3 – 2- 1 GROW. How Rocket Greens grow in Churchill, Manitoba
I first learned about the hydroponic shipping container while standing around in the airport waiting for a plane to arrive. Like many remote small towns, some of Churchill’s best information exchanges happen while doing just that! It was early fall in 2017 and Churchill was mid-way through its first year without rail access due to some unprecedented spring flooding that rendered its rail link to the south unusable. Political posturing and the extreme cost of the necessary repairs brought any progress on that to a standstill and Churchill was thrust into its first long-term experience as a fly-in only community. Fresh food was being flown in and subsidies were trying to keep up, but the availability of fresh food and other goods was sporadic and the limited space on the three cargo shipping vessels destined for Hudson Bay were being scooped up quickly.
I was told that the ‘garden’, a 40’ shipping container retrofitted with state-of-the-art hydroponic growing condition and branded as The Growcer would be arriving on the last cargo ship of the season and was destined for the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC). It was a surprising bit of news!
One interesting aspect of containerized gardens is that they are highly transportable. The Growcer destined for Churchill began its journey by truck from its manufacturing facility near Seattle. It travelled to Montreal and was loaded on a freight vessel which then sailed around Eastern Canada and entered Hudson Bay before finally arriving here in Churchill. The chosen site for the unit adjacent to the CNSC was levelled and prepared so that within a couple of weeks of its arrival, it was hooked up to electrical power and filled with water so the gardening could begin. These shipping container gardens are so versatile that way. They can be transported by truck, train, ship and even can be loaded into large aircraft!
The CNSC is a research and education organization located about 23km east of the Town of Churchill. Traditionally, the non-profit CNSC provides subsidized logistical support and accommodation to visiting researchers while generating revenue to do so by offering learning vacations, educational tours and credit and non-credit course offerings for students. I had worked for the organization in the past and this seemed like too interesting of an opportunity to pass up, so I agreed to join the CNSC team and run a hydroponic garden in the sub-arctic.
The unit itself is 40’ long with about 34’ is dedicated growing space. Inside the container, there are 1800 spaces for maturing plants and a seedling nursery that holds an additional 1600 seedlings. The garden itself is designed to maximize the growth of leafy green plants so the Rocket Greens offerings are mainly lettuce, spinach, kale, Asian cabbages, collard greens and a huge selection of herbs. The pumps, lights, de-humidifier, heat, ventilation and nutrient application are all controlled by a computer. The harvest planning, seed planting, harvesting, cleaning and all maintenance is tasked to the operator.
The first seeds were planted in November 2017. After six weeks, the first seeds planted became the first official harvest of Rocket Greens. The lettuce that was harvested was shared with community members at a large all-community feast. The following week, we hosted a market which allowed people to see different types of leafy greens being offered and to sign up for a weekly subscription service which we called the Launch Box. The Rocket Greens brand and the Launch Box are references to the fact that the Churchill Northern Studies Centre is located on the site of the former Churchill Research Rocket Range where through the 1950s-1980s, thousands of Rockets were launched into the upper atmosphere for auroral research! Also, one clever staff member pointed out that Rocket is a slang term for Arugula!!
The Launch Box service really took off. There are currently approximately 50 households that receive fresh, locally grown Rocket Greens each week. A typical standard sized Launch Box contains two types of lettuce, kale, spinach, and “other greens“ (bok choy, collards, mustard greens, etc.), and then a herb. Our herb selection is varied but some of our more popular herbs are basil, cilantro, dill, chives, thai basil, parsley and even mint. The Rocket Greens are also available to the community at both local grocery stores and the hospital cafeteria. Over the years, there have also been partnerships with different restaurants in town and seasonal lodges but COVID 19 has really pushed us to supply local households first and foremost.
To date, we have provided over 40,000 pieces of fresh produce to the people of Churchill and our partners and we are looking forward to another successful year of hydroponic gardening!
This spring, the Rocket Greens project is also planning to support local outdoor gardening efforts. Sub-arctic gardening is challenging to say the very least. The much colder temperatures, a summer that doesn’t start until June (or sometimes later!), and no-top soil are just some of the challenges that local gardeners face. Extremely long daylight hours (almost 24 hrs in the middle of summer) high winds and lack of humidity are also normal conditions in Churchill that challenge plants ability to grow.
Having to start all of your seedlings indoors and keeping them there for sometimes more than two months is not easy for everyone, so the CNSC Rocket Greens team will be starting approximately 400 ready-to-transplant seedlings to distribute to local gardeners. We did this back in 2019 with pretty good success.
Some gardeners reported harvesting tomatoes from the seedlings as late as the following Christmas! New to this year, we will also be distributing seed packets including seeds for beans, peas, potatoes and tomatoes, along with dirt and some peat pots and instructions for those who are able to start their seeds at home. Gardening is a skill, and we would like to share the resources that local gardeners will need to practice it.