Company raising northern veggies in a shipping container sees room to grow
As in most northern towns, the concept of “locally grown” is exotic in Churchill, Man.
So when Carley Basler shows up at people’s homes with a big bags of fresh vegetables, it’s little wonder people get excited.
“It’s fresh food, fresher than probably anything that Churchill has ever experienced,” Basler said.
She knocks on a door, and inside seven-year-old Karalina Burke is excited. As the door opens, she declares: “I ate three heads of lettuce!”
Her mother, Sandra Cook, is subscribing to Basler’s Rocket Greens, Churchill’s first locally grown produce.
“It’s really remarkable we can have this here,” she said.
In the town of 800, perishables need to be flown in, making produce expensive. A head of lettuce at the grocery store can cost up to $7. By the time it arrives, it’s often wilting, and its freshness and nutritional value have diminished.
Basler’s produce is fresher — and she’s getting prices down to $3.50.
Food security is a problem across Canada’s North, where climate and geography make it impossible for most communities to grow their own produce.
Three months ago, the Churchill Northern Studies Centre started growing vegetables hydroponically as an experiment to see if it could address local food security on a commercial scale.
It’s turning into a fledgling business.
Rocket Greens is named for the old rocket testing range where the Northern Studies Centre is set up.
As winter wind whips up a windchill that feels like –50 C outside, Basler is tending to her soil-less hydroponic garden in a computer-controlled climate. She’s harvesting giant plants of lettuce, arugula, spinach, and kale.
“What we are doing is growing about 400 to 450 units of produce that we can harvest weekly and make available in our community,” said Basler, an electrician who took on the role of system manager.
She’s already supplying two grocery stores and a few restaurants while running her weekly subscriber program.
Eighty dollars a month gets each subscriber a weekly Launch Box, a bag full of greens guaranteed fresher than any southern grocery store. It’s delivered the same day it’s picked, she said..
It’s also putting some variety into people’s diets. Basler is growing items like pak choi, a Chinese cabbage and close cousin to the more widely known bok choy.
“We’ve been showing people how to cook it, they’re putting it in stews,” she said. “It goes great with caribou.”
Originally set up as a break-even proposition, Rocket Greens is already talking about expanding by potentially adding another farm.
No reason not to grow food in North
The “farm” is built into a shipping container also known as a sea can. Seedlings grow without any soil under LED lights in nutrient-enriched water.
It was designed by Growcer Modular Food Solutions, an Ottawa company focused on northern food security.
The Churchill system is the first of its kind in Canada. Growcer has six others in Alaska, all growing food on a commercial scale.
“We really think there is no reason why every community shouldn’t be growing their own food,” said Corey Ellis, Growcer’s co-founder and CEO.
While hydroponics have been tried in the north before with little commercial success, Ellis says Growcer is designed to turn a profit by letting growers start small and scale up. Each unit costs about $210,000 and is basically plug-and-play, requiring only electrical and water connections.
Ellis says each unit has the potential to turn a profit of between $30,000 and $40,000 a year.
“Many communities want to create jobs and economic development, they want to produce food so they don’t have to rely on the south, but not in a way where they have to depend on grants,” he said.
The one thing it can’t do right now is grow a root vegetable like a potato. Ellis says Growcer is working on it.
The company plans to add half a dozen systems in Northern Canada this year, including one at Manitoba’s Norway House.
Fight over fixing rail line
It all comes at a good time for Churchill.
Last May, record flooding washed out portions of the rail line that was its only land link to the south, driving up the costs of goods that now need to be flown in.
It’s unclear when or if the service will be restored. The rail line’s owners and the federal government are in court fighting over who will fix it.
In the meantime, Churchill has been put on federal Nutrition North subsidies, which cover some of the costs of transporting essential groceries.
Operating locally, with virtually no transportation costs, the Growcer system has the potential to relieve that vulnerability.
“It’s available weekly regardless of rail service or air service or weather,” Basler said.
“It’s a lush green garden in the dead of winter, so that’s pretty unique.”