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Jobs of the Future: Container farming strengthening food security in the North

Sudbury's Truly Northern Farms is a premier provider of hydroponic, pesticide-free produce

If there is a silver lining to be found in the past two pandemic years, Erin Rowe, co-owner of Truly Northern Farms in Sudbury, says it’s the feeling of community that’s developed among local farmers.

Truly Northern, a hydroponic farm specializing in leafy greens like kale, basil and arugula, has become one of Northern Ontario’s premier suppliers of local food from their container operation in Chelmsford, and a larger 23,000-square-foot indoor farm in Opasatika, near Kapuskasing.

But aside from growing the greens, Rowe said the biggest change to their operation comes from how they’ve learned to market their product. That’s where the region’s other farmers and food producers come in. 

“What we're realizing, and I think the pandemic really shone a really strong light on this, is that we're stronger together,” Rowe said. “There shouldn't be competition; like, I shouldn't feel threatened by another farmer coming up. I should look at them and say, ‘What can I do to help you? Is there any way that we can band together to make our businesses better?’”

One of their strategies to assist others has been to cross-market. Truly Northern’s Chelmsford storefront — a converted storage container Rowe dubbed “The Shed” — includes offerings from the Ugly Barn Farm, Maple Acres and the Dukes of Blezard, all Northern Ontario producers.

“That's what happened with the pandemic. A lot of us partnered up and started thinking out of the box, and how can we reach more people?” Rowe said. 

“And then a lot of the grocery stores started showing up for us, too.”

Local grocers like Smith’s Markets and Sudbury’s D&A Meats, smaller operations that have also learned to weather downturns in business, started putting Truly Northern’s product on the shelves — fresh greens, mixed salads — grown at their hydroponic farms.

The smaller businesses’ enthusiasm for her product during the pandemic was a big contrast to how some of the larger grocery chains responded to local growers. 

Rowe said she was a little disappointed in some of the big retailers who, even during the height of the lockdown and the ensuing pinch in the supply chain, didn’t reach out to smaller operators. They instead preferred to stock produce from the U.S. and Mexico. Produce grown cheaper, and sold by the stores for a higher profit, Rowe said.

“The problem with grocery stores is, for example, their lettuce mix,” she said. “I grow a lettuce mix, too, but I'm competing with about 20 different kinds of lettuce mix, and cheaper because they’re coming from Florida, they’re coming from California.”

“So those ginormous firms, those industrial farms have an advantage over us small little local farmers,” she said. “I think the grocery stores could make it so much easier for local farmers by prioritizing our stuff before theirs.”

Rowe cites, for example, the amount of kale she can grow in her 400-square-foot container in Chelmsford.

“I could most definitely supply one or two or three Independent Grocers within Sudbury with all their kale needs. You need kale? I got kale.”

“So why are they bringing in that yucky bag of kale that is cheaper than mine? It’s sprayed with pesticides, picked by people that are getting paid 30 cents a pound. Why don’t they take a stand with their local farmers?”

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That may change, however, as Truly Northern is completing its CanadaGAP certification — a government-authorized safety program for food growers and handlers. That ticket will open the door to getting their product on shelves at some of the province’s mega-grocery chains like the Loblaws-owned Superstore and Metro, Inc.

And a bigger presence in the stores should in turn benefit consumers, not only for the health benefits of local food — Rowe said everything grown hydroponically is pesticide-free — but for keeping the region’s supply chain intact.

“I think when everybody panicked and there were empty shelves, and the truck drivers were delayed, there was a break in the food chain,” Rowe said. “Basically, people really panicked. And then they asked, ‘What's available to me locally?’”

With the recent interest in locally sourced foods, growers and producers have also found a willing partner in Sudbury’s thriving farmers market, a key element in the resurgence of local sustainable agriculture, Rowe said.

“We've seen unprecedented growth in the Sudbury farmers market,” she said. “A couple of years before the pandemic, we were struggling with 11 to 15 vendors in the wintertime, at the Southridge Mall, struggling to pay the rent.”

The farmers’ group then switched their operation to the lobby of Science North, Sudbury’s interactive science centre. The move was a success, Rowe said, as 35 vendors took part in the market, and another 22 vendors were added to a waiting list.

Following that, the group opened up applications for the regular summer market in Sudbury’s downtown market square, and a mid-week farmers market across from Bell Park.

“We just released our new summer application for the summer market,” she said.  “We had 105 applications in two days.” 

These are very good indicators that the Northern Ontario consumer is buying into the locally grown movement. And that’s an encouraging sign to Rowe, and the other growers who treat one another as an extended family.

“We all look out for each other,” she said. “ We all chat, know how everything’s going, and when we need help, we help each other.”

It’s an approach that, so far, has come naturally to the tight-knit community of farmers, and Rowe said she’s even seeing the success spread to other cities.

“Friends of ours just opened up a little shop in Blind River, with the same thing,” she said. “They're bringing in a lot of local stuff from the people they've met at the farmers market to stock their store, to show their community what's available locally.”

That optimism and enthusiasm for locally sourced products has helped Rowe and company weather the storm of the pandemic, and has put them in a good position to reap the benefits from consumers’ changing habits.

“We were a little worried that when the restrictions were lifted, that the farmers market would fall off, that people weren't going to be so concerned about where their food comes from,” she said.

“It's not true. We just keep getting busier and busier and busier.”