When Alex McMeekin started Riverside Growers, he was “basically working out of a garage.” Half a decade later, the family farm is now operating an approximately 470 sq. metre greenhouse plus additional land for field crops.
The Hay River business focuses on leafy greens and fresh fruit to feed the demand for Northern grown crops making it to Northern tables.
NWT residents are familiar with the challenges of Northern food security.
Long winters and large areas of Canadian shield create barriers for large scale food production, and far distances from the major growing hubs of the south means that by the time goods make it North of 60, they are often under ripe, rotten or beat up from the time spent in transport.
While Riverside wouldn’t be able to supply the entire North, McMeekin said the business looks to do its part to increase produce’s shelf life and reduce carbon footprints on transport.
While operating costs of a Northern farm are higher than their British Columbian and Albertan counterparts, Riverside is dedicated to keeping costs low for the consumer.
“We want to try to make life better up here,” he said, adding that having residents pay through the nose for their products would be counter productive.
To stay competitive, Riverside orders seeds and packaging materials in bulk to focus on growing high quantities of fewer varieties.
“It’s really easy to get sidetracked on 20 different things,” McMeekin said, especially if one seed it touted as a big money-maker. Instead, he said it’s best to “focus on what you’ve got.”
“Spend time, do your research and try not to rush,” that’s how farmers can create the best product for consumers.
Riverside products are generally sold to restaurants and grocery stores in Hay River and Yellowknife, though McMeekin said they’ve had contracts with other organizations throughout the years, including once sending their fruits and vegetables out on boats with the Arctic Research council, travelling as far as Tuktoyaktuk.
The farm also sells direct to consumer at the Wharf when the weekend market is running and occasionally allows for curbside pickup at their Hay River property.
Riverside grows everything from chard, kale and romaine, to potatoes and recently producing berries as well.
McMeekin’s favourite, however, continues to be the basil plant.
On top of the smell, he said the plant is robust and fairly low maintenance.
McMeekin himself has learned on the job how to operate a farm.
Though his professional background is in carpentry, he describes growing up around farming as his grandparents had a farm in Ontario.
He had always had an interest in growing his own food and after over a decade in the North, decided to take the leap.
“Agriculture is a pillar of every civilization,” he said. “There’s certainly a need for it.”
McMeekin calls Riverside a “pretty tight little operation” as he and his wife run the farm with two additional part time staff members.
Since opening shop, he said feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
“We certainly try to send out a quality product everyday,” he said, and the public, the territorial government and community of Hay River have been “very supportive.”