A recent grocery store fire left only one shop to provide for the whole community of La Loche, Sask. — about 2,400 people — in an area where fresh produce comes at a stiff price.
But this could soon change.
Dene High School, which was one of two scenes of a shooting in 2016 in which four people died, is slated to receive a Brampton-made modular farm next month. The $200,000 unit is being donated by President’s Choice Children’s Charity, and the school will begin planting in September.
It will offer leafy greens, fruits and other bounty year-round.
“I really can’t wait to pollinate things,” said student Brelanda Montgrand, 17. “I love growing stuff.”
Montgrand was among five students who visited an indoor farming system in Toronto on Thursday, where they learned how modular farms work and how to get a healthy yield.
Eric Amyot, CEO and founder of Modular Farms, who was also on-site on Thursday, said the units can grow more than 50 varieties of plants.
“Everything from what you’d expect, like lettuce, herbs and kale, but also strawberries, pumpkins, corn,” he said. “We’re currently doing quinoa, raspberries and blueberries in there. You name it, it’ll grow in there.”
The first modular farm was set up in Calgary last year, Amyot said.
The idea is to create a controlled environment, he said, a microclimate that can be adjusted to suit the needs of a types of different crops, regardless of the time of year.
“If it’s minus 40 (C) out here, it’ll be 19 to 20 degrees in there,” he said. “We maintain a constant, consistent environment, food and light for the plants.”
Lisa Battistelli, executive director for President’s Choice Children’s Charity, said the students had wanted a greenhouse. “Sometimes growing is a challenge and so we started to look at solutions that were more contained.
“The idea of having them grow the food that’s going to be used within their in-school meal programs was that transformative full loop for them, because if they can grow, they’re going to eat,” she said.
“The project is really about food accessibility. It’s difficult in remote communities,” adding the fresh produce selection is smaller than the frozen one in town.
Montgrand said she had been to Toronto before. She and several other students were flown in by the Toronto Raptors team president Masai Ujiri and award-winning CTV broadcaster Marci Ien after the school shooting, which sent shock waves across the country.
La Loche is located in the province’s northern latitude, about six hours away from Saskatoon.
Haley Murray, another student, said because there’s a lack of fresh produce in the community, her family will sometimes travel to Saskatoon to get vegetables.
“It makes me feel excited” to get a modular farm, Murray, 15, said, “because I don’t have a lot of stuff to do in town, like after school, so I think that’ll be a good thing to invest my time in. I’m really thankful, actually.”
She said there are rumblings about selling produce from the modular farm to the sole local grocery store.
“It would mean more money for the school,” Murray said. “They’re currently doing renovations in the school. I’m sure they need the money.”
There’s been improvements in stocking fresh produce over the last five years in La Loche, said Martha Morin, executive secretary at Dene High School, but it’s still expensive.
“Students will learn what it takes to grow vegetables and cook nutritiously,” she said. “We’re hoping to have an entrepreneurial component to learn how to run a business and a service learning component to provide fresh food to elders. And cheaper produce.”
Greg Hatch, the school’s principal, called the modular farm “a classroom” in and of itself.
“It’ll definitely help our academic program,” he said. “And help us grow, and what we grow we can put into our breakfast and lunch programs.”