Inuvik’s first all-season growing facility will soon be operational, offering residents year-round access to locally produced greens.
The hydroponic greenhouse, in a trailer on land donated by Jesse and Keren Harder, is run by the Inuvik Community Greenhouse. Leafy veg like lettuce and herbs will grow using nutrient-rich water rather than soil.
“We have been working on this project for a long time, trying to get funding,” executive director Ray Solotki told Cabin Radio. “We want to be putting food in the community. We want to be hiring people in the community. We want to be doing things that are actually helpful to what our mandates are.
“This unit has been in the works with the hopes that we will produce enough food to see an actual tangible amount of difference in the communities, and also provide jobs here in Inuvik.”
The greenhouse received more than $400,000 for the hydroponic facility from economic development agency CanNor last November. ColdAcre, a company that runs hydroponic greenhouses in Yukon, was contracted to construct it.
Another $100,000 from the territorial government will pay for a small solar farm to power the facility, which Solotki says will mean cheaper energy and lower-cost produce.
Solotki hopes the facility can grow as much as ColdAcre’s Whitehorse facility – about 500 lb of produce a month.
“If you consider how much spinach weighs, it’s not very heavy,” Solotki added. “That’s quite a lot of food to be bringing into the community.”
Kale, bok choy, Swiss chard, mizuna, and basil will be included in the greenhouse’s veggie box program, where members pay $20 a week and receive their share of the harvest. Some will be available at local grocery stores.
“I want this to be a case of once a week you get something that’s so fresh it was picked this morning, even when it’s minus-56 outside,” Solotki said.
Finding firm financial footing
The hydroponic unit will require a year-round staff member to operate it – a position Solotki said has been filled by an Inuvik resident – and offer more training opportunities for students and summer staff.
“We want to train kids from the ground up, literally, and teach them that this is a potential job,” she said.
The organization has received funding from the University of Saskatchewan for programs like bringing residents from smaller Beaufort Delta communities to teach them about hydroponics.
“It doesn’t have to be in a shipping container,” Solotki explained. “You can take these out and put them in a school, you can put them in an office, you can do all sorts of things.
“But people need to understand how they work and see if it’s something they want to do.”
Meanwhile, produce sales from the hydroponic unit could help the greenhouse grow its commercial side.
Revenue that’s independently generated means less pressure to constantly fundraise, Solotki said, and could free up funding pots for other groups in the region.
“The amount of agricultural funding available per area is fixed, which means if I’m the one constantly tapping into it, other people can’t or might not have as many opportunities,” she said.
“If we could be utilizing it in better ways, and creating a better economy and creating more interesting things in the community, this is great for us.”
The greenhouse is currently seeking funding for an aeroponic facility – a system that suspends plants in the air and sprays them with nutrient-rich mist, which works well for heartier crops such as beans, potatoes, and peas.
Exploring what’s possible
Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, agriculture and food security have become bigger discussions in the NWT.
Last June, a 50,000-pound donation of free potatoes to the NWT sparked debate about what northern food security should look like.
In February, three farmers in Hay River received funding for projects designed to help move the territory toward having an established agricultural sector. This month, the City of Yellowknife approved its latest food and agriculture plan after announcing a partnership with Wilfrid Laurier University to create a food hub in the city.
In Inuvik, Solotki concedes that leafy greens “won’t solve the problems of caloric intake and what you actually require for food security” – but she argues the hydroponic facility will allow the community to re-evaluate what is possible in the realm of Arctic agriculture.
“This is an idea that starts to change people’s mindsets: that we don’t have to buy from out-of-territory,” she said. “We don’t have to ship it in, we could actually do it ourselves.
“While the hydroponics is not going to be the be-all and end-all, wouldn’t it be cool to see community greenhouse hydroponics, sitting next to community greenhouse aeroponics, sitting next to the greenhouse chicken coop, sitting next to the pig barn, sitting next to the cow barn… having an actual agricultural sector that is utilizing what we need to work in our climates?”