In the subarctic town of Churchill, Manitoba–unreachable by paved roads and best known for its population of polar bears–a head of romaine lettuce can cost as much as $8 without subsidies. Shipments of produce can take weeks from distant farms, and when vegetables arrive, it’s an event. But the town will soon have another option: a shipping container farm growing greens on site.
A 40-foot shipping container was repurposed into a hydroponic greenhouse in Spokane, Washington, then shipped to Montreal, where a cargo ship has taken it through the St. Lawrence River, around the coast of Newfoundland, and is now traveling through the Hudson Bay. When the delivery arrives on October 19, Churchill will be the seventh community in the Far North to begin using this type of farm, called the Arctic Growing System.
“The impetus for the whole project was the high cost of food and lack of opportunities for employment in Inuit communities,” says Corey Ellis, cofounder and CEO of The Growcer, the startup that makes the shipping container farms and works with the small communities that operate the farms.
The company was born out of a project called the Northern Innovation Hub, which aims to find solutions to local problems like food security, housing, and employment. Ellis and others worked with remote communities to brainstorm potential solutions, and landed on local food production as a way both to spur economic development and improve health.
Right now, many people in the area struggle to afford food. Even when grocery stores get subsidies from the Canadian government to offset high produce prices, the cost of shipping extremely long distances and the rates of spoilage on the journey means fruits and vegetables are still quite expensive. That cost means that consumers are more likely to pick unhealthy packaged foods, which have pushed up the rate of diabetes.
And the fresh options that do make it often aren’t very appealing. “If you’re in a community in Northern Canada where it already takes a week for produce to get to an urban center, and another week or two for it to fly to three different communities and kind of bunny hop over to yours, everything that was fresh is no longer really edible,” Ellis says.
The container farms can also create new jobs. “I think they saw an opportunity: Hey, why are we spending money down south to buy food when we could keep it in our community and pay someone local to harvest it?” he says.
Shipping container farms aren’t new, but the startup realized that current options–typically developed for cities in milder climates–wouldn’t work in the region. The farm they designed is insulated enough to withstand days at 60 degrees below zero and blizzards. By splurging on more expensive parts than a typical indoor farm kit, such as the highest-quality lights, the Arctic Growing System can actually be more productive than a similar farm in Boston or New York.
“We ended up with a system that has probably twice the cost but very similar ROI to a unit like Freight Farms, because we were able to basically triple the yields that a Freight Farm unit would get,” says Ellis. (Beyond using more expensive parts, the yield was improved by a unique advantage of farming in the Arctic: The cold, dry air helps make it easier to expel humidity from the greenhouse, which helps plants grow faster.)
The system arrives with everything needed to start the farm, including 14 months’ worth of growing material, seeds, cleaning solution, and multiple spare parts for every major part in the system. The community plugs it in, connects it to water, and it’s ready. The farm managers don’t need prior experience farming; the startup works very closely with customers, helping develop custom business models and monitoring the greenhouses by satellite to help managers troubleshoot any issues. “Somebody has to make money for this to grow sustainably, so that’s at the root of everything we do,” he says.
Six communities in Alaska have started using the farms, some for as long as 18 months, and all have broken even. Even with the relatively high energy bills required to keep the farms warm, the system is far less expensive than shipping produce thousands of kilometers. In one community, for example, growing the produce is roughly 25% of its retail cost. The growers and the grocery store can add margins and customers still pay 30% less than they would have otherwise.
Notably, produce was not traditionally part of the diet of Inuit or other indigenous people. But, then again, neither was soda, candy, or other junk food that has become common. As diets evolve, Ellis says that there’s a growing interest in fresh produce. The startup is also working to develop plans for ready-made meals that combine traditional ingredients with produce, which greenhouse owners will be able to offer as another product.
“What we’re doing is basically creating an environment where the healthy alternative is just as convenient and affordable as the unhealthy one,” he says.