What if Northerners could get their vegetable greens year-round on the day of harvest?

Chris Shaver and partner Nicolinea Minakis began offering pre-orders from their brand new, vertical indoor farm Northern Greens on Jan. 17.

The couple announced that after two years of preparation, their Old Town-based company is beginning to line up customers for home-delivery of day-of-harvest, freshly grown microgreens.

“In the North, there’s a real lack of fresh produce,” Shaver said. “If you go through your fridge and you look where your peppers are coming from or where your spinach is coming from or bananas or tomatoes, it ranges all the way from California down to Ecuador. We’re talking 5,000 to 8,000 kilometers away from where our produce travels.

“When something’s travelling thousands of kilometers, by the time it gets here, it loses its nutrient value and it’s just not the same.’”

Shaver provided the Hub a tour of his operation on Jan. 26. The location features four racks of seven plant varieties being treated in his shop under a detailed and specific growing schedule.

All products are grown in a peat-moss based soil and no fertilizers are used. He also uses reverse osmosis filtered water to treat his crops.

While still finalizing his harvest methodology, he’s working toward a consistent seven-day crop cycle that will include 10 racks — all solar powered.

“Because I’m harvesting on this crop cycle every seven to 10 days throughout the whole year, I could grow close to two acres of produce in this 250-square-feet space,” he explained. “There are a lot of details that go into timing and planning so that you get a weekly harvest that is consistent and efficient.”

Careful consideration, for example, has to be given to temperature and humidity, scheduling the right lighting times and following rigid germination methods.

Among the species he’s working with are sunflowers, a brassica mix, kaiware radishes, wasabi mustard, broccoli, red radish and sweet peas.

Shaver estimates that there are likely up to 20 plant varieties that he can grow in his operation and swap in and out for immediate availability, depending on customer demand.

“The plants have to be fast growing varieties and not any plant will grow in this way,” he added.

The launch of the business comes at an opportune time. With supply chains to grocery stores under stress, Shaver said it only make sense for people to think about how they get the best value in produce.

“With all of the nonsense happening now, you don’t know where your food is going, how long it’s been sitting or how it’s been processed,” he said. “So I really think this (microgreens) is going to be the future.”

A fourth generation farmer and a welder from Tillsonburg, Ont, Shaver arrived in Yellowknife five years ago to work in structural steel construction at Stanton Territorial Hospital. He intended to save money from that summer employment to reinvest into his Ontario family farm that he had been running.

Traditional family farming is a practice that he admits is especially difficult for young farmers with the corporatization of agriculture and massive farm conglomerates competing.

“There’s a lot of risk and liability and a lot of money you’ve got to put up for a possibility of a good harvest,” he said. “Five years ago, (micro-green farming) was just getting started and 10 years ago it did not exist. So I believe the future of agriculture is going this way.”

Like many Northerners, he fell in love with the region and stayed, briefly landing a job at Ekati Mine.

“When Covid hit is when the idea for Northern Greens came together because I got laid off at Ekati,” he said. “I just started growing these plants. I started with these radishes in our small kitchen and started doing it kind of as a hobby.”

As time wore on, Shaver did further research into controlled environment agriculture and the technology associated with the industry.

By following urban farming entrepreneur Kimbal Musk and consulting with Calgary-based Micro Acres, Shaver realized that he could grow many different types of plant set varieties indoors and meet consumer and retail needs.

Coming to Hay River

Challenges came as Shaver and Minakis attempted to expand in Yellowknife and meet the city’s bylaws for agriculture and food production. The biggest obstacle was to find a location with a separate shop for growing space.

“The only place that is zoned in Yellowknife for greenhouses or indoor agriculture is in an industrial area (Kam Lake) where they store fuel and waste,” Shaver said. “Agriculture is still fairly new in the North, so there’s not really any agricultural land and the government hasn’t really planned for it well.

“It’s less than ideal. Just finding a place to buy is hard in that area. If you do find a place, (it) costs $600,000.”

Towards the end of the summer a Vale Island home with separate shop space became available for far cheaper.

“This is exactly what we needed and we got it for less than half of (Yellowknife prices),” he said.

The location is footsteps away from the Fisherman’s Wharf and close to two grocery stores with which the company hopes to do business.

Minakis is the public face of the company, and she’s aiming to provide additional help with deliveries and promotions.

“I’m looking forward to contributing and picking up my favorite mixes and putting it together in one big package and doing things like getting salad kits together,” she said.

Northern Greens can be reached through its Facebook page and by email at info@northerngreens.net.

Simon Whitehouse

Simon Whitehouse came to Yellowknife to work with Northern News Services in 2011. Simon obtained his journalism education at Algonquin College and the University of Ottawa. Simon can be reached at...

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