Whitehorse company pitches off-grid hydroponics to improve Northern food security

Refurbished shipping containers are being winterized to allow fresh produce to grow in temperatures as low as –50 C.

Solvest partners with Cropbox to test winterized, off-grid, hydroponic setup in a shipping container

Sabrina Clarke, Cropbox operator for Solvest, has been growing different kinds of produce such as lettuce, cilantro and mint in this container. (CBC/Jackie McKay)

A Whitehorse solar energy company is expanding its business to included hydroponic farming.

Solvest Inc. has partnered with Cropbox, an American company that refurbishes shipping containers to grow produce.

Solvest is taking the product a step further by revamping the containers with cold-weather modifications in order to grow fresh produce in Northern climates.

"What we've discovered [in] the more remote Northern communities that we work in when we are trying to help them with their energy needs is ... a profound problem with food security and food supply," said Ben Power, Solvest vice president and co-founder.

Each refrigerated container is outfitted with plastic pipe shelving that holds growing trays. Pipes pump nutrient rich water into the trays so no soil is needed to grow produce. LED lighting replaces sunlight.

A container now on the Solvest compound is for demonstration only, and not equipped with the features needed to grow produce in temperatures as cold as –50 C. The company is monitoring the container's energy consumption without arctic features to compare to the energy it will use once the features are added in the fall.

Cold weather features would include an arctic entrance to protect plants from frigid outside temperatures, and an extra layer of insulation.

Ben Power, Solvest Inc. vice president and co-founder, believes the modified Cropboxes will help fill a gap in Northern food security. (CBC/ Jackie McKay)

According to Power, the containers require as much energy in one day as would power up to four homes.

Solvest has created a second container to power the Cropbox off-grid using a combination of solar panels, batteries and diesel fuel.

"That allows a remote diesel community to operate this ... and not stress the local grid," said Power. "If you don't have that power box in a remote setting you may be solving one problem of food security and adding to another problem of diesel consumption in a community."

Economic benefit to be determined

The container grows 2,700 plants cultivating about 400 heads of lettuce a week.

"It would feed a small community in the north," said Sabrina Clarke, Solvest's Cropbox operator.

The unit has yet to be tested in a Northern winter.

The Kluane Lake Research Station, 60 kilometres north of Haines Junction, Yukon, has applied for grants to field test a unit this winter.

The unit is hydroponic meaning the plants grow in nutrient infused water instead of soil. (CBC/ Jackie McKay)

Researchers will work with the Kluane First Nation and Champagne-Aishihik First Nation to create a public report on the Cropbox's suitability for use in the region, including a cost-benefit analysis.

"What does a head of lettuce that comes out of the container cost? What does it cost in comparison to what you can buy in Whitehorse?" asked Henry Penn, a researcher with the station.

Solvest's Cropbox was partly funded with $24,000 from Cold Climate Innovation at Yukon College.

A Cropbox with the arctic insulation package costs $150,000 before shipping. The external power box raises the cost to about $400,000.

"This is technology that can make a huge difference for food security," said Eoin Sheridan, project officer with Cold Climate Innovation. 

"On the cautionary side, it's not something that people want to jump into without doing their due diligence ensuring they have a market for the food and will be able to utilize the amount they produce."

The container grows up to 2,700 plants at a time. (CBC/Jackie McKay)

Sheridan said similar growing systems have been successful in Alaska and are likely to benefit the Yukon as well.

"There is a huge number of different aspects to Northern food security, this alone [isn't] a one size fits all solution but it's definitely part of a broader solution," Sheridan said.