Winter's arrival in northern Ontario once meant months when cheap, fresh produce would be scarce on the Nipissing First Nation. This winter is different. Late last year, the nation purchased a specialized hydroponic "farm" built in a steel box about the size of a shipping container. The farm now produces enough fresh greens for the community of about 3,000 and nearby restaurants year-round.
Gone are wilted romaine and broccoli from California. Now, kale, lettuce, and other Nipissing-grown greens are readily available. Plants sit in a shallow pond of water with nutrients to help them thrive inside the new farm. One 400-square-foot container can produce over 787 plants a week. "The quality and taste of these products is unlike anything I've tasted or seen for purchase anywhere," said Geneviève Couchie, Nipissing First Nation business operations manager. "That's extremely exciting."
The farm is one of more than 70 similar projects across Canada supported by the Ottawa-based social enterprise Growcer. Founded in 2015 by a group of university students trying to bolster food availability in remote parts of Canada, the company has since helped dozens of Indigenous communities, public institutions like schools, and a handful of farmers run hydroponic farms to supply local markets. About half the fruits, vegetables, and nuts in Canadian diets are imported, mainly from the U.S., according to researchers at York University. Nearly 90 percent of all leafy greens are imported, and Canada is "heavily dependent" on California and Arizona for vegetables like spinach, celery, broccoli, and cabbage.
This reliance on imports is particularly evident in rural and remote towns, especially in northern regions where fresh food must be shipped by air. Food prices in northern fly-in communities are routinely two or three times higher than in southern centers, exacerbating widespread food insecurity. In Nunavut alone, nearly half of households can't afford enough to eat, with Inuit disproportionately hard hit.
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