It’s been two years since Virginia Muswagon and Ian Maxwell started growing fresh produce for Norway House Cree Nation using a hydroponic container garden. Together they are co-managers of Life Water Gardens (Pimâtisiwin Nipî Kistikânihk) and they seed, harvest, and deliver fresh produce to their local community weekly.
Norway House Cree Nation is one of the largest Indigenous communities in Manitoba, Canada, with a growing population of 7,500 community members. The area enjoys all four seasons so growing outdoors is limited to the warmer months. However, the addition of a hydroponic container garden unlocked the ability to grow fresh vegetables year-round - even in below-freezing temperatures.
The 40-foot container garden doesn’t use soil to grow plants but hydroponics. The operators grow kale, spinach, lettuce, Pak Choi, and a variety of herbs like cilantro, basil, parsley, and mint. Muswagon and Maxwell also have a packaging container where they store, package and prepare their deliveries to the local school or hospital.
Growing the next generation
Every week, Maxwell delivers the harvest to the local school who is their largest customer. The local school has 1,500 students, a vast majority of which are Indigenous. Students are able to visit the cafeteria starting in grade 6, and older students in grades 9 and up help in the cafeteria occasionally preparing salads, sandwiches, soups, and other meals.
“I’ve been nothing but pleased,” says Kyle Mohr, the culinary arts instructor at the Helen Betty Osborne school. “Virginia is a wonderful role model for the community getting a business up and running.” If there’s any extra produce, it doesn’t go to waste. For example, any extra spinach is steamed off and vacuum-sealed to be used by home economics classes to make spinach dip, soup, and quiches.
There’s room for big and small in vertical farming
Ottawa is the home base of Growcer, the company that built the hydroponic container garden and is there to help Maxwell and Muswagon grow their project.
“The common success factor we see is we have a handful of community members who enjoy food, gardening, helping fellow community members, and supporting youth. Ian, Virginia, they are the primary reasons why the projects are so successful,” says Branavan Tharmarajah, head project consultant with the Growcer. “There’s a handful of community members who take it upon themselves to help others in the community and they take pride in that, and that’s one of the biggest factors of success.”
The modular hydroponic farms are a fraction of the size of larger warehouses also used for vertical farming, but it’s all part of the product mix. “Just like with renewable energy,” says Corey Ellis, CEO of The Growcer. “We need a variety of vertical farming solutions at different scales to suit different applications - similarly to how we need solar panels on our homes, which coexist with larger solar farms. They both work toward the same goal in different ways.”
Expanding beyond the community
With two years under their belt, Life Water Gardens plans to expand and add more containers to build a multi-container garden that can feed more people.
Maxwell shares they currently deliver produce to the local hospital but also hope to be able to provide greens to the new hospital being built in Norway House. The expansion will create more jobs and expand the Life Water Gardens staff beyond the current team of five.
Norway House Cree Nation also serves as a gateway to the Northern and Eastern communities of Manitoba, and there’s potential to supply fresh produce to the neighboring communities in Cross Lake, Thompson, Flin Flon and The Pas. The community-led solution has the potential to change what freshness means to the next generation living in the north.
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