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Communities on the Move: Cochrane's Smart Village project takes shape

Vertical farming, data mining, Bitcoin, northeastern town has a 'lot of pokers in the fire'
Cochrane town photo

The Town of Cochrane has hit a few key milestones in its push to become a fully sustainable community, said the head of a Toronto-based development company.

Mark Kealey of KPGI said his group, along with partners Cochrane Board of Trade and the Indigenous Critical Infrastructure Fund, is now expecting to make an announcement in the coming months about major investments in the “Smart Village” project.

“There are two vertical farm technology companies that we've been talking to, one from India and another one from Canada, who are very keen to site up here,” Kealey said.

“They see that not only is the community really, really open to this, but it makes perfect sense for what we're trying to do with the amount of land that we have.”

A key component of becoming a Smart Village is establishing a regional agriculture network, Kealey said, shortening the supply chain, which helps reduce reliance on importing food from Mexico or the United States. 
Cochrane, with its  “millions of acres” as Kealey describes it, is the perfect location to set up shop.

“WIth that, we could look at the development of vertical farming all throughout the North,” he said. “So I could see an active industry where you're ready for four [harvests] every year of leafy greens and vegetables.

“If you think about that, in the context of how you get fresh fruits and vegetables to market, that will fundamentally change the way people live, eat and nourish themselves in the next 10 years.”

Another component to building for the future is the creation of data mining centres, sites that house servers where cryptocurrencies are generated, or where large amounts of data can be stored

“We've got an announcement pending on an integrated, global [company], I’ll call it an off-grid energy provider, which would be very, very interesting, too,” Kealey said. “It's green technology, which I think people are going to be fascinated by.”

“[Cochrane] is hardwired for this,” he said. “When you think about Cochrane Telecom Services, CTS, they've done a terrific job of having the entire community all hardwired, and it's hardwired from Cochrane all the way down to Toronto.”

The foresight goes back to the mid-’90s, when communities set up communications infrastructure in hopes of luring call-handling centres. Although the lustre of attracting those large, low-paying call centres may have worn off, the critical technology networks remain.

It’s these connections, Kealey said, that will facilitate an easy transfer of data to larger urban centres, which because of density challenges and population growth, may not have the area needed to house the accompanying data storage facilities.

“It’s a very interesting innovation and, and part and parcel of what really serves the moniker of Smart Village for a place like Cochrane,” Kealey said. 

But combining these components – a third pillar is creating a medical travel destination, which would help remote Indigenous communities access services – involves enormous buy-in from community leaders.

That’s where the Cochrane Board of Trade has taken the lead.

Board member Rheal Cousineau, who has helped Cochrane weather economic ups and downs for the last decade, said the key for success in a project like this is to engage the right people in the community.

“I call this ‘having a lot of pokers in the fire," Cousineau said. “People might say ‘why don't you just concentrate on one?’ but the dynamics can change on a project like this very rapidly.”

Cousineau’s own experience in agriculture, running the family farm for decades before moving into the insurance field, means he’s positioned to help push the vertical farming side of the Smart Village project.
But he’s also keen on ensuring that he’s helping facilitate connections between the several different groups of people who could potentially become involved.

“There's many components to this project. There's agriculture, there's the scientific side, there's the (data) mining side, there could be some forestry side,” Cousineau said. 

“Right now, the big one is of course, this Bitcoin,” he said. “That has become very popular. A data centre is sort of in the forefront. But the vertical farming is very close to this.”

There is also the possibility of attracting hydrogen production to the area, Cousineau said, and down the road even charcoal agriculture. 

“But if you get a phone call…and [investors] say, ‘I think the money will be available within the next two weeks for this project’ then that project becomes first priority, it’s in first place next week.”

Where development projects in the past may have taken months or years to get moving, Cousineau said the behind-the-scenes movements in the Smart Village vision have the potential to move at light speed.

“The secret in business is good running shoes,” he said. “You've got to be able to move sideways, up and down, almost like a basketball player. Move very rapidly on some of these things.”

“As a group, you need to be very fluid about this. But you have to be very determined.”