Picking lettuce among the polar bears: Growcer helps remote communities grow their own food

I first heard about Growcer some time back when they were helping Squamish Nation set up a 40-foot container garden. Then this week, I heard about it again. This time, it was about how it has been helping people grow fresh produce in Churchill, Manitoba. And this time, I wanted to learn more.

Maybe you’ve seen pictures of Churchill and its polar bears? It’s a chilly place in winter, like many of the places where Growcer operates – Yellowknife, in the NWT, where winter can last half the year. Norway House, in northern Manitoba. Kuujjuaq, northern Quebec.

Like a lot of northern Canadian communities, a lot of Churchill’s staple food comes in on the sealift or by rail. The rest is flown into town. And you can imagine how expensive that can be, even in the best of times.

Then, in May 2017, when a spring storm washed out the rail line to Churchill, food prices doubled overnight. Food had to be flown in, all of it.

Then the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, a field station dedicated to subarctic research and education with projects looking into food security and northern energy opportunities, found a way to help. It tapped into the Churchill Region Economic Development Fund and partnered with The Growcer to bring a modular hydroponic farm on site. The farming module arrived on the last ship of the season, in the fall of 2017.

Growcer photo.

The 40-foot Growcer hydroponic farm grows leafy greens including different varieties of lettuce, spinach, kale, Asian greens, collard greens, and herbs, which it supplies to two local grocery stores, the hospital cafeteria, and during polar bear tourism season, extra restaurants and businesses. 

CNSC also started a direct-to-consumer subscription box, called “Launch Box,” to sell its produce to community residents. At $20 per week for a standard box with six types of produce or $10 per week for a mini box with three types of produce, the prices are still lower than the grocery store.

The farm recirculates water continuously and receives a top up of water every three weeks, so it is conservative in its water usage. For power, the farm is tied to the local electric grid.

The farm brands its produce as “Rocket Greens,” an ode to CNSC’s history of being located on the site of the former Churchill Rocket Research Range as well as the term used for arugula.

Says CNSC sustainability coordinator Carley Basler, Growcer’s first farmer:“The beauty of the Rocket Greens and the fact that it’s so fresh, or essentially alive when we deliver it, is that [the greens] keep for a long time.” The produce for the grocery store tends to age as it is shipped to Churchill. “I bought broccoli two days ago and it’s yellow already.”

The results were, and are, phenomenal:

  • In the first few months, up to 340 vegetables were sold in Churchill every week – increasing to 450 vegetables during tourism season.
  • In February 2018, Churchill still grew produce despite temperatures of -42 C or -58 C with the windchill.
  • Over the past three years, more than 40,000 pieces of produce were sold out of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. More produce was actually grown, though, because CNSC donates some to food banks and community groups.
  • Before Growcer, leafy greens cost $7.25 with government subsidies. Now greens are sold for $3.99!

Prior to operating the farm at CNSC, Basler’s growing experience was limited, but she’s developed equanimity. “Sometimes you get wrapped up in all the things that aren’t working right, harvests that aren’t as great as others, but at the end of the day I constantly remind myself when I’m in there, and the lights are on, and everything is green, that this is a super cool project. People that I know, who work and live around me, are eating food that we [at CNSC] grow.”

Corey Ellis and Alida Burke, co-founders of the Growcer. (Growcer photo)

As Corey Ellis, co-founder of Growcer, told the Toronto Star: “Sustainability doesn’t have to involve sacrifice. Growcer’s closed-loop hydroponic farms in shipping containers make it possible to grow fresh produce anywhere. And in a country where the growing season lasts barely more than six months, this isn’t just a solution for isolated northern communities – although that is where it started.

During a visit to Nunavut in 2015, Ellis and Alida Burke saw first hand how expensive food could be and how hard it could be to get fresh produce, and they began to wonder if it might be possible to grow food locally, even in the most extreme environments. That exploration led them into hydroponics, and with help from Telfer and Enactus, they created Growcer as a social enterprise.

“We need to move forward in a positive way, to build resiliency into what we’re doing in all parts of the economy,” said Ellis. “In that complexity and challenge, there’s massive opportunity for people who want to be part of building solutions. By no means are we perfect or have we figured it all out. But we are definitely making steady progress and it’s all about one foot in front of the other, marching toward that end goal.”


The Growcer website.

Here are some of the ways the fight against climate change could make our daily lives better. Toronto Star, Jun. 19, 2022

Year-round hydroponic project hits 40,000-unit milestone. Greenhouse Canada, Mar. 16, 2021.

U of O students bring fresh food idea home. CBC, Oct. 23, 2018.

The Growcer Impact: Telfer Alumni Develop Solution for Food Insecurity. Telfer, Sep. 5, 2019