Business thinking is helping lead the way to a new era of world-class Indigenous agriculture in Canada. But how do we eliminate the remaining barriers?
The story of the Opaskwayak Smart Farm at Opaskwayak Cree Nation in The Pas, Man., starts with an improbable rescue. It was 2013. A group of hunters from OCN were way out in the bush when they stumbled upon a car stuck in the mud on a remote dirt road. The car belonged to a group of South Korean delegates visiting Manitoba to bid on the Bipole 3 project with Manitoba Hydro. They’d been out surveying. Then they’d gotten stuck. The hunters brought them into town and bought them a coffee.
It was the start of a deep friendship, says Stephanie Cook, operations manager at the Smart Farm. The Korean delegation included the late Isaac Young, a businessman with connections to a company called Korea Agriculture Systems & Technology Engineering Co. Ltd. (KAST).
Young began visiting OCN as often as possible, spending weeks at a time in the community and forming close relationships with OCN members, including Glen Ross, executive director at the OCN Health Authority.
It was Young who proposed setting up an LED vertical “smart farm” at the reserve to try growing fruits and vegetables locally, using KAST technology with support from the business incubator GyeongBuk TechnoPark (GBTP) in Gyeongbuk Province in South Korea.
The idea was initially met with hesitation by reserve leadership — for a good reason. The Pas has an average of only 100 frost-free days per year. The last spring frost can happen at the end of June or even the beginning of July; the first autumn frost can hit mid-August. It takes flexibility and skill to grow any vegetable crop in The Pas. Many things can’t be grown at all.
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