NNSL Photo/Graphic

Canadian North

Home page text size buttonsbigger textsmall textText size Email this articleE-mail this page

Feds to study Northern greenhouses
New study requested by Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada aims to tackle the question 'how can we grow more food in the North?'

Laura Busch
Northern News Services
Published Monday, July 23, 2012


How does a garden grow in the North?

The immediate reaction that may come to mind is, perhaps, with great difficulty. However, some experts believe that this wide-spread belief is a misconception.

NNSL photo/graphic

Sharon Parker tends to her plot in the Inuvik Community Greenhouse July 18. The federal government wants to encourage more agricultural activity in the NWT, particularly in remote communities. - Laura Busch/NNSL photo

"I think one of the biggest challenges of growing food in the NWT is people's lack of understanding, or lack of awareness, of what is possible up North," said Andrew Cassidy, executive director of the Territorial Farmer's Association. "We can do a lot more than people expect."

Even outdoor crops are possible in much of the territory, said Cassidy, although greenhouses maximize production and can even make year-round gardening possible.

The federal government is also getting on board with helping Northerners grow their own food.

Agriculture and Agri-food Canada sent out a request for proposals July 9 titled Understanding Sustainable Northern Greenhouse Technologies for Creating Economic Development.

"Really, what this study is about is to gain information about the economic sustainability, not only of the greenhouse itself, but what it would do to the community as a whole," said Larry Lenton, director of outreach and collaborations with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

The project, funded through the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada's Aboriginal Agricultural Initiative, aims to look outside of food subsidy programs such as Nutrition North and examine how more food can be produced closer to the homes in which it is consumed.

"You're providing locally-produced food where it's probably difficult to produce otherwise," Lenton said. "Greenhouses give you that extended season that you need."

The success or failure of a greenhouse in the North relies heavily on two things: a reliable and affordable energy source and community members willing to champion the project, said Lenton.

Greenhouses and community gardens exist in the NWT, but are not as widely used as they could be. This, Cassidy speculates, has more to do with the culture than it has to do with the challenges of growing food in the North.

"We're removed from agriculture, we're removed from growing food," he said. "A lot of First Nations communities are still very closely tied to the land but it hasn't been part of their culture, this agriculture - it isn't a part of their traditional lifestyle," he said. "As for the non-native people who live up North, we've been living here and food has been shipped in."

The study will focus on isolated communities - especially those that are only accessible by air - but will be restricted to those that have a local wood supply, he said.

"We're looking for a local wood supply as the fuel source to offset what would normally be propane or diesel as the energy source," said Lenton.

High-efficiency bio-burners, fuelled by wood harvested nearby, would provide a cost-effective heating source, said Lenton. Also, advancements in LED-lighting technology makes growing food without sunlight easier.

Without a doubt, running a greenhouse in a Northern climate is more expensive and more labour-intensive than growing food in the south, said Lenton. However, the cost of transporting southern food to remote Northern communities helps make locally-grown food in the North more financially viable.

"Can you do a commercially viable enterprise? I think the potential is there," said Lenton. "You've got to look at the cost alternatives, too. If you're paying six or seven dollars for a tomato, how can you maybe have a six or seven dollar tomato that's freshly grown locally that created local labour demand."

Other benefits of implementing greenhouse projects in the territory include food security, employment opportunities and better quality food.

"The fresher the produce the higher the nutritional value," said Cassidy. "You're also building up your community resilience."

Taking the time now to fully research how current agricultural technologies could affect food production in the North will save problems in the long run, said Lenton.

The in-depth look at how to create economically sustainable, energy-efficient greenhouses in the North is scheduled to be completed by March 31. Following the study, recommendations will be made on how to advance the idea.

E-mailWe welcome your opinions. Click here to e-mail a letter to the editor.