A big bright orange container has just landed in the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) community of X̱wemelch'stn in North Vancouver.
While the outside of the 40-foot container is rather striking, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
The container is a Growcer hydroponic modular farm that will support the community's wellness by allowing them to grow a year-round supply of fresh produce, including leafy greens, herbs and traditional medicinal plants.
Creating a sustainable healthy source of produce and increasing food sovereignty has long been a goal for the Squamish Nation, and the hydroponic farm is another piece of the puzzle, said Kelley McReynolds, director of Squamish Nation’s Ayás Méńmen Child and Family Services.
“Part of the reason that we started to look at ways that we could [provide food] was working from our values as Squamish people and our values around food sharing,” she said.
“Traditionally, we as a community, and as families, would go out and hunt and we would gather out on the lands and the waters and we’d bring it back to our community and people would only take what they need, and the rest of it would be shared.”
Through the launch of a food distribution program about four years ago, McReynolds said the team began breaking down the stigmas and fears around food insecurity and shifting back to their traditional ways, to ensure everyone in the community felt comfortable receiving food.
“We didn't want to look at the food as being a form of charity, or only for those who don’t have food,” she said.
Hydroponic farm idea sprouts
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, McReynolds said food security worries increased for some members and the team started thinking further outside of the box about how they could address future food scarcity.
That’s when the idea for the hydroponic farm sprouted.
Squamish Nation has looked at more traditional styles of farming, and also has 19 garden boxes set up outside of their office where they grow fruit and vegetables and a traditional medicine garden.
“We plant every year and we harvest that to give to the community,” McReynolds said. “We do a lot of training with our youth and our families to help them understand the plants, gardening and harvesting."
She said a thought they always had was, “think what we could do if we had farmland, we could feed so many more people.”
“But, you know, we live in a city and you don't have access to that kind of open space,” McReynolds said.
“So, when we looked at this option of the hydroponic farm and saw that it's the size of a shipping container, we thought, ‘that's pretty cool.’ It comes with all the equipment you need inside there. And, you can get it set up and within five to six weeks you are ready to make your first harvest and it yields approximately 450 heads of produce per week. That's a lot.
“We thought, ‘wow, that's amazing.’”
The founders of the ingenious technology and social enterprise came up with the idea based on their firsthand experience of food insecurity in Nunavut in 2015, and wanted to create a system that allowed communities to grow fresh produce anytime, anywhere, in any climate.
The growing technology was first deployed in food insecure, remote communities, but has since expanded to partner with schools, non-profits, and non-remote communities who see value in growing food locally – like Squamish Nation.
The electronically run hydroponic farms cost around $180,000 to set up and will produce fresh food for around 30 years, according to Growcer.
How does the modular hydroponic farm work?
Hydroponics is a soil-free growing method that uses nutrient-rich water to grow plants using less space, time, and crop inputs.
“The modular farms are automated to provide full environmental control,” Growcer’s website states, adding that plant growth factors such as light, nutrients, temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, and water are monitored in real-time.
Once set up, a range of 140 leafy green plants can be grown in as little as six weeks.
“It's all brand new to us,” McReynolds said, adding that Growcer would be training staff this week and continue to provide support through their hydroponic farming journey.
“We’re all really excited.”
Squamish Nation to open Food Pantry and Community Kitchen
Produce from the new farm will be shared with families serviced by Ayás Méńmen, the youth centre and the future Smeḵw'ú7ts (Food Sharing) Community Kitchen and S7ílhen (Food) Pantry, which is hoped to be up and running by the summertime.
“We will continue to do monthly food distribution, but we will also have food on our shelves and in the freezers for any of our members who are in need … whatever the situation may be,” McReynolds said.
The hope for the community kitchen is to build a healthy community by providing a safe place for members to learn and improve their food preparation and cooking skills through workshops, which may start on Zoom during the pandemic. Ayás Méńmen also plans to host a six-week program for community members to meet once a week to cook and take a meal home for their families.
“I think what excites me about that is we are such relational people,” McReynolds said. “To be able to come together and learn and share and grow and laugh and tell stories, that's so healthy and therapeutic and it brings joy to your heart just being able to be together.”
While there’s still a bit of work to be done before the hydroponic farm starts producing the goods, McReynolds has more big plans.
“I have this vision of us being able to do a Friday night or Saturday afternoon market where we can have the fresh produce, we can have music, we can maybe have food trucks and we can gather together,” she said.
“I just think it's just a great opportunity for us to celebrate who we are as Squamish and come together as a community.”
Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.