For the Indigenous communities that span Canada's North, food security and access to affordable, fresh produce has long been a problem. For many, road access can be limited to winter months when vehicles use ice roads to bring in supplies, and for more northern locations access is only possible by air year-round. Neither solution is ideal for transporting produce.
The result is an ongoing challenge to ensure communities have access to a fresh, affordable, secure food supply. These challenges are further exacerbated by climate change issues that have made harvesting crops and traditional herbs used in medicines, less reliable for northern residents.
The challenges of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba reflect those of many communities. Where traditional harvesting was once an option, climate change has put further stress on food supply.
“All you see here is clay—we don't even have sand,” Chief Lorna Bighetty observes. "Because of the structure of the water level, we couldn't harvest anything last summer. The water level went up, and we couldn't get our mint. We couldn't get our other sources of traditional medicines.”
“When we didn't get our crops last year, we had no option but to go to The Northern (the chain of grocery and general goods stores that supply many communities) to get tomatoes, to get lettuce. But that comes at a cost? A head of lettuce can cost as much as $7.”
Ottawa-based Growcer is a start-up initiative of Corey Ellis, a young entrepreneur with experience working in the North. “The food challenges facing so many in Northern Canada is what inspired us to start Growcer and dedicate ourselves to the challenge of food security”
“Food insecurity is, of course, multifaceted. One of the elements we thought we could help resolve as entrepreneurs is helping with food sovereignty and food production. How do you provide communities and with tools to be self-sustaining?”
The solution was a self-contained, railcar sized shipping container that operates as a hydroponic farm. One Growcer unit grows 5,500 pounds of produce—from lettuce and kale to herbs used in traditional medicine—every 12 months.
Still, bringing a Growcer unit to a community alone would not immediately solve the issue. “It was clear early on in working with northern communities that there would be unique challenges in every deployment” said Ellis. “We quickly learned that in order for a Growcer installation to be successful in a community, and to achieve sustainable food production, the deployment would need to be integrated into the daily requirements of the community, and be supported by local economic development and community knowledge”.
“We also understood the challenges for each community would be unique – from logistics, to financing, to training local operational teams and developing a business model for food deployment, each community had unique requirements, goals and objectives”.
It was at this intersection where BDO Canada was able to play a critical role in connecting the food sovereignty and economic development vision of the Mathias Colomb Nation with the opportunity provided by deploying a Growcer unit in the community.
With food security challenges facing the community, Mathias Colomb worked with BDO to develop a business plan and strategy to build a new store that could supply healthy food for 3,000 residents.
“In the business planning process for the new store in Mathias Colomb, we saw an opportunity to address the food security challenges in Northern communities—one that could be bolt-on or a full-scale commercial operation,” said BDO Partner Jacques Marion, familiar with the efforts Growcer was making to bring their hydroponic units to the North. The Growcer solution seemed to be the right fit.
Using Growcer, the community could have an option to source fresh food not beaten up by freighting and transport through air and ground. The community saw opportunities to do everything from providing a hot lunch at the school, to delivering greens and produce to community elders.
Still, the project faced logistical hurdles—from financing a project, to developing curriculum that could incorporate training and education so local students could both study science, and develop operational and business skills, in sustaining a Growcer operation.
The BDO team worked to align the values of the community and supported the applications for funding for the new unit—that would supply the store and provide land-based education through curriculum developed with the Manitoba First Nation Education Resource Council (MFNERC).
In addition to the new unit installation, BDO is working with MFNERC to develop curriculum relevant to communities throughout Manitoba, and will create opportunities for students from kindergarten to grade twelve. In public schools, children will study science through a seed to sprout program. For High-school students, business skills—Growcer includes a packaging system to facilitate retailing.
“BDO connected the dots and developed both a business and logistical solution that will ensure the long-term success and integration of the Growcer unit in Mathias Colomb” said Ellis. “At the same time, working with Mathias Colomb and MFNERC, through the efforts of the BDO team, we've been able to collectively create an education platform that can support initiatives in other communities”.
“We have short growing seasons here—now we can grow fresh food all year round,” said Chief Lorna Bighetty.
“Technology is changing, and can now help us. That's why it is important to do the research and the business planning,” Chief Bighetty added “That's what I tell the students. Growcer is an awesome toolkit for them. At the same time, our community elders are providing traditional knowledge to regain the land-based education that they've lost”.
“We know the climate is changing, and we know the future is somewhat uncertain, but this type of technology can be a lasting solution. It will create self-sustainability and food security for communities no matter what happens with the weather cycle,” says Ellis.
“This is what the future looks like.” said Marion. “We've been fortunate to have the opportunity to support Mathias Colomb and their food security challenges. It's remarkable to see the pride in the community as they launch the system, and the positive feedback from students in the education system as this project becomes part of their community-learning”.
For BDO Canada, the partnership with Growcer and the opportunity to work with the Mathias Colomb First Nation in addressing their food security challenges reflects the work BDO Canada is doing across the country. BDO Canada is in the business of helping clients solve their unique challenges and problems, and positioning organizations, business and communities for long-term, sustainable success.