Imagine walking away from a grocery store having spent $100 to feed a family of four one meal. Then imagine that was your only choice. This is a fact of life for people who live in Northern Canada. Another fact: there are 292 highly remote communities across our nation who are food insecure, and, even more disturbing, seven out of 10 Inuit preschool children are food insecure, 25% of them severely.
In the frozen climes of our furthest outposts, where wildlife is becoming scarcer and Inuit and Metis people cannot access their traditional foods the way they used to, finding affordable nutrition is a real challenge.
But here’s some amazing news: there’s a solution – provided by a member of our ABM network. And it’s one that puts food security directly in the hands of the communities that need it, allowing them to produce fresh, nutritious food anytime of the year, in any growing condition. It’s the brainchild of Corey Ellis and his team of passionate experts at The Growcer.
They’ve created plug and play grow-houses for plants, using retrofitted shipping containers. Here’s how they describe them: “a state-of-the-art farming system that combines hydroponic technology with precision climate controls to enable current and aspiring farmers to grow fresh produce with ease.”
Their first client was a community in Churchill, Manitoba. Since then they’ve installed containers in northern Quebec, Ottawa and Nunavut, more in Manitoba and half a dozen in Alaska.
Project Consultant for The Growcer, Branavan Tharmarajah, says their focus was to create economic development opportunities while empowering their clients to take control of their own food supply chain.
“It’s important to us to work with each community’s individual need. We design our systems with them in mind. We ask: what do you want to grow, who do you want to sell to, who needs to learn our technology? We don’t just drive up, drop off and leave. We start with a conversation, usually with the economic development arm of a community. We listen to feedback, we adapt to their community. It’s not a quick process, but that’s not why we’re here. Our solution is a long-term one, and it requires a long-term investment from us.”
A common misconception is that the technology The Growcer uses is complicated, labour and time-intensive, and hard to maintain. Branavan says that couldn’t be further from the truth. “Most of the time we work with communities who are not experts. And in fact, once we help them through the process of growing and selling the produce, they usually want to expand, and in short order!”
Partnering with smaller communities has been rewarding for The Growcer because it’s where they’ve seen the biggest impact. Some communities want to create jobs and youth employment and see the opportunity to create revenue. Others operate on a profit and share model. There’s generally a three to four-year investment payback for the average community.
For those who don’t have the financial wherewithal to support containerized growing, Branavan says “we see a lot of funding opportunities available for communities and we can help them secure what they need and give them the information required for grant applications. Especially since we’re providing them with a business that will generate revenue and support and sustain a community. Then they can take their profit and invest it in something else for their people, like youth programs.”
Branavan and his team have attended several ABM events in BC, Manitoba and Alberta, and they’ll be in Saskatchewan in February for the next event. They are looking forward to meeting more Indigenous communities to help them create their own success.
“Those face to face conversations are important – we’re in an era where everyone’s very connected, but sometimes too connected in an impersonal way, and we’re bombarded with emails and cold calls. Meeting face to face skips over all these barriers where we send 30 or 40 emails to get our point across. I love that we can connect beforehand – this is the one thing that truly distinguishes ABM – so I know what potential partners need and can prepare ahead of time. The last few times we didn’t register quickly enough but now we know to get matching as soon as possible, and we will see the pay-off.”
Branavan looks forward to meeting more members of the ABM network in Regina. In the meantime, here are some cool facts about this super cool business.
Each Growcer container yields the following:
- 6 growing racks, 1,800 mature planting sites, 1,200 seedling sites
- Up to 23,000 mature plants – 230 lbs – annually, regardless of weather
- It takes 2 weeks from seed to seedling, another 13 – 21 days to full maturation
- Over 100 different crop types, including leafy greens, brassicas and herbs.
- The average power use is 104-111k Wh per day in Arctic communities, 6.46-9.46kW peak load.
Check out their appearance on Dragon’s Den.