Construction on Yukon aquaponics facility could begin this spring

Founders of Yukon's North Star Agriculture have been pushing to build an aquaculture facility in Yukon which would raise fish and vegetables indoors. 

New plan would use geothermal energy near Takhini hot springs, proponents say

Matt Douglas and Sonny Gray of North Star Agriculture, with development permits to begin building an aquaponics facility in the Takhini hot springs area. (North Star Agriculture)

Some entrepreneurs in Yukon say they've found a creative way to move their project forward — by using geothermal power. 

Founders of Yukon's North Star Agriculture have been pushing to build an aquaponics facility in Yukon, which would raise fish and vegetables indoors. 

CEO Sonny Gray says the company has now secured funding to build a facility near the Takhini hot springs, outside Whitehorse. 

'We're able to start construction in the spring,' said Gray, seen here at the proposed site. (North Star Agriculture)

The project is projected to cost at least $8 million, including a land purchase and construction. 

The Whitehorse company says some funding has been pledged by NutraPonics Canada, an Edmonton-based company which already has aquaponic farms in Alberta. The Yukon facility would be considered a joint business venture between North Star and NutraPonics.

"We're in a position now where we have our seed funding so we're able to start construction in the spring," said Gray.

"We are actively putting applications in with federal and territorial funding to maximize the potential funding in order to give us a leg up — but ultimately, we do have the initial seed capital to do the construction this year."  

The hot springs location is the latest iteration of the project. Previous proposals had focused on Carcross and building a test facility elsewhere in Whitehorse.

The proponents also counted on federal funding that in the end was not pledged.

Geothermal will save money

Gray says that using geothermal power for the project could reduce energy costs by at least a third.

The plan is to use warm water that drains from the Takhini Hot Pools. The water won't touch the plants, but its heat will be used year-round to cycle through heat exchangers and pipes in the floor. 

The plan is to use warm water that drains from the Takhini Hot Pools to heat the facility. (CBC)

Gray says his business is now finalizing the purchase of a 0.8 hectare lot a short walk from the Takhini Hot Pools. North Star has also obtained required permits from the Yukon government to proceed with construction. The project does not require agricultural zoning, but rather commercial.

Matt Douglas, chief marketing officer for North Star, says tourism is also part of the plan. He would like to see visitors pay a small admission fee to see the farm, which would have space dedicated to exhibits and educational demonstrations.

"We want to showcase this technology," Douglas said. "The Takhini hot springs see tens of thousands of tourists every single year — whether they're going to the Yukon Wildlife Preserve or the hot springs, or some of the other attractions in the area. That amazing amount of tourism traffic plays really well," he said. 

Gray says the facility could require more than 20 employees, but automation will also play a role — for example, robotic arms moving on rails could be used to plant, rotate and water plants in the vertical farm.

Such technology would cut labour costs, he said, while providing an interesting display for tourists who want to see the farm of the future.

Not a fish farm

The building is now in the design engineering phase, with a target size of about 3,700 square metres. The plan is to begin preparing the lot this spring for construction.

One hurdle has been securing permits for raising fish. Under current regulations, the Yukon government will not allow agriculture involving non-local fish species.

Aquaponic systems raise fish and plants side-by-side. The fish provide fertilizer, while the plants provide oxygen and filter water. 

Aquaponic systems raise fish and plants side-by-side. (North Star Agriculture)

Gray says the facility will initially use tropical decorative fish, purchased at a local pet store. That would mean the project is legally considered an aquarium, and not a fish farm, as it won't be breeding them for commercial purpose.

He hopes in time this will change.

"It's not perfect, but we're banking on the fact that in some point in time we will be selling fish," he said.

The proponents are now working with Yukon Business Development Program to finalize plans.