built at Forest Gate Greenhouse and Gardens in Fort Simpson using “Titan Wall” insulated panels developed in part by one of the conference presenters, Tang Gim Lee from the University of Calgary (and Forest Gate also has aquaponics). Phalguni Mukhopadhyaya from the University of Victoria introduced the prototype for his vacuum-sealed insulated panels. People also found out about new developments, such as the dome greenhouse being built at NFTI using funding from Hellmann’s Canada.
Projects established and planned
As government agencies don’t collect hard numbers, it’s hard to say how many commercial greenhouses and farms exist in the Yukon, NWT and Nunavut. According to Jody Butler Walker, executive director at the Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research, there are 14 First Nations in the Yukon and all have greenhouses. Brad Barton, technician at the Agriculture branch of Yukon Energy Mines and Resources, agrees and says First Nation food production capacity is growing stronger every year. The Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation, for example, has had a three-season greenhouse since 2000, and spokesperson Alice Bowland says they now grow broccoli, corn, peppers, melons, tomato, peas and much more.
In Nunavut, the Iqaluit Community Greenhouse Society has been in operation since 2007. Members grow various greens and herbs, beans, peas, radishes and carrots, and even some tomatoes and strawberries (started by members in their own homes using artificial light). Last October, construction of a dome-shaped greenhouse in Naujaat, Nunavut got underway, spearheaded by four students from Toronto’s Ryerson University with support from Enactus, an international organization that connects students, professors and business experts in using entrepreneurship to raise living standards. The project, known as Growing North, hopes to expand to nearby communities in the next few years. Crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and potatoes are growing right now, with over 20 000 lbs of fresh produce expected. A cooking club has been formed to help put the greenhouse’s bounty to full use, and students from nearby Tusarvik School will use part of the greenhouse in their studies.
In terms of projects in the planning, Professor Mike Dixon of the University of Guelph’s Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility is planning to head a year-round pilot project in Hay River involving a group of local people and in collaboration with NFTI. Dixon is the foremost Canadian expert on greenhouse systems for harsh environments, from future off-planet settlements to the North. “The insulated unit is already in place,” he explains, “but we need all the systems – lights, hydroponics, controls and so on – purchased and installed.”
Lorne Metropolit, owner of Yukon Gardens in Whitehorse, is also seeking funding to build a year-round greenhouse. He’s been growing hydroponic and field veggies at his garden centre for over 25 years, including cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, greens and herbs. He uses an outdoor wood boiler to keep seedlings warm early in the year. “[Growing produce] hasn’t always paid over the years, but it’s paying right now with the focus on buying local,” he says. “But it’s still hard to compete with tomatoes brought in from Mexico or B.C. They are $1 each and ours are $2 to $3. I’m learning that novelties sell.”
North Star Agriculture in Whitehorse has partnered with Alberta-based NutraPonics to build a year-round aquaponics facility. North Star CEO Sonny Gray says they are currently securing funding and relationships with other entities such as First Nation development corporations. He is not sure what heat source will be used. “There are options for geothermal,” he notes. “We are still in development phase and will be working with the Cold Climate Innovation research centre at Yukon College.”
At the farm gate
Yukon Agriculture Association executive director Jennifer Hall says more than 30 farms in that territory now sell fruit and vegetables to retailers and at farm gate. “I believe there is a slow upward trend towards farms production of fruits and vegetables both at the large-scale (hydroponics and aquaponics ventures) and smaller-scale homesteads,” she says. “Root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and turnips [are being grown] in massive numbers, and also cabbages.”
John and Sarah Lenart of Klondike Valley Nursery in Dawson City, Yukon have been growing apples, pears, cherries, plums, grapes and berries since the late 1980s. John has experimented over the years with dozens of varieties from breeders across the North, and recently the University of Saskatchewan. He has found keeping fruit trees in containers works best, moving them within or inside/outside custom-built shelters.
Krista Roske and her husband operate Sunnyside Farm outside Whitehorse, with many acres and one greenhouse under production. They sell several types of vegetables through the Potluck Food Co-op, direct sales and the Whitehorse farmer’s market. “We can’t compete with the pricing in the big box stores,” she says. “Our customers are those who are willing to pay a bit more for locally grown food where they know what’s put on it.”
The Yukon Grain Farm, run by Steve and Bonnie MacKenzie-Grieve, is perhaps the most productive farm in the North, with 300 acres under cultivation of field crops and mostly root vegetables. It supplies “From the Ground Up,” a program started in 2012 by the Yukon Department of Health and Social Services to support consumption of more vegetables. Each September, participating schools sell boxes to customers – close to 3,500 boxes (almost 50 000 lbs of vegetables) – in 2014.
Year-round greenhouse projects elsewhere
The first of many planned year-round greenhouses heated geothermally is under currently construction in Magrath, Alta. When complete, the flagship Starfield Centre (designed and built by Ag Spectra Whole Earth Science and Technology) will support the cultivation of fruit trees, berries, veggies and more. CEO Lonnie Mesick says that by 2020, they hope to have 70 other Starfield Centres across Alberta.
Construction of a commercial-scale aquaponics greenhouse is underway this summer in Northern Ontario. The stakeholders are Cambrian College (based in Sudbury), Helios Whitefish River First Nation and a company called Greenhouses Canada. The 16,500-sq.-ft. facility in Espanola will produce lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes, cucumbers and tilapia fish, and include a farmers’ market. The greenhouse was designed by Kameal Mina, a professor at Cambrian College, with contributions from retired professor Josef Hamr.
With all these initiatives and momentum, it seems remote Canadian food production will continue to grow. Hall believes that in the North, it will take available land, access to money and people willing to work hard and take risks. “It’s still,” she notes, “a frontier scene.”This article appeared in the print issue:July/August 2016 edition, Food & Vegetable report section