CHURCHILL — Carley Basler pulls apart a yellow sponge, from which two sprouting lettuce plants are dangling. She places each inside inch-square holes on a metal shelf, inside a humid, densely packed shipping container that sits on the tundra.
This month, Churchill started getting some fresher produce than Winnipeg, thanks to a hydroponic project that harnesses LED lights and nutrients. It’s an effort to bring food stability to the northern Manitoba town that lost its rail link to the south last May.
"I feel like this gives a little bit of hope at a time where we were feeling a little bit hopeless," said Basler, who left Winnipeg years ago for the freedom and challenges of life in the north.
The green sprouts she’s planting almost glow against the white and steel shelves, and they’re a shock to the eye after witnessing a barren landscape of snow and birch trees.
Hydroponic projects have been around for years, using water, minerals and lamps to grow food without soil or sunlight. But Churchill is believed to be the first northern community in Canada to grow some of its own vegetables during winter.
The subarctic town of 900 lost its railway lifeline seven months ago, and ever since the shipping season ended in October, residents have relied on food arriving via plane, which costs three times the price of railway freight. Food prices have soared.
The hydroponic project aims to help residents cope, and has a longer-term goal of weaning the north off its dependence on costly food from down south, and the uncertainty when blizzards cancel flights.
"We’re really excited about how this project can improve food security," said Stephanie Puleo, interim executive director of the non-profit Churchill Northern Studies Centre.
The centre hosts researchers and classes specializing in polar bears and climate change. But this fall, a green-and-white shipping container arrived by boat. It now sits outside the centre.
The self-contained unit has a machine that monitors mineral nutrients, which are added to a water tank and pumped through stacked shelves, circling each plant similar to the way blood circles through the human body. The seeds sprout roots in rockwool, a yellow fibre made from stones that carries nutrients and water, just as soil does.
Starting in January, the centre plans to harvest at least 400 plants a week. On Dec. 22, the team harvested its first crop of lettuce and donated it to Christmas hampers for town residents.
For now, the centre is sticking with kale, herbs, and varieties of lettuce such as lozano, butter and orville; those plants take five to six weeks to harvest. It plans to branch into heavier vegetables, which are less adaptable to changes in nutrient levels, in the spring.
Though the North West Company takes extra care to make sure its produce isn’t bruised or damaged by the cold, a small, wilted head of lettuce at the local store still costs $5 — something Basler said adds to the difficulties of life in Churchill.
She said locals feel isolated because many can’t pay hundreds of dollars for a flight to Thompson or Winnipeg. She recalls December train trips to Thompson, where locals would return to Churchill with Christmas gifts, diapers and even laundry machines.
"There’s a lot of people who are feeling a little bit down about things in the community, not just food-related," she said. "We can’t do anything to speed up this legal process between Omnitrax and the government."
(Omnitrax, the U.S. company that owns the Hudson Bay Railway, is in a court battle with Ottawa over its refusal to repair the rail line that was damaged during severe spring flooding.)
Basler said she expects hydroponics will sweep northern Canada, just like a recent revival in hunting and fishing.
There’s already a couple in town who have sold vegetables from their home hydroponic system; while the school has a tower garden, which has plants grown from a cylinder affixed with pipes and lamps.
"This is catchy, and it is kind of high-tech and interesting. It seems complicated, but it’s actually relatively easy; you’re just giving plants what they need naturally," Basler said.
The centre is considering a subscription system, where residents pay in advance for a regularly grown amount of vegetables. The food will also be used for the centre’s cafeteria, and possibly local restaurants and the school, where Basler plans to offer an educational talk to students.
Puleo said the team will approach the Northern Healthy Foods Initiative for financial support and possible collaboration in other remote areas of Manitoba. The provincial project, hailed as a leader in Canada, helps Manitobans in remote areas learn how to build greenhouses and chicken coops.
As part of a federal grant aimed to alleviate the effect of the 2016 layoffs at the Port of Churchill, Ottawa contributed $276,350 to the project, which uses the first Growcer system in Canada.
There are already six of these shipping container projects in Alaska, and Growcer Inc. chief executive officer Corey Ellis says they’re providing more nutrients than the vegetables found in most cities, which travel for weeks before reaching supermarket shelves in remote areas.
"It definitely is a lot fresher than you can get anywhere else," he said. "It’s pretty much unlimited, in terms of what they want to be growing. At last count, it was over 100 types of veggies that operators in Alaska were growing."
He said Churchill was a good pilot project, as the community has access to hydro power. Some Alaska communities rely on oil furnaces for heat.
A large part of the project will be to monitor the Growcer system and provide guidance to other northern communities. A system is set to be installed in Norway House in northern Manitoba, and Ellis said a handful of Nunavut communities are hoping to get a system during the summer shipping season.
He said hydroponic projects can improve access to culturally appropriate food, such as wild berries. Churchill’s project grows pak choi, a Chinese cabbage that goes well with stews in Inuit cuisine.
The Growcer project is rolling out slowly, and that’s intentional. Churchill and Norway House will be the first two communities with a unit; Iqaluit will be next.
"The way we design our food system responds to what they can afford, but also what is a good business strategy," Ellis said.
Other hydroponic projects have been overly ambitious. In 1987, the Newfoundland government invested heavily, but its costs ballooned to $22 million, while the 800,000 cucumbers it sold ended up costing $27.50 apiece.
Ellis said having a modular system made of shipping containers allows Growcer projects to start slowly. The units plug into each other, and some have equipment that can process food.
He said he believes hydroponic projects could be more economically viable in the North, where food is expensive. Electricity is more expensive in the territories, so costly upgrades that make units more energy efficient make more sense than in southern communities, he said.
Basler said there’s no guarantee the Churchill project will be permanent, but she’s optimistic it will attract a strong customer base.
"We’re going to try something new. If anything, we’re going to eat a salad. If that was the only thing that came of this, it would still be exciting."
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