U of O students bring fresh food idea home

University of Ottawa students have come up with a fresh idea for sustainable food production, both up North and right here on campus.

The Growcer created as solution to high food prices in Canada's North

Inside The Growcer's container at University of Ottawa. (CBC News)

Some University of Ottawa students have come up with a fresh idea for sustainable food production, both up North and right here on campus.

From the outside, it's a large green and white shipping container designed to withstand the harshest winter. Inside, it's a state-of-the-art oasis, a hydroponic mini-farm capable of producing up to 100 kilograms of leafy greens in a week.  

The modular growing system is the brainchild of The Growcer, a startup run by students and grads from the university's Telfer School of Management.

During a visit to Nunavut a few years ago, students Corey Ellis and Alida Burke were shocked by the high cost and short supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. They set out to find solutions for the food scarcity problem plaguing northern communities, and The Growcer was born.

"The container allows communities up north to grow their own food and feed themselves," said Ellis, 23.

"It uses 95 per cent less water, 95 per cent land to produce 4 tonnes of produce annually." 

Team member Drew Sterling, left, and Corey Ellis, right, co-founder of The Growcer. (Sandra Abma/CBC)

Concept spreading

The concept is spreading. So far the $180,000 container growing systems have been installed in Nunavut, Alaska, Quebec, Manitoba and parts of Ontario, with more orders on the way. The company says proceeds from food sales can pay back the initial investment in less than five years.

The container at the U of O is strictly local: each Tuesday local farmers will harvest the produce, fresh food that will appear at the school cafeteria's salad bar within 24 hours.

"I hope it opens students' eyes to the fact that we can make an impact even though we are so young," said student Drew Stirling, 22, who's working with The Growcer while finishing his business degree. "It doesn't have to be big businesses. We can do it ourselves."

The container is already turning heads at the University of Ottawa campus. (Sandra Abma/CBC News)