'We are ready to grow:' New greenhouse could be game changer in Naujaat, Nunavut

A vertical hydroponics system is expected to provide fresh vegetables at well below the cost of buying produce shipped in from southern Canada.

Greenhouse is built, planting has begun, people in Naujaat ready to learn

People in Naujaat, Nunavut, are planting their first seeds in a new geodesic greenhouse. (Project Growing North/Facebook)

Fifteen minutes before the new greenhouse was set to open, volunteers in Naujaat, Nunavut, were already lining up to help plant the first seedlings.

The geodesic greenhouse dome is the brainchild of Ben Canning and Stefany Nieto, Ryerson University students and co-founders of Project Growing North — an idea they came up with three years ago when they heard about the extreme levels of food insecurity in Nunavut.

They hope the greenhouse could be a game changer, potentially providing food and employment year-round in the community of 950 people. 

Canning thinks the lineup on Monday bodes well for the future of the dome.

"We're kind of at a pinnacle moment for the project," he said. "Now, we are ready to grow."

In October 2015, they began building a greenhouse designed to perform well in extreme Arctic positions. Last month, Canning returned to the community and finished building the inside of the greenhouse with the help of local volunteers.

"Over the course of the last three weeks, we have six, seven, eight youth helpers come in and donate their time and laugh and smile and get to work on something big in their community together," said Canning.

Planting begins

On Monday, volunteers began planting vegetable seeds in the vertical hydroponics system, which according to the project's website, will provide double or even triple the yield of regular plant beds.

University students Alif Ruhul, Ambreen Khan, Stefany Nieto, Ben Canning (left to right). Nieto and Canning are part of the Ryerson University chapter of Enactus - an international NGO that aims to help solve social issues using entrepreneurship. (Submitted by Enactus Ryerson)

Once the tomatoes, kale, peas, and beans are ready to be harvested, Canning says the plan is to sell baskets of vegetables to locals through a subscription service, at well below the cost of purchasing vegetables shipped from southern Canada.

Despite the challenges of operating in the Arctic, Canning is convinced the project will work.

"For eight months of the year it's actually solar powered," he explained. "With only one to three hours of sunlight, it can heat itself 30 degrees warmer than outside conditions."

The group has also tested a combined heat and power unit, which will work off of wood pellets during Naujaat's long, dark winter.

Looking for government grant

The next step is to train people in Naujaat to carry out the daily tasks at the greenhouse.

"We're really looking on bringing on a local team, being able to provide them compensation for their work, but also being able to train them with real job skills and have them apply to a project in their community," Canning said.

At the beginning, he says locals would be paid using money crowdfunded by Project Growing North. To date, the group has raised more than $250,000 in donations, sponsorships and in-kind gifts.

But eventually he hopes the Government of Nunavut will support the project with a long-term employment grant.

"That is how this program needs to move forward."