There's nothing quite like the humid, so-thick-you-can-taste-it air of a teeming greenhouse – especially when it's 40 degrees below freezing and you're plunged in darkness for months.
That's the kind of unlikely oasis planners want to bring to Canada's hardest-to-feed communities. They have got their work cut out for them.
Researchers have figured out how to build high-tech, winter-resistant vegetative incubators. The hard part is making northern greenhouses capable of supporting themselves financially. That means operating year-round, employing locals and selling enough produce to break even.
It's never been done before in Canada. Proponents argue it's about time.
When the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food called out the federal government in May over Arctic food insecurity, Health Minister and Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq called him "uninformed" and "condescending." A month later, Nunavut residents' frustration at high food prices boiled over in demonstrations and photos shared online of expensive necessities.
Heads of cabbage for $28 aren't going to cut it any more.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada last week put out a request for proposals to study the economic sustainability of greenhouses in the north. The request, published this week, closes on Aug. 21; the successful bidder is expected to have a final report in by March.
One of the biggest hurdles is making this more than just a government handout that's airlifted in and withers when federal funding runs out. Planners hope greenhouses will help communities to feed and employ themselves, creating a local food initiative far outside the natural terrain of the produce they grow. "I don't see government subsidizing this in the long haul," said agri-environment technical director Larry Lenton, who is spearheading the project. "This has to stand on its own."
Some community members fear a far-north greenhouse would require more investment than it would ever make back selling produce. It also requires expertise that isn't yet there and would require extensive training.
Operating greenhouses are scattered across the Far North – in Kuujjuaq, Que., Inuvik, NWT, Iqaluit and Carmacks, Yukon, among others. They provide fresh food and experience these communities wouldn't have otherwise. They also depend almost entirely on grants from government, aboriginal leadership or academic institutions.
In the past couple of years, volunteers in Kuujjuaq have established a thriving community greenhouse and a nascent composting program. They're experimenting with potatoes, jobs for youth and programs for people with mental illness. A second greenhouse is in the works.
"It's growing nicely," said Marc-André Lamontagne, a volunteer with the project. But could it run without government subsidies? "Aye yai yai. … Commercial? I don't think so."
Existing greenhouses are "great community projects, but not at all economically sustainable," said Heather Exner-Pirot of the University of Saskatchewan's International Centre for Northern Governance and Development. But she insists a commercially viable northern greenhouse is "absolutely" feasible. "It's more feasible than the existing situation, flying in lettuce from thousands of kilometres away. … You're getting to a breaking point."
Clare Kines gets "grocery envy" the moment he steps inside a supermarket in Iqaluit, let alone Ottawa. But he can't picture a local greenhouse paying for itself in Arctic Bay, Nunavut, where he works as economic development officer. "Part of the challenge, I think, would just be to get people's heads wrapped around the idea."
In the 1980s, Pond Inlet, Nunavut's Sauniq Hotel set up a greenhouse as an experiment to grow its own food. But the facility has sat idle for the past 20 years, said interim administrative officer Colin Saunders. It's used for cold storage, if at all.
Several communities are interested, despite the hurdles: A slew of applications for northern greenhouse grants prompted Agri-Food Canada to request the study in the first place.
Doug Eddy, head of the economic development corporation of Buffalo Narrows, Sask., envisions a biomass-fired kiln providing heat and electricity to a greenhouse he hopes will feed not only his community, but also the surrounding area. "The cost of food products up north is so damn high, and these people don't make that type of money. So their diet suffers," he said. "Why not build a greenhouse?… It's common sense. There's no magic here."
The cratered polar desert of Devon Island in Nunavut is the perfect place to pretend you're on another planet.
Enter the Arthur C. Clarke Mars Greenhouse, situated inside a 23-million-year-old crater on an otherwise uninhabited island in Canada's Far North. The sci-fi structure is built to grow plants autonomously in a highly controlled environment: Its vegetables are cared for remotely; webcams and sensors monitor the plants. A propane generator provides heat; wind and solar power provide electricity. The high-tech equipment can survive the winter and rejuvenate the greenhouse come spring, but its plants go into hibernation over the coldest months of the year.
Ideally, says the University of Saskatchewan's Heather Exner-Pirot, a northern greenhouse should be designed to operate year-round. It isn't easy and it isn't cheap, but it's possible.
Diesel generators will make your energy bill skyrocket. Feeding wood waste into specially designed kilns can provide heat far more cheaply.
Grow lights emit light designed to trigger plant development and photosynthesis; LED bulbs make for greater energy efficiency.
Polycarbonate glazing helps trap heat and insulate the plants.