Vertical farming initiative brings fresh produce to northern Manitoba

The availability of fresh produce in northern Manitoba is limited, but a federally funded project is developing sustainable food production systems on Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN) and surrounding communities.

University of Manitoba professor Miyoung Suh is collaborating with OCN Health Authority’s executive director Glenn Ross on a smart vertical farming initiative.

Vertical farming is a process where vegetables and crops are grown on stacked shelves in an indoor environment. Growers use LED lights and computer-assisted technology to monitor crops for optimal growth. The practice allows growers to cultivate plants in limited spaces and more importantly, in extreme environments like northern Manitoba.

Ross started the vertical farm on OCN in 2016, and Suh told CTV the community was already growing close to 40 types of vegetables prior to the start of this project.

“They showed evidence they could grow vegetables,” Suh, a food and human nutritional sciences professor, said. “My part is to grow functional vegetables.”

She explained ‘functional vegetables’ as those which can help fight chronic disease, especially those caused by fresh food insecurity.

There are high incidences of gestational diabetes, as well as spontaneous abortion among pregnant women in the region. Project researchers will test if fresh vegetables from the vertical farms could help reduce these incidences.

The ice plant, for example, is a source of a chemical compound called d-pinitol, which has been used to treat diabetes patients.

“We are going to have a high variety of functional vegetables that will help the community’s health,” Suh said.

But the initiative doesn’t stop at Opaskwayak Cree Nation. The project will work with others in the region that struggle with fresh food accessibility.

Suh said, if successful, the smart vertical farming initiative will be a role model for other communities.

She explains how, if each community focused on different crops, the region could effectively create its own food co-operative.

“That’s the long-term plan.”

The federal government is spending nearly $5 million over the next six years to help create training platforms which address issues like food security and how to make the population healthier.