Kale in the Arctic: Inside an igloo greenhouse that could inspire fresh food production in the North
Facility could cut vegetable costs in half for hamlet on the north shore of Hudson Bay
By Havard Gould, CBC News Posted: Jul 29, 2016 5:00 AM ET Last Updated: Jul 29, 2016 12:16 PM ET
Ben Canning plucked a green leaf from a young kale plant and carefully placed it in a clear plastic bag.
After nearly three years of work, the 21-year-old Ryerson University student was harvesting the first crop from an innovative greenhouse built right on the Arctic Circle, an igloo-shaped structure he hopes will be the first of many in northern communities.
"The goal is to reduce the cost of fresh food," he said. "For me, it's a bit of a personal mission."
Canning founded a group called Growing North, which worked with the community in Naujaat, Nunavut, to build the greenhouse. Donors covered the $150,000 cost.
"I grew up in southern Ontario on a farm," said Canning. "As a kid growing up, I thought everybody had access to fresh food. When I grew up, I found it was not the case."
In many northern communities, aside from locally caught fish and game, fresh food has to be flown in at great expense.
A study from the Nunavut Bureau of Statistics last year found that in general, Nunavummiut can expect to pay around twice as much as other Canadians for the same food items.
"Carrots had the highest price ratio difference," the study concluded. "The cost was 3.1 times greater than the average price of Canada."
It's a difference that can break budgets.
Joanna and Simonie Kopak live in Naujaat with their three children. The amount they pay for freshly grown produce would shock most city dwellers.
"Maybe $140 to $160 a month," Simonie said. "For a very small amount of vegetables and fruit."
It's especially difficult for parents to justify the cost when children in the North, like children everywhere, often aren't interested in eating their greens.
"They are too expensive to buy them all the time," Joanna said.
The greenhouse in Naujaat is trying to change that. The plan is to grow food at half the cost of imports.
There are other greenhouses in the North, but this one combines passive solar design and hydroponics to overcome the harsh conditions on the north shore of Hudson Bay, and is scaled to serve the hamlet of about 1,000 people.
Inside, a reflector captures warmth from the sun, which is stored in a large black tub of water that heats the greenhouse. Just three to four hours of sunlight a day are needed to maintain the correct temperature.
The system can maintain the necessary conditions for plant growth seven months a year— quite an accomplishment given temperatures outside can dip near freezing even in summer.
A new efficient heating and lighting system will be installed next year, so fresh food like peas, carrots, turnips, lettuce and tomatoes can be grown in the hamlet year-round, even during the periods when there's almost no sun.
When it's fully operational, likely next year, more than 2,000 plants will be crammed inside the greenhouse, most growing on special hydroponic towers.
"By growing vertically, what we can do is actually increase our crop yield by about four times," Canning said.
Maria Fraser, a nurse in the hamlet, has high hopes for the project.
"Nutritionally, it's going to be a big benefit to the children, the pregnant women and of course, the adults."
She said local fish and game are staples, but should be supplemented with fruits and vegetables — the kinds of food southerners often take for granted.
"It's a luxury because of the expense," she said.
A recent open house was a crucial test for the project, because to be truly sustainable, the greenhouse needs widespread community support.
Aisha Chaudhry, 18, another Ryerson student, filled a table in the greenhouse with apple slices and other familiar foods flown in from the south.
She also guarded a sealed container with a local product: kale chips, picked and baked the same day in Naujaat. A small taste of what residents can expect from the greenhouse.
"It's just to allow them the right to have food that they can afford that is good for them as well," Chaudhry said. "They deserve it. And they really haven't had that."
But would the chips pass the community's taste test?
The answer came quickly as people flooded the greenhouse and children swarmed the students.
The kale chips were even more popular than the other foods on the table. The first harvest was quickly eaten up by enthusiastic residents, most of whom believed this was the first time they had ever eaten anything grown locally.
"It's ever good," Tracy Laine Kidlapik said smiling.
"I want you guys to stay," she told Lisa Mancuso, another Ryerson student working on the project.
Some, however, were taken aback by the salt in the recipe.
A boy chewed, enthusiastically at first, then more politely.
"What do you think?" Canning asked.
"Good," the boy said. But, embarrassed, he stuck his tongue out in distress, the salt a shock to his tastebuds.
At the hamlet's administrative office, Elizabeth Kusugak, the senior official on duty, had nothing but praise for the greenhouse and the students working there.
The benefits are both nutrition and education, she said, pointing out that most locals have never seen a farm or, for that matter, a garden.
"These young people from the south are teaching our kids up here how to grow these kinds of things," she said. "And that's a really, really nice thing to do."
It's also providing work. Luke Angotialuk, 21, takes over the operation when Canning and the rest of the team return home.
He's enthusiastic and cherishes the opportunity.
"I hope it continues," Angotialuk said. "And I hope it will help a lot of people."
Joanna and Simonie Kopak both dropped by the open house and sampled the kale chips, which they found tasty. They also signed up for free samples from the greenhouse for the rest of the summer.
That, too, was a test, because the plan is to eventually sell regular deliveries to homes in the community.
The sign-up sheet had at least two dozen signatures.
But it was a six-year-old named Louisa whose words caught everyone's attention.
She closely examined the peas growing on a tower, touching the young plants and then carefully sniffing them.
And in a community that endures long, dark winters, she had a thought.
"Smells like sunshine," she said.
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