A new business in Dryden, Ont, is promising to bring fresh, regionally-grown produce to northwestern Ontario year-round, and to help mitigate supply chain problems that have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic.
AgriTech North will employ vertical garden technology and hydroponics to produce leafy greens, culinary herbs and some fruiting crops, such as cherry tomatoes, in a 4,000 square-foot indoor facility, according to its president and chief executive officer, Benjamin Feagin Jr.
“We’re growing multiple varieties of lettuces – everything from, like, an iceberg lettuce, romaine, Swiss chard, things of that nature,” Feagin said. “And for culinary herbs, we’re looking at chives, cilantro, dill… We also have some, like I said, fruiting crops, which include a fairytale eggplant variety.”
Feagin expects to grow around 225 kilograms of greens and 125 kilograms of herbs every week, he said.
Some of that food will be sold at farmers markets, he added. Some will be sold through retail outlets, such as Maltese Grocery and George’s Market in Thunder Bay.
Maltese already sells produce from regional suppliers such as DeBruin’s Greenhouses, and it doesn’t intend to sever ties with those providers, said co-owner Lisa Maltese. But Feagin’s business offers to fill gaps in their supply chain by offering fresh vegetables and herbs in the winter, and when other suppliers can’t meet all of the demand.
“There’s huge supply chain issues,” Maltese said. “There’s no trucks. There’s no drivers for the trucks. There’s no trailers to put the product in. There’s picking shortages… It’s as bad as people think it is. It is actually worse.”
Feagin grew up in Dryden and earned an undergraduate degree in fine arts from the University of British Columbia with a focus on theatre design and production. He worked in a number of lighting design roles before pursuing a Masters degree in architectural and building sciences technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. He subsequently held a number of jobs involving research and technology, most recently at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Oregon, before deciding to move back to Dryden in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic to be closer to family, he said.
Dryden had already been researching year-round growing
Arriving in town with his partner, master grower Fabian Velez, he looked for an opportunity to start a business that would combine their respective interests in technology and agriculture, he said.
“It happened to be something that I was already looking into,” said Tyler Peacock, the economic development manager for the city, who advised Feagin to look into the possibility of year-round growing.
“I looked at food insecurity and opportunities for year-round growing in the north as an opportunity for Dryden based on our strategic plan and our location in northwestern Ontario in the Kenora District,” Peacock said. “And I felt that, before talking to Ben, that Dryden was well positioned to do that. We have a large airport that could be utilized for distribution. We have a number of different logistics companies that are already operating in Dryden, and we’re on Highway 17… I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for the region, and I’m excited for Ben.”
In fact, Agritech North now occupies a former surplus Dryden parks department building purchased from the city for $100,000 – approximately 60 per cent below market value – under the Municipal Land Disposition Program of the city’s Community Improvement Plan, Peacock said.
Feagin credits Jen Springett at Local Food and Farm Co-Ops for helping him understand the complexity of the food security issues in the northwest, he said.
“There’s a number of issues, including, you know, droughts in California and Texas [and] Mexico, where much of our current fresh product is imported from,” he said.
The need to transport food from other parts of the country results in some food being wasted along the way, and some spoiling shortly after it arrives in people’s homes, he added. And vaccination requirements for truckers have added to supply chain problems.
“It’s not really a question of whether or not this is a good thing to do,” Feagin said. “It’s a necessity. We can’t afford to wait anymore.”
‘I think Ben and Fabian are going to make it’
AgriTech North has a social mission to lower fresh produce costs in far north Indigenous communities by 25 per cent, increase access to fresh produce year-round in communities that don’t already have it, and explore technologies that could allow year-round growing in those communities themselves, he said.
To that end, the company has launched a GoFundMe campaign aimed at raising money both to send food to the north this spring and to contribute to the infrastructure used to grow year-round.
“I myself am Metis, and this is very close to home for me as a goal and target,” Feagin said.