First Nations farm improves northern food security
VERTICAL GROWTH | A Northern Manitoba community has turned to vertical farming to overcome the challenges of accessing nutritious food.

Stephanie Cook planned on a career in Child and Family Services. She never imagined that would lead to operating a vertical farm helping to feed her northern Manitoba community. 

As a member of Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN) located near The Pas 600 kilometres north of Winnipeg, Cook grew up surrounded by the impacts of colonization and the legacy of residential schools. 

A checkered past between the settler community and First Nation continues to cause tensions, and OCN is home to many of the longstanding challenges existing on reserves across Canada, including a high rate of health issues related to poor access to nutrition. 

Why it matters: Poverty and food insecurity are lasting legacies of Canada’s colonial policies towards Indigenous communities.

As Cook embarked on a career in Child and Family services, her focus was on helping address issues such as poverty in her community. She quickly realized how poverty and food security intersect, especially in a climate known for long, harsh winters and in a community that relies heavily on imported food. 

“Being in that setting, it made me realize, OK, things in food security need to change,” she says. 

“Food security is probably one of the biggest issues for low-income families, and those families are always at risk of whatever it may be,” Cook says. “There (are) some people who are naive to the fact that after the 53rd or 52nd parallel, it becomes a food desert.”

Cook says that costs are high in the communities grocery stores, even if they can remain adequately stocked. Some weeks there is no chicken; other weeks there is no red meat. The cost, availability and quality of vegetables shipped in from the south made them an unpalatable option for many. 

“The diet up north isn’t exactly the greatest.”

A Favour Returned

It was a neighbourly gesture that  led to the creation of the Opaskwayak LED Smart Farm. 

A group of local hunters assisted a team of surveyors from South Korea doing contract work for Manitoba Hydro that had become stuck in the mud miles from anywhere. When that team returned to their home country, one of the world’s leaders in vertical farming technology, they connected the community with farming researchers and commercialization specialists who helped launch Manitoba’s first ‘smart’ vertical farm into production in the community in early 2016.

The project is part of ongoing research at the University of Manitoba into ways of improving affordable access to nutritional food in vulnerable communities. 

The project recently received a fresh injection of federal support to further develop it as a sustainable local food resource as well as an opportunity for technical and entrepreneurship training. 

“Food is a basic entry point for building healthy communities,” said University of Manitoba food and nutritional science professor Miyoung Suh and co-lead on the project in a release announcing the funding in July. 

“The availability of fresh produce up north is limited, but smart technology involving local food production could be a simple solution in transforming those communities. Funding from the Healthy Cities Research Initiative will enable us to identify and tackle problems around the accessibility of healthy food systems and also train future leaders with the expertise to support healthy communities and cities.”

Sixteen vegetable beds supported by a full spectrum of LED lights are now helping the community grow produce almost year-round. 

Cook had been in her originally planned career in social services for only a brief time when she learned of the project in 2016. Despite thinking at first the concept was “like an alien planet,” she applied for the manager position. 

“At the end of the day, you know, I’m not a doctor, not a scientist. At home, I’m a single parent. I don’t have a PhD in agriculture. I don’t have, you know, a master’s degree in agricultural technology or anything like that,” says Cook. 

Stephanie Cook, OCN’s farm manager | Photo: Laura Rance

Indigenous Farm Operations are growing, aS is the number of women running them

Stephanie Cook’s transition into food production is consistent with a trend picked up by Statistics Canada in its analysis of the 2016 Census of Agriculture. 

By cross-referencing farm-level data from the Census of Agriculture to individuals in the Census of Population, the federal agency produced its first portrait of Aboriginal peoples and agriculture.

It found that Aboriginal people represented one of the few growing sectors of the agricultural population in 2016, even as the total agricultural population in Canada faced steep declines.

“Nationally, the number of Aboriginal people in the agricultural population in 2016 was 21.4 per cent higher than in 1996, the first year in which comparable data were collected,” it says. “During the same period, the total agricultural population fell 39.3 per cent.”

The same was true for agricultural operators. 

“The number of Aboriginal agricultural operators in 2016 increased 53.7 per cent compared with 1996. In contrast, the total number of agricultural operators declined 30.1 per cent over the same time period,” the report said. 

As well, there is a higher proportion of First Nations women producing food than in non-Aboriginal populations. 

“Women made up 36.8 per cent of First Nations agricultural operators, compared with 28.6 per cent of non-Aboriginal agricultural operators.

(Top of page and centre ) Vegetables unlike residents have ever seen before are grown under special lighting at the OCN Smart Vertical Farm near The Pas, Manitoba. | Photo: OCN photo
Basically, what we’ve done is started to establish contacts within the community working towards …reconciliation, food security, food stability in the north, and food sovereignty.” – Stephanie Cook, manager of the Opaskwayak LED Smart Farm.

Powerful Tool

Since opening however, she has found the farm to be a powerful tool for accomplishing some of the same goals that led her to considering social services as a career, such as building community, and combatting high rates of food insecurity and chronic disease. It is helping to set the stage for other developments fundamental to their future.

“Basically, what we’ve done is started to establish contacts within the community working towards …reconciliation, food security, food stability in the north, and food sovereignty,” says Cook.

On the ground, the farm does this work in many ways.

Cook and her colleagues work with schools, care homes and health facilities in OCN to provide nutritious food. A restorative justice component allows people needing to fulfill community service hours to do so at the farm.

“It’d be awesome to see other communities’ kind of work towards this model, especially in First Nations communities, because we’re working towards reconciliation,” Cook says.

The success of the OCN farm has led to exploratory talks of further expanding the operation, and adding in other components, such as a food co-op.

That growth is needed, because food insecurity and malnutrition continue to be challenges.

“Even for myself as a single parent, like before, I had my job. And well even today, like even now, I still have moments of struggle, where, you know, I don’t know what I’m going to do to make ends meet,” says Cook.

A federal parliamentary committee that studied Indigenous agriculture in 2018-2019 noted in its report that while some Indigenous communities own major export-oriented operations, “most Indigenous agriculture is small-scale and focuses on meeting the needs of the community and improving its food security,” it said.

“A number of witnesses linked support for Indigenous peoples in the agriculture sector to Indigenous communities’ food sovereignty.”

The authors of the 2019 Statistics Canada report inserted an important caveat to their findings. 

“It should be noted that Aboriginal history has been marked by government policies that affected Aboriginal access to farmland, tools and markets,” wrote Nicolas Gauthier and Julia White. “The recent statistics, then, should be viewed with this history in mind.”

They said more research is needed to understand this changing dynamic in Canadian agriculture. 

(Left to right) It has taken time for local residents to learn how to incorporate fresh greens such as lettuce into their diets. | Photo: OCN photo

BY D.C. FRASER | D.C. Fraser is Glacier FarmMedia’s Ottawa-based reporter. Growing up mostly in Alberta, Fraser also lived in Saskatchewan for 10 years where he covered politics, including a stint teaching at the University of Regina’s School of Journalism. He is an avid fan of the outdoors and a pretty good beer league hockey player. His passion for agriculture and agri-food policy comes naturally: Six consecutive generations of his family have worked in the industry.