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From mine site to pollinators paradise

Jenny Fortier and Northern Wildflowers plying their expertise to help regenerate mine sites

Jenny Fortier’s booth at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) conference got a lot of double takes last June.

Nestled in amongst the technology experts and equipment manufacturers at the Toronto mining tradeshow, Fortier’s display stood out for its distinctly un-mining-like look and messaging.

A butterfly landing on a purple coneflower, with the company name, Northern Wildflowers, emblazoned across its promotional banner, doesn’t exactly scream “mining.”

But the Sudbury-area company has developed a niche market providing native perennial wildflower seed to mine companies seeking new ways of regenerating industrial sites as part of the remediation process.

“We had some really fun conversations, because it's not always something that people think about when they think about mining,” said Fortier, an ecologist and master gardener who holds a master’s degree in watershed ecosystems.

“But when these mines are decommissioned… there's this great opportunity to create wonderful habitat and to enrich those sites.”

Northern Wildflowers is based on a 40-acre farm in Whitefish, about 30 kilometres west of Sudbury, where Fortier and her staff grow wildflowers and harvest the seeds from varieties that are native to Canada, the U.S. and parts of Mexico.

Traditionally, mining companies have stuck to grass seed mixes that are inexpensive and well tested on industrial sites, Fortier said.

But companies these days are more often looking for alternatives that bring added value to their properties, and wildflowers create habitats and food sources for butterflies, bees, and other pollinators.

Fortier's business has supplied mine sites in Northern Ontario, Saskatchewan, northern Quebec, and Manitoba, advising companies on the right mix of seed that will cultivate well for their particular area, conditions, and soil type.

“That’s been something that our mining clients have told us was really missing for them, is that confidence they got from speaking with someone who could really understand what was appropriate for their site and what would do well,” she said.

“I think that there’s just so much potential there to do great things environment-wise, and we’ve found that there’s a lot of interest from the mining sector.”

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Fortier got her start in wildflowers a decade ago after teaching a class advising home gardeners on using native plants to attract wildlife and pollinators.

Though her students had the knowledge and enthusiasm to start transforming their gardens, they couldn’t find the plants they wanted in local garden stores, she said.

Teaming up with her mom, Fortier started selling plants out of her basement. But they tend to be finicky travellers, and she soon realized this approach limited her catchment area to Sudbury.

That’s when her partner suggested switching to seeds, which ship easily and can be stored year-round. Suddenly, Fortier’s seasonal side hustle became a full-time online enterprise, which had her sending product right across the country.

In recent years, she’s expanded her retail business to brick-and-mortar outlets, placing racks of seed packets in garden centres and hardware stores throughout the province.

Earlier this year, Northern Wildflowers launched a line of Canada-grown vegetable seeds sourced from small, organic farmers from across the country.

Fortier spent two years working with contract farmers who propagate seeds for Northern Wildflowers. They’re mostly focused on short-season and heirloom varieties that will thrive in Canada’s climate, which isn’t always the case with many of the brands sold at nurseries and hardware stores, she said.

“A lot of companies in that space have names that suggest that their product comes from here, but it doesn’t,” Fortier said, noting that many are developed in Asia or South America.

“It’s always irritated me as a farmer, because we have so many wonderful things happening in farming in Canada and we really need to support our farmers more with our everyday purchases.”

Over the last three years, Fortier’s taken on more large-scale restoration projects, working with private businesses, non-governmental organizations, and municipalities to rejuvenate large swaths of land.

It’s that side of the business that spurred her partner to come up with an environmentally friendly seed coating that helps distribute the seeds more consistently.

Because wildflower seeds come in various sizes and textures, spreading them evenly can be a challenge, Fortier said. They’re also pricier than standard grass mixes, and so users want to be assured their money is well spent.

Northern Wildflowers’ seed coating is like a “plant-based glue” that encases the seeds in beneficial minerals and soil to encourage germination, Fortier explained.

Produced without chemicals or microplastics, the coating is completely biodegradable. The resulting pellets can then be fed into a hopper, which disperses them across the terrain.

"It's been really interesting to our clients in the mining sector, because they deal with challenging sites where maybe your site is acidic, or maybe you have really low organic matter, or maybe the texture of the soil is really challenging,” Fortier said. “Coating the seed can really help with those things.”

Awareness about the benefits of wildflowers is spreading, Fortier said, and over the next few years she wants to extend her bulk seed sales into more provinces across the country, and more industries.

Energy, mining and utilities are already strong proponents of her work, but she sees room to develop stronger relationships in the aggregate and construction sectors.

Just as consumer views are evolving to eschew the perfect green lawn in favour of more biodiverse yards, Fortier believes industry is adopting a more environmentally friendly approach to reclaimed landscapes.

"People, it seems, are finding time to just be more aware of those things,” Fortier said. “There's definitely a growing level of interest at the consumer base, and then we're seeing that trickle up into the more industry-side decisions.”