Hydroponics Are Next

Yellowhead Tribal Council’s container farm feeds Edmonton’s urban Indigenous population

Glenn Susan never thought he’d have a job that married all of his varied interests — from carpentry to culinary arts to technology — so he was pleasantly surprised when he found himself interviewing for a position that did just that.

“This fell into my lap,” Susan says of applying for the position of hydroponic technician with the Yellowhead Tribal Council (YTC) container farm project. “I come from a carpentry and IT background, but growing food — and growing food with technology — has been a passion of mine.” The job — a hydroponic technician — was more chemistry than carpentry, Susan says. But a year into the role, he spends his days tending to crops and testing pH levels in the facility’s water system.

“It was a big learning curve,” he says. “Understanding the chemistry of the water was the big trick. It’s so much more than adding nutrients … there’s a lot of science behind it.”

The food Susan is growing — mostly leafy greens like romaine lettuce or kale — feeds his community. It’s part of a pilot project spearheaded by the Yellowhead Indigenous Education Foundation (YIEF) and the YTC. The idea is to address a growing level of food insecurity among Edmonton’s Indigenous population and the community at large.

Glenn Susan

“YTC reached out to YIEF to support them in seeking funds for a container farm. Their nation members living in Edmonton need easier and more affordable access to food, and container farming begins to address this need,” says Cheryl Savoie, executive director of YIEF.

The trends Savoie and her colleagues were seeing are accurate. Indeed, Alberta experiences the highest rate of food insecurity of all Canadian provinces. Indigenous people who live in Alberta, on average have a lower income than their non-Indigenous counterparts and are, therefore, more susceptible to food insecurity, were particularly impacted by inflation and high cost of living.

“It’s an economic constraint. The inflation, the cost of living, the fact the living wage is not reflective in mainstream society, let alone in the Indigenous market,” Savoie says, adding that need was spread across a variety of demographics.

“Single parents, single family units and students just weren’t able to get their needs met,” she explains. “They were suffering, so we put together a program.”

So far, that program has been successful. It can produce hundreds of heads of lettuce in just a matter of weeks and can stagger various types of crops so that it continually produces food. Susan says a single batch of crops can produce anywhere from five to eight kilograms of produce all from a single shipping container. To date, Susan has harvested and distributed enough plants to provide 7,280 meals.

Susan believes the model should be expanded – and, to some degree, it is. The Alexis First Nation is in the process of setting up its own container farm.

But Susan thinks the method could be a solution on a global level to what he sees as an increasing problem of food supply and demand.

“With everything being so expensive, I just don’t think we’re ever going to see a point where the cost is low again,” says Susan. “I think this is probably the next step. These things can be stacked up and in terms of efficiency, I think growing food with hydroponics is next.”

This story comes from the Winter 2023 edition of Legacy in Action. Read the full magazine.