Fresh greens were a little easier to find in Churchill, Man., on Thursday as the first crop of veggies from a hydroponic garden went on sale.
The project, led by the independent, non-profit Churchill Northern Studies Centre, aims to improve food security in the town 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, on the shore of Hudson Bay.
For months, Churchill had to fly in food after spring flood damage knocked out the rail line to the town, Churchill's only land link. Now, the Rocket Greens project has produced fresh lettuce, kale, bok choy and basil, for a price that's often cheaper than items at the grocery store, even after federal and provincial food subsidies are applied.
Currently, a small head of iceberg lettuce costs about $3 at the grocery store in Churchill, and a head of romaine lettuce costs between $5 and $7.50. The Rocket Greens produce is being sold for $3.50 per item, $10 for three, and $20 for six.
"I think people were more blown away by the volume, and the greenness and the fluffiness of it," said project manager Carley Basler.
In addition to being fresher than the food that is shipped to the town, which is often up to two weeks old by the time it arrives, the food has less packaging because it doesn't have to travel long distances.
"It has an instant and immediate impact on our food security here in Churchill. There's never been something producing this amount of quantity of produce year-round in Churchill ever before," said Stephanie Puleo, interim executive director of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.
CNSC uses a system designed by Growcer Modular Food Solutions. A shipping container outfitted with hydroponic equipment is used to grow the vegetables, which start as seedlings in small pots before being transferred to nutrient-rich water tables.
The system is designed for growing in remote northern communities and is based on a similar system that has been tested in Alaska. Basler says this is the first time it has been tested in Canada, but similar projects are slated to start soon in Norway House, Man., as well as Iqaluit.
"We're going to see more of this in the future, which is also really exciting to me," she said.
'It's definitely going to have an impact'
Churchill residents got a taste of what the project had produced at a community feast before Christmas, but this week was the first time people got a broader sense of what the project could produce.
"I don't think that Churchill people really understood the scale that we're working with here. So this was exciting to meet with people face to face," she said.
So far, the project has produced about 1,800 plants and 1,200 seedlings, and on Thursday they had between 320 and 340 vegetables to sell, with about the same expected to be ready each week.
"I don't think it's enough to really feed our town and restaurants, and we get a lot of visitors in Churchill, but it's definitely going to have an impact," said Puleo.
Some of the items — like the leafy green kale and bok choy, a type of Chinese cabbage — are not commonly available in Churchill, so Basler also has some recipes on hand to help people make use of the unfamiliar food.
"In case some people just aren't as familiar with some of these produce items, they might not know what to do with them, so we're trying to share some information at the same time."
The Rocket Greens crew takes its name from the former Churchill rocket testing facility where CNSC is located. Rocket greens is also a nickname for arugula, Basler said.
They are also in the process of setting up a subscription service, dubbed the Launch Box, which will deliver fresh produce to people's homes every week.
"I have a giant list of names. That proves to me that people are interested in eating this stuff," said Basler.
In addition to leafy greens, the project also has seedlings growing to produce cilantro, spinach, arugula, berries, cherry tomatoes and small peppers.