Growing kale on the shores of Hudson Bay? Year-round vegetable farming comes to Inukjuak

Finding fresh produce in Quebec's northern reaches tends to be a difficult, costly proposition in winter. The community of Inukjuak, in Nunavik, has found a way to secure a year-round supply of vegetables.

The isolated Nunavik community will soon be able to grow its own produce year-round

Residents of Inukjuak, on the shores of Hudson Bay, have been farming vegetables in 'cold frames', but the community recently acquired a container farm that will supply the town with fresh produce year-round. (Courtesy of the Pirursiivik Project)

There are obvious challenges to growing greens year-round in a subarctic climate. Here's one you may not have expected: Inuktitut only has a handful of words for vegetables.

So in addition to coming up with new and inventive ways to achieve some level of food sovereignty, the plan to provide remote communities with fresh produce year-round is a linguistic and anthropological exercise as well.

"We're hoping in the coming years new terminology will be created," said Karin Kettler, who heads the Pirursiivik Project, a four-year initiative that is jointly funded by the One Drop Foundation, the Makivik Corporation and the RBC Foundation.

A few weeks ago, the project unveiled its latest initiative: a hydroponic container farm in the community of Inukjuak, a town of 1,800 on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay.

The plan is for it to provide a regular supply of fresh vegetables, a large portion of which will be given away to the community (the rest will be sold in local stores).

"We've done several gardening projects and our latest addition is a hydroponic container," Kettler told CBC's Breakaway.

"And inside this container we're planning to grow lettuce, spinach, kale and a local plant called qungulit in Inuktitut. It's very similar to what you call mountain sorrell ... it's kind of a leafy green, it has a nice lime, sort of lemony taste."

The remote northern community of Inukjuak took delivery of a hydroponic container that will be used to grow a year-round supply of fresh vegetables. (Courtesy Pirursiivik Project)

Pirursiivik sowed the seeds for the idea, so to speak, a couple of years ago. It conducted a poll in the community to determine its greatest need.

"'Many of the respondents wanted to have locally grown fruits and vegetables, primarily for their freshness," Kettler said. "In isolated communities we have to rely on the south for fresh vegetables and fruit. So if we can have a garden or a greenhouse ... then it reduces spoilage."

In the summer 2019, Pirursiivik introduced 'cold frames,' or raised boxes with plastic lids, that allow for vegetable cultivation in the warmer months.

"They were installed in front of different organizations around town and we encouraged ... [people] to grow their own spinach, their own herbs and different vegetables," Kettler said. 

The community just finished its second growing season in the boxes, and it was a rousing success. It's main ask now is to have a year-round greenhouse. The hydroponic container is the first phase toward building one, which Kettler said should happen "in the next year or two."

Until then, the local community will continue experimenting with strange new fare from away.

"Bok choy isn't something you can find on the land around town," Kettler laughed. "This project is to help inform and teach people how to use new vegetables they may not be familiar with."

Folks have already developed a taste for what Kettler called "monster kale"—it appears to revel in long hours of direct northern sunlight—and other vegetables.

This year, Kettler's group held a veggie growing contest that drew 35 entries in the various categories, largest kale leaf, best tomato, etc. The prizes were awarded in October.

The hydroponic container should be operational by January, at which point the first crops will be planted.

"We should have vegetables to share in March," Kettler said.

The average temperature in Inukjuak at that time of year is –15 C. Happily, that will no longer present a barrier to eating fresh, local vegetables.

with files from Julia Page