Northern Manitoba First Nation aims to help feed community, fight diabetes with expanded vertical farm project

A northern Manitoba community has turned to technology to help grow veggies year-round — part of an expansion of a project that aims to generate health, economic and environmental benefits in the community.

Opaskwayak Cree Nation working with U of M on project using smart technology to help grow veggies year-round

The smart farm uses LED lights and controls moisture and carbon dioxide to raise different plants all year round. (Submitted by Glen Ross)

A northern Manitoba community has turned to technology to help grow veggies year-round — part of an expansion of a project that aims to generate health, economic and environmental benefits in the community.

A "smart" vertical farm that has been running since 2016 in Opaskwayak Cree Nation got a funding boost this week as part of a federal program focused on improving health and well-being.

The farm, which is inside Opaskwayak's community hall, already supplies over a hundred families in the community — next to The Pas and is about 520 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg — with free, fresh produce from over 75 plants grown in a hydroponic, automated vertical farm system.

In a vertical farm system, plants are grown in vertically stacked layers, usually indoors and without soil. That approach results in a smaller carbon footprint than traditional farming methods. 

The Opaskwayak farm uses artificial intelligence, using two computer systems to monitor the plants and manipulate lighting, nutrients, water and carbon dioxide levels.

It began as a pilot project in 2016, and this week, the federal government announced it will share part of $4.95 million in funding over six years as part of a federal "smart cities" training program that aims to build knowledge in ways to make cities healthier.

The funding will support projects at three universities, including the University of Manitoba, which is collaborating with the Opaskwayak Health Authority on the vertical farm.

The project will involve work with community corporations to develop business models for food production, packing, and delivery throughout the area, in addition to studies to determine health problems related to food insecurity in the region. 

"We try to tackle the issues by getting students involved working with the cities, with hands-on experience," said Miyoung Suh, a professor in the U of M's department of food and human nutritional sciences and the lead researcher on the project.

"It won't change overnight, but if a fresh vegetable is right there, they can consume, feel better, and it's available all the time," said Suh.

Fighting diabetes

High incidences of gestational diabetes and spontaneous abortions in pregnant mothers are a particular concern in the region, according to a Monday news release from the U of M. The researchers will test whether fresh vegetables from the vertical farm, eaten during pregnancy, help decrease those rates.

Glen Ross, executive director of the Opaskwayak Health Authority, says the rate of diabetes-related illness in the community is the highest in the country, at around 60 per cent.

"That's what we want to get away from and make a big change, so our region is not noticed as being the worst region in Canada for diabetes-related illnesses. We want to become one of the healthiest regions in Canada."

The quality of the vegetables being produced is superior to imported produce, he says. 

"We've done testing.… The shelf life and the strength of the vegetables is really high," he said. In addition, because the vegetables aren't being transported, there's a savings in transportation costs and the need for additives or pesticides is eliminated.

Basil is just one of the plants grown inside OCN's vertical farming operation. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

The farm also helps with food security issues, particularly in the winter, he says.

"Usually, by the time we get vegetables here, they are rubbery, frozen, re-frozen, so people don't want to buy them and they are expensive, which low-income people can't afford." 

Ross says he's optimistic the program will have other economic and environmental benefits.

There hasn't been a major impact on jobs yet, he said, "but in the next couple of years, we hope to have a big impact on how vegetables come into our province and people's homes."

It's hoped the program will also be able to provide fresh vegetables for school lunch and snack programs as well, and will created a model that can be used by other First Nations and northern communities across the country, the U of M's press release said.


Renée Lilley is a reporter for CBC Manitoba. She is a recent University of Winnipeg grad with a BA in rhetoric and communications. She has reported on radio and online news in her hometown of Portage la Prairie. She is also a proud Métis mama of four girls.