“We were in a unique position to access some funding and attempt a containerized garden as a response to heavy reliance on foods shipped from the South,” says Carley Basler, Sustainability Coordinator at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.
The first seeds were planted in November of 2017, whereas soon the first harvest was celebrated around Christmas. Rocket Greens shared all the harvested lettuce with local Churchill people at a community feast. Ever since then, they’ve been harvesting leafy greens on Wednesdays.
The Churchill Northern Studies Centre is an independent non-profit research and education organization that focuses on understanding and sustaining the North. Rocket Greens is a container vertical farm, supplied by Growcer and operated by Churchill Northern Studies Centre, that produces fresh leafy greens for the Churchill community, based in northern Manitoba, Canada.
The container farm
A fragile supply chain
In 2017, Churchill was cut-off from the south when the train tracks linking them to nearby communities were washed out. As a result, they went without rail service for 18 months. During that time, food prices increased, availability of fresh produce decreased.
Rocket Greens was able to spread the word on how these container gardens can serve as a small piece of the puzzle when looking at food security in remote communities.
Since Churchill is a remote Northern community with an extremely short growing season and no natural topsoil, hydroponic container gardening allows the company to grow year-round without soil or any regard for outdoor temps. Having access to fresh food in the sub-arctic year-round is pretty special.
“My town is small so it’s nice to think that I’m feeding up to 50 households with lovely delicious greens that we grew right down the road from town. Even when it's -40C outside!”
Because Rocket Greens is a non-profit organization Carley explains that they’re not necessarily in this to make a ton of money. “It was more important to us that our greens were accessible by our community members. If funding allows, we may expand,” Carley gives away.
The company offers a subscription service to households each week that costs less money than if they were to buy them in the store. Produce is sold to local grocery stores as well who then apply their mark-up to the greens. “We have no control over that. However, we’re putting them there because having a subscription is not realistic for all people. Our subscription boxes are $10/week for 3+ pieces of produce (mini) or $20/week for 6+ pieces of produce,” Carley adds.
Hopes for the future
Carley hopes for the continued success of the project and hopes that other communities who are interested in starting these will receive the same attention and support that Rocket Greens have. “I also hope for more equity when it comes to access to fresh and nutritious food.”
“I wouldn’t call vertical farming a solution for Canadian ag. I still believe we need traditional agriculture administered in sustainable ways. However, these container farms can be ‘part’ of the big picture when it comes to providing food to remote areas or urban food deserts.”
More than 60% of what is grown goes directly into Churchill households. Besides that, Rocket Greens does supply greens to both local grocery stores, the hospital cafeteria and when the tourist season is operational they provide to as many seasonal operators as possible. “We’d like to be able to share our project with as many people as possible, but our main priority is the local subscription service,” Carley adds.
The farm is designed to cultivate leafy greens. Currently, Rocket Greens’ product range is Leaf Lettuce, Butterhead Lettuce, Spinach, Several Kale varieties. As well as, Asian cabbages such as Bok choy, Tatsoi, Pac Choi, Mustard greens, Collard greens and Arugula. As for the herbs, the current selection includes Basil, Thai Basil, Cilantro, Chives, Dill, Mint, Oregano and Parsley. On average, the farm delivers around 1200 units of sales per month.
It takes more than just growing
According to Carley, container farming is a big job. That’s why it is important to keep the garden clean and the water healthy. “I also recommend training some staff so that you can step away when you feel burned out because it is relentless. No matter what you are harvesting every week.”
Through one of its funding partners, Northern Manitoba Food, Culture, and Community Collaborative, Rocket Greens is working with the Community of Norway House, Manitoba to share their experiences and educate students in both communities on Food Sovereignty. The other granting partners are the Churchill Community Trust Fund and the Northern Healthy Foods Initiative.
The 40ft shipping container comprises six shelves, holding 300 pants each. On average, the plants take six weeks to grow. Meaning that the team harvests 375 (spots) each week that equates to around 300 complete pieces of produce. An entire section of 300 is designed for herbs that can be trimmed multiple times before harvesting. Each week, Rocket Greens can offer 4-6 herb varieties to its consumers. There is an additional seedling area in the container farm that holds 1200 seedlings.
For more information:
Carley Basler, Sustainability Coordinator
Churchill Northern Studies Centre / Rocket Greens