Feeding the North

Food is important to me because I have a large family. Five boys under the age of nine” says Sonny Gray, CEO of North Star Agriculture Corp., as his company will soon announce plans to start construction in the Yukon.

Like many in the Yukon he’s concerned about fresh produce. Yukoners like to buy local but the lack of a year round growing season in the Yukon limits our choices. Gray thinks he’s found the solution.

His company plans to be the first in the North to implement a potentially game changing new technology that he hopes will solve our food security issues and make the North more self-reliant.

North Star Agriculture partnered with NutraPonics, an aquaponics company based in Alberta, a year and a half ago and plans on setting up shop in the Yukon by this fall. Produce is expected to hit Yukon shelves for winter 2018. Nutraponics describes its aquaponics technology as being “based on a self contained, self regulating ecosystem, optimized for superior, natural, organic plant growth.”

Nutraponics gave North Star Agriculture exclusivity rights to the use of their technology north of 60. “It is our goal to create farms across the North of Canada. Feeding the North,” says Gray.

Gray describes aquaponics as fish and plants existing in a symbiotic, pre-existing ecosystem. “A similar concept to rice paddies in Asia.”

He says that unlike in other parts of Canada, agriculture hasn’t yet gotten its fair shake in the North.

“Agriculture is an industry, and it’s consistent, unlike mining,” he argues. “We’ll give agriculture a voice.

“Within the next 10 years agriculture will be recognized in the Yukon.”

Gray and his partners are planning an all-year facility that would provide food to grocery stores; they hope to help the North develop sustainable agriculture.

“Our vision as an agriculture development corporation is to create a more self- sustainable Yukon. Creating food, fertilizer and grain locally, creating jobs and contributing to the economy.

“Commercial scale agriculture could be, in the next 20 years, a constant, steady financial contributor to the Yukon’s economy.”

Gray envisions the North becoming a global leader in agricultural technologies as we find new ways to solve our food security issues for ourselves.

“To feed the north we’re gonna have to become creative,” he says. “People are going to want to know how we did this.”

Gray says that his company will put the Yukon at the forefront of the industry by “marrying agriculture with cutting edge technology in a Northern environment – effectively solving a long-standing issue surrounding food security.”

He sees potential for agritourism, too.

“If I was visiting the Yukon standing in a snow bank in minus 40 weather and you informed me that they were growing vegetables right now down the road I’d have to see that. I’d be curious.”

Gray says that this kind of thing hasn’t been done on a commercial scale in the North yet.

“Traditionally, we’ve looked at solving our food problems on a smaller scale, and we are experiencing a certain level of success, however, those methods aren’t fixing the issues surrounding the quality of produce at the local supermarket in the dead of winter,” he says. “There’s no reason we can’t do that here.”

Gray hopes to move the sustainable movement from a personal or community based phenomenon to a corporate one.

“Most initiatives regarding agriculture and food security centre around individuals and how they can be more self-sufficient or communities and how via community gardens, greenhouses, et cetera. they can help their communities become more self sufficient,” he says. “Rarely are we seeing solutions to the territories’ food security issues. Commercial scale farming paired with advances in technology position companies to now be able to create solutions that perhaps 10 years ago were not options.”

The project did have to overcome some hurdles because of the moratorium on fish farming. Gray says the important distinction to be made here is that, “we are not ‘farming fish.’ We are raising fish.”

They managed to get an exemption to the ban through letters of support from the community. “Ultimately what happened was there is a moratorium on fish farming. The government at the time was not interested in reviewing our project until we garnered strong support from the community. Once we were able to properly explain how our system operates, we received a letter from the government exempting us from the moratorium, and committing resources to the creation of regulations specific to aquaponics.”

He says that the department of environment is working on a framework for regulation that’s fair to everyone. “We’ll be the first out the gate.”

Gray’s vision doesn’t stop in the Yukon or even Canada. He plans to to expand across the North. Potentially including the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Alaska, “Our goal is to feed the North, one territory at a time,” he says. “We recognize that every Northerner deserves access to nutrient-rich, fresh, local fruits and vegetables and we intend to provide that produce, year round, at an affordable price.”

Aquaponics is a growing trend worldwide that arguably has yet to reach its full potential in Canada. Recent estimates suggest that there are about 200 industrial scale farms in the world: 100 in Japan, 25 in the United States, 50 in China, and 20 in the European Union. Canada has two that are specifically built to Nutraponics specifications.

Gray says government bodies have been supportive of his project.

“The Federal government is supportive, as is the Territorial. This includes funding, regulation drafting, et cetera. Thus far every meeting we’ve had with varying levels have been positive.”

Gray and his partners completed a feasibility study partially thanks to government support and they are in negotiations to secure a local First Nation partnership.

One might think that fruits and veggies produced through aquaponics technology wouldn’t taste as good as those grown in conventional soil. Gray begs to differ and says it’s just the opposite. He says that food produced by this method tastes stronger and more “real” because it’s getting all the right nutrients.

“A plant grown on our farm gets 100 per cent of the light that it requires daily. The roots are literally laying in the nutrient rich water meaning they’re pulling 100 per cent of the nutrients and water that they require. Closed door facility means no bugs, moles or birds chewing up the plants. The result is a plant that’s maximized its potential as a plant. It’s rich with nutrients and tastes the way a plant should taste.”

Gray says leafy greens such as kale, romaine, baby spinach, lettuce; and herbs such as basil, mint and parsley do especially well with this type of agriculture. Also planned are strawberries and cherry tomatoes.

To learn more about aquaponics technology go to www.NutraPonics.ca.

In addition, there are lots of videos on YouTube about aquaponics.

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