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Produce from a can?

A sea can full of greens may not solve food insecurity, but that's not the main aim of a project called The Growcer, which is more concerned with food sovereignty and economic wellness.

In Kotzebue, Alaska, located at the northwestern tip above the Arctic Circle with a population under 3,500, the Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corporation (KIC) started using a vertical hydroponic sea-can gardening system in June 2016. KIC sells its produce to grocer Alaska Commercial Company in the community. photo courtesy of Corey Ellis

"There's no one solution that will ever fix everything and we don't ever claim to do that. At the outset, probably three years ago, we were talking about food security," said co-founder and chief executive officer Corey Ellis.

"But pretty quickly we learned from communities that it was more about their economic goals," Ellis said. "It's more around the economics of creating jobs, keep more of the money that's leaving the community in the community, create sustainable local businesses – those are the kinds of outcomes we're seeking."

The Growcer is an offshoot of a University of Ottawa group called Enactus, which turned its focus to Northern food insecurity several years ago.

The idea for the Growcer came up in Iqaluit over the last three to four years, said Ellis. Further research led to Alaska-based Vertical Harvest Hydroponics (VHH), with whom Ellis and his team have partnered.

Kotzebue is a town above the Arctic Circle at the northwestern tip of Alaska with a population under 3,500. The Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corporation started using the system there in June 2016 for an enterprise called Arctic Greens, which sells its produce to the Alaska Commercial Company (ACC) grocery store in Kotzebue. ACC is owned by The North West Company, which owns Nunavut's Northmart and Northern stores.

"Prices have remained the same, but the quality of product has improved," said North West Company's director of business development Derek Reimer.

KIC's interim president and chief executive officer Kathy Merrick said the corporation is holding off on its plans to buy more units until they find a way to lower the cost of powering the units.

"One of the big issues is electricity in the Arctic is very expensive, which makes it very hard for us to be able to drive down the cost," said Merrick.

Ellis was travelling to Churchill, Manitoba last week to set up a system there. Reimer said North West has a tentative agreement to procure produce from that operation.

Produce projects in discussion

Closer to home, Ellis says conversation had begun with the Hamlet of Pond Inlet and Baffinland about getting a unit into that community, but a change in hamlet management stalled the process.

"Baffinland is looking at numerous initiatives, including the potential of growing produce in sea cans in the North Baffin Region," said Inuit, government and stakeholder relations specialist Andrew Moore.

"Before any decisions are made, Inuit and community partners would be included in the conversation to ensure that any potential future projects align with community need."

Ellis said The Growcer is in similar conversations with other mines to get capital financing and an agreement that the mines will buy produce.

In Iqaluit, the Nunavummi Disabilities Makinnasuqtit Society (NDMS) started the ball rolling with The Growcer, with the intent to provide viable employment for its clients, but lack of capacity in the organization meant it had to step back from taking the lead. The IqaluEAT Food Co-operative, at its first annual general meeting Oct. 6, presented the possibility of taking over as lead on the project.

"We'll take the next few months to do our work and see if we can do it and how," said founding member Francois Fortin.

The GN's Department of Economic Development and Transportation had approved $100,000 in funding to get the project off the ground, and NDMS wants to stay involved.

Also at that AGM, Iqaluit Community Greenhouse Society president Steve Leyden, now a cross-over member on the IqaluEAT board, warned the group about the high cost of electricity.

"The proposal was written by grad students who want to change the world, so it's very shiny," said Leyden about The Growcer project. "And, yeah, it has the ability to be shiny. But it also has the ability to not be so shiny. With sealed agriculture your number one concern is going to be power and labour."

He counseled partnering with schools, "labour cheap, power free," a possibility he's familiar with since the greenhouse society has vertical hydroponic projects taking place at schools in the capital.

"I think there is a way for The Growcer to succeed. But not in the way it was initially laid out."

One sea can unit can produce between 12,000 and 15,000 pounds of produce annually, or "enough food to feed about 110 people five servings of veggies every day year round," Ellis said.

Nothing that needs to be grown in the soil can be grown in the system – so carrots and potatoes are out. Tree-based or tall bush-type plants are also out. Ellis says they've tested forty types of crops, but he knows of about 100 that can work in the sea cans.