Chief Isaac plans vertical farm in Dawson

A Yukon First Nation development corporation has plans to build the territory’s first vertical farm to improve food security in the North.

A Yukon First Nation development corporation has plans to build the territory’s first vertical farm to improve food security in the North.

Terry Hayden, a consultant working for Chief Isaac Group of Companies, the business arm of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation in Dawson City, discussed the idea at the first annual Arctic Indigenous Investment Conference in Whitehorse on Feb. 15.

“(Vertical farming) gives you an opportunity year-round to produce what we would call very healthy food,” he said. “And the food is secure…. If you’re growing your food locally, through the winter, you have instant access to it.”

Vertical farming is the practice of growing food in layers in an indoor facility similar to a warehouse. Vertical farms allow producers to control every environmental variable, including light and humidity, in summer and winter. They typically require less water and fewer chemicals and can produce more food per unit area than traditional farming.

Hayden told the News the technology could be a good fit for the North because it’s not dependent on weather.

“The challenge with greenhouses is trying to ensure that you get an appropriate amount of sunlight during the winter,” he explained.

Chief Isaac CEO Lynn Hutton said she got the idea to look into vertical farming after spending Christmas in a Dawson hotel in 2012. She’d bought a salad and some other food from the grocery store to tide her through the holiday, she said. But when she opened the salad, only the outer layer was good — the rest was rotten.

Later in 2013, she came across a magazine article about a vertical farm in Chicago.

“And I thought that’s exactly what we need,” she said.

Hutton eventually visited the farm in Chicago, called FarmedHere, and sampled some of the produce. “It was the best basil I’d ever tasted in my life.”

She believes a vertical farm in Dawson could improve local food security and provide education and employment opportunities for the First Nation. She’d also like to see vertical farms used in other remote communities in the North.

“(Vertical farms are) scalable,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be huge.”

But Chief Isaac doesn’t yet know if a vertical farm is viable in Dawson, let alone in other communities. The development corporation has completed a pre-feasibility study, and is now looking for funding for a more in-depth feasibility study. Hayden said about $100,000 is needed.

One of the major hurdles is the cost of building the infrastructure for the farm. In Chicago, FarmedHere was developed in an abandoned warehouse. But that’s not possible in Dawson.

“One of the challenges is that we don’t have a building that’s basically sitting empty that we can go in and use,” Hayden said. That means a facility would have to be purpose-built, which is expensive.

Still, Hayden said a vertical farm could generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue by delivering produce to Whitehorse and possibly to Fairbanks, Alaska. He said the farm would likely produce leafy greens and tomatoes, as well as other crops higher in plant-based protein. “We do want a balance of macronutrients,” he said.

Currently, Chief Isaac is working with former FarmedHere CEO Mark Thomann to plan the project. But Hutton said the farm, if it’s built, would be entirely run by Chief Isaac and the First Nation.

She sees it as a good place for graduates of Tr’ondek Hwech’in’s new farm school, launched last summer, to find work.

“This would be year-round employment, so there could be dozens of jobs in Dawson for local residents,” Hayden said.

Hayden said the feasibility study will probably take about four months to complete, once funding is in place. Hutton hopes a vertical farm could be open in Dawson by the end of 2018.

Chief Isaac isn’t the only First Nation development corporation focused on local food security. Colin Asselstine, general manager of the Kluane Community Development Corporation, told an audience at this week’s conference that the community has opened two greenhouses in the last three years, and is currently looking at a larger greenhouse, vertical farming and community composting.

“The idea is within the next five years, we want to be able to supply all the fresh vegetables and fruit available year-round in the community.”

He said the development corporation has also examined options for growing food for export, but is trying to “start small.”

Contact Maura Forrest at maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

CORRECTION AND CLARIFICATION: Mark Thomann was CEO of FarmedHere from April 2014 to July 2015. The News regrets the error.

It is also worth noting that FarmedHere shut down in February, days before the News published this story. The CEO at the time was Nate Laurell. Chief Isaac CEO Lynn Hutton confirmed to the News that Thomann will still be working with the First Nation development corporation on its plans for a vertical farm in Dawson City.

(Last updated March 10, 2:25 p.m.)

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