A new farm is growing a way to eat locally, year-round.
From the outside, the Borealis Fresh Farms’ modular building doesn’t look like anything special. It’s a white structure that’s 10 feet wide, 10 feet high and 40 feet long tucked away on top of a hill with a view of Porcupine Lake.
Inside is a hydroponic vertical farm equipped with cutting-edge technology. From the walls, parsley, basil, bok choy, and three varieties of kale are growing in strips.
“When we’re talking traditional farming, this is not that, at all,” said Marc Rodrigue, who co-founded the farm with Alex Cochrane.
Everything inside is controlled by technology — the lights, temperature, humidity levels and more can be monitored from anywhere.
“We’re growing clean, fresh, nutrient-dense food that hasn’t been exposed to pesticides, herbicides,” said Rodrigue.
Unlike traditional farms where the plants grow in soil, this produce thrives from nutrient-rich water.
Rodrigue likens it to eating at a buffet.
When you’re there and “hungry for something, you get up and you go get what you want. Well the plant acts like that as well. It has a smorgasboard of all the nutrients that it needs and then once it’s hungry, it goes and gets it.”
While the produce isn’t considered organic, it’s grown in a sterile environment and the partners are going to lengths to track all of the data.
“We can tell you exactly the day that it was seeded, what pack, what lot number from that seeding package that we got. We can tell you all of that information. That’s pretty powerful information,” he said.
The Borealis project has been in the works for about two years.
The modular building arrived at the end of January this year and a second farm should be on site by the end of August and will allow them to diversify the produce being grown. They also have plans to build a vestibule and micro-greens farm.
They weren’t planning on a third farm, but the way things are going, they see the potential for it.
Rodrigue and Cochrane have both had agricultural projects on their mind for a while.
They met through the entrepreneur centre at Northern College.
Rodrigue was an entrepreneur officer and Cochrane a client. They formed a friendship, which eventually budded into the business partnership.
“The number of times that we had talked about agricultural stuff back and forth was lots, the whole year before we were just bouncing ideas. Never complete ideas, because we were trying to keep our ideas to ourselves, but you could tell that it was getting closer and closer to the same thing,” recalled Cochrane.
Knowing they had similar aspirations, when Rodrigue was serious about getting started he went to see Cochrane.
The zip tower growing that was on Cochrane’s mind was what Rodrigue was envisioning as well.
There are a number of ways to buy local produce in the region.
With a short growing season in Northern Ontario, however, there is a limited time to access those foods.
Eating a plant-based diet, Rodrigue noted he couldn’t find fresh foods like what they are now growing.
“At the end of the day we’re just trying to take a little bit more control over our food chain that we have up here. Instead of buying it from Texas or California or Mexico or some other place that’s miles and miles away, we value a great eco system,” he said.
“Now we have nutrient-dense foods that you can actually have on your plate the morning that it’s cut.”
By tracking data and developing new technology along the way, they are hoping to grow a bigger movement.
“We want to build a business model based on this technology that will allow us to scale up to a level where you can finally have a sustainable food source in any region,” Rodrigue said.
Like any business venture, there are benefits and challenges.
The main selling point is being able to offer fresh, nutrient-dense produce year round.
“Also for the grocer, the price doesn’t change through the year,” said Cochrane.
The challenge with the modular set up is energy.
“There’s always inputs,” said Rodrigue. “Our largest input right now...is power. So electricity is a cause of concern, our high electricity rates.”
To combat the high prices, they work with the time of use rates.
With the growing lights giving the plants 18 hours of ‘daylight’, they’re turned on overnight when the cost for electricity dips.
The price point for the produce is the similar to other high-end options.
In Timmins, the greens are available in the Trussler's Pantry Box and Pick of the Crop.
They’ve also recently been talking to Holy Cow downtown Timmins and are growing mint for the Indian restaurant’s chutney.
They’ll be talking to other restaurants in town about their product soon as well.
“It’s really about building that local food culture as much as we can, getting it out there,” said Rodrigue.
You can keep in touch with where the produce is being sold and what the partners are up to on Facebook.