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Fresh vegetables grow year-round at this innovative farm

Borealis Fresh Farms' grows a variety of greens vertically on specially fashioned walls

Veggies taste better and are better nutritionally when they are fresh.

Now, with advances in agricultural technology, it is possible to grow farm-fresh vegetables year-round, even in an urban area and a northern climate.

This is what Mark and Anne Rodrigue are doing with their business, Borealis Fresh Farms in Timmins.

“It’s not a traditional farm,” he explained. “It’s an indoor farm.”

The hydroponic farm first started on the back road around Porcupine Lake near Connaught Hill but has since moved into the heart of Timmins on Sterling Avenue.

“Six or seven years ago, I started getting the idea of working at the college with the entrepreneurship centre and thinking about that process and what I wanted to change as well,” Marc said. “We ended up looking at food, as we’re both plant-based and were having a hard time sourcing really good local food. I started putting those pieces together, doing some research and figuring out how we can actually grow food in the community 12 months of the year. After doing all the research, I thought we can make a business out of this.

“Now, we’ve got two farms and a centre building.”

Their move was well-planned and is helping provide nutrient-rich food to seniors.

“We’ve got a partnership with the local DSSAB (Cochrane District Social Services Administration Board),” he said. “We’re on the property of the seniors’ complex. So, a lot of the food we grow goes into their community kitchen.

“Food is more expensive now. We’re all about nutrient-dense, clean, pesticide-free foods.”

Having a farm so close literally has healthy food being raised steps away from their doorstep.

“When you’re talking about food mileage as well, when you typically buy a piece of kale right now it is coming from California or Texas, and 3,000 kilometres for a piece of kale is crazy,” Marc said. “The environmental toxins, the footprint for that piece of kale is crazy. We’ve got nutrient-rich foods. Once they’re harvested, they can be consumed fairly quickly, so you’ve got the full impact.

“When you’re looking at the plant as a whole and what that plant goes through to get to that point, we don’t use any of these chemicals to ensure the life of the plant and make sure you can transport these plants for thousands of miles. It’s local. Once the plants get harvested, the nutrient value starts to diminish. So, the closer you are to where it was locally grown, the better it is.”

Borealis Fresh Farms isn’t your typical greenhouse operation.

The Rodrigues utilize agri-tech vertical modular farming. Instead of growing horizontally, like in a field or on tables in a greenhouse, they grow vertically on specially fashioned walls.

“The environment we’re in is totally controllable by us,” he said. “We control the light, the spectrum of light, the temperature, the humidity, what plants are going on the walls, the nutrients, the Ph levels, the water … we pretty much control all of these elements to create a space where you can grow some good, healthy plants. It’s tailored to their needs.

“Depending on the cultivar, when you are looking at traditional farming, when you’re doing vertical and can go 12 months of the year with the types of plants that we grow, you can really optimize your production per square foot.”

They are growing a variety of vegetables and herbs, and plan to experiment with more, like tomatoes.

“We have kale, we have joi choi (bok choy), we have collards, we have parsley, basil, Swiss chard, some lettuce,” he said. “Everybody loves their Romaine lettuce, so we’ve done a couple of test batches now. We’ve got a hundred heads coming, so those are going to get transplanted here in the next week and a couple weeks after that they’ll be ready for market.”

While produce is not sold on site of the farm, it is available at local retailers and used by a variety of restaurants and food producers.

“We deal with Your Independent Grocer, Pick Of The Crop,” Marc said. “We’re in a couple restaurants as well. We do Aline’s Tea Shop from time to time. If you go to Haileybury, they have a restaurant called L’Auctochtone, they love cooking with our products.

“Toffanello’s Fresh Pasta as well, they use our basil and our parsley for their basil-parsley pesto they sell in their shop.”

They strive to create the ideal growing environment, without the use of chemicals or genetic modifications.

“It’s more nutrient dense and we don’t use any of the pesticides that are typically used in commercial agriculture,” he said. “Now that we have a real good understanding of this environment and control it really well. Some of this equipment, the lights I have on this particular farm, have been tested for a farm up in space.”

Borealis Fresh Farms’ method of agriculture is not meant to replace traditional farming, but augment it.

“You still need outdoor, traditional farming,” Marc said. “But indoor, vertical farms definitely have a role to play in the planet. If you look at climate change and all of these things, you really have to look inwards and figure out how we can do it better.

“Vertical farming is actually an area where you can improve that significantly. There is some consumption in terms of power, but now we’re working with different groups and reducing our power consumption significantly. That will become more and more close-looped as the system keeps evolving. It is definitely a great opportunity to use indoor ag space this way.”

They see an opportunity for future expansion, here and elsewhere.

“We have these farms. We were looking at building another, so there is potential to do that,” he said. “We are fostering a relationship with DSSAB going into more senior complexes. Going up the (James Bay) coast is something that is possible as well. There are definitely some opportunities to expand the business.”

For the business to grow and be successful, they constantly learn from the food being produced.

“It’s a learning experience every day,” Anne said. “We’re growing with our farms, too. And the plants will ‘talk’ to us if they’re not happy and we need to listen and figure out what’s going on and adjust from there.

“So, it’s constant learning.”

Connect with Borealis Fresh Farms on Facebook.