Getting fresh produce in remote northern parts of Canada has been costly because of the increased logistics for delivery, but now an Ottawa-based company has created a way provide these communities access to growing fresh vegetables year round. “We started developing our technology with the specific idea of working with northern communities, helping them produce their own food,” says Corey Ellis, chief executive officer and co-founder of The Growcer, “meaning we were working in some of the harshest conditions in the world: minus 50 minus 60 degrees Celsius.”
The containerized Growing Systems are actually suitable for any climate he says. The system is built within new 40-foot shipping containers and combines hydroponic technology with precision climate controls to enable northerners to easily grow fresh produce. The system is automated and monitored remotely.
Plug and play
The container is delivered, gets plugged and is essentially ready to start growing things. “When they start their project we already have an idea of what they want to grow, in what quantities and built that into the system so that when it arrives all it needs is a fill up of water with a hose, plugged into a power outlet and they’re growing,” says Ellis.
Each of the units can be plugged together to create larger growing capacity. One unit grows enough produce to feed 110 people. Ellis says this allows communities to start using one system, which generates income for them and they can invest down the road for another container and add it to the main unit.
Cost and consumption benefits
The minute the system arrives a community can start producing food locally – which would be more affordable than having produce shipped from the southern Canadian regions. Ellis says it can also have an impact on the diets of people within these communities. “We’re trying to figure out how to leverage our technology to help people have better behaviours with regards to their diet. The big question for us in northern communities is how can we help promote traditional diets and use fresh produce as a supplement to those traditional foods as opposed to trying to assimilate them to southern culture.” There’s also the benefit of creating more jobs for locals for management of the system itself. Ellis says they’re also looking at additional opportunities for value add, such as processing.
No farming knowledge required
Much like you’d expect, there isn’t a single farmer in town, unless Ellis says if they get lucky to find someone who’s lived more south or grew up on a farm and moved up north later in life. But, the vast majority of the residents don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes when it comes to growing their food. “We had to make this a very user friendly approach and product for them to pick it up quickly,” he says. The Growcer works one on one with the people who buy the units. Ellis and his team fly out to the community and walk them through the process of operating the units. “The outcome we’re looking for is a profitable business (for them), something that could last for many years and maintain employment in the community and make some money for the local individuals who own it.”
Produce can be grown in remote, desolate conditions.
Variety of commodities grown
So far a wide variety of crops have been grown; Ellis has counted about 40 different vegetables have been grown in the container (eggplant, cucumbers, tomatoes, chilli peppers, and bell peppers). “We usually start them off with a basic set of crops that we know will do well. Ie: lettuces, herbs. They can experiment too if they choose.” Lots of Asian greens are popular, including bok choy and pak choi. “People are wanting to grow what they can’t currently get from the south and then work their way into niches in terms of what their community wants.” The produce is most often made available through subscription models, selling direct to residents or through farmer’s markets. Strawberries are in beta testing.
The technology has great potential for other climates as well. “We’re not just working with northern communities, we’re working with some southern communities and on the international level as well. But our focus remains on the north.”
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