Start up promises the dawn of aquaponics in the Yukon

In The Martian, Matt Damon plays a botanist abandoned on Mars who is forced to MacGyver together a system that can grow potatoes.

In The Martian, Matt Damon plays a botanist abandoned on Mars who is forced to MacGyver together a system that can grow potatoes.

The movie takes an interesting look at how it’s possible to do more with less, and how a bit of creativity can go a long way.

In the Yukon it’s always been a challenge to grow vegetables year-round, despite farmers having more resources than Damon’s character ever did.

Now, an Alberta-based start-up says it plans to build a facility in Whitehorse that will offer fresh vegetables to Yukoners 365 days a year.

NutraPonics is touting aquaponics – a process that weds fish farming with the science of gardening without soil – to grow large amounts of produce in relatively small spaces.

The process is simple. Fish such as tilapia and trout produce waste that is turned into nitrates and ammonia. The waste is then processed through two bio-filters, where bacteria break it down.

What’s left is a rich broth of nitrogen, sulphur and potassium that is pumped into a third area where it is sucked up by plants.

LED lights are used to push the growth of the plants. They purify the water and send it back to the fish, completing the cycle.

The end result is a mutually beneficial relationship that can grow thousands of pounds of produce, as well as raise fish that can be harvested at the end of the season.

“It’s 21st-century farming,” said Dr. John Vidmar, chief technology officer with NutraPonics.

“There’s no fertilizer, no pesticides and no herbicides. Our system is controlled so we know exactly what we’re putting in and what’s coming out.”

NutraPonics has partnered with North Star Agriculture, a Whitehorse-based company, to bring the project to life.

North Star CEO Sonny Gray visited the NutraPonics facility near Edmonton a few months ago. It’s mainly used as a research and development facility, but Gray said it also supplies local restaurants and grocery stores with produce.

He said it felt like “visiting a lab.”

“Just from tasting the vegetables that were grown there, the taste is completely different,” he said.

“Can you imagine if you buy your food, take it home, unpack it and it’s still ripe a few days later? Ultimately if we can walk away from this one day and say that we provided food to the Yukon, that’s pretty rewarding.”

The biggest challenge lies with energy costs associated with heating the building, and the water in the tanks. Tilapia generally requires water temperatures above 20 degrees Celsius.

Gray said those issues can be fixed by making sure the building is well-insulated. NutraPonics has also been working with the University of Alberta’s civil engineering department on its next facility, which will be in New Brunswick.

“We don’t want people being worried about the building sciences side of things,” said Tim Goltz, the project’s business development officer.

“We’re working with some of the brightest people in the world. They can address every possible building contingency and they’re keen on this because they see the potential in what we’re doing.”

The location of the building in Whitehorse has yet to be determined, Gray said, but he has a few leads.

The next steps include securing funding, finding partnerships with First Nation development corporations and establishing a time frame for the project.

“We’re still fine-tuning our development plan and then we’ll be hitting the pavement looking for partners in the Yukon,” Gray said.

“We’ve locked down a partnership with the people providing the technology. If you don’t have that you don’t have anything.”

Gray explained that NutraPonics works similarly to the way a franchise would. The company provides the technology, training and 24/7 monitoring of the facilities.

Gray said he would probably be looking for 51 per cent ownership from local First Nations.

“We’d like to bang this out within the next two years,” Gray said.

“There’s demand beyond Whitehorse.”

In the future, more of these facilities could be built in other Yukon communities, he added.

He said he’d also like to see Yukon College develop a course that would train people to work in aquaponics.

“If you start getting multiple facilities going, that’s a career path,” he said.

Contact Myles Dolphin at