An innovative farming method typically used in big cities has been introduced in an isolated First Nations community in northern Manitoba to help cultivate fresh and affordable fruits and vegetables.

Vertical farming arrived in the Opaskwayak Cree First Nation, one of Manitoba’s largest reserves, in February. Unlike traditional farming, vertical farming brings the process indoors and allows a person to control environmental variables, such as light and water, to speed up the process. 

For the remote community where a container of strawberries sells for $18 and residents often can’t afford healthy foods, vertical farming is considered a major step forward.

Vertical farming was pioneered in South Korea, a densely populated country with little farmland but plenty of high-rise buildings. Many of these urban spaces were transformed into indoor farms, with LED lights replacing the sun and drastically speeding up growing times.

Proponents of vertical farming say it brings produce closer to consumers and helps clean up air quality in urban areas. 

Vertical farming is still in its early stages, but a company behind it expects it to grow.

“It’s the first time to North America, but we already export to China (and) Japan,” said Peter Park from the Korea Agricultural Systems and Technology.

For the Opaskwayak Cree First Nation, vertical farming is a game-changer. Health-related illnesses such as diabetes and kidney disease often plague northern First Nations communities because fresh produce simply isn’t affordable.

The sheer amount of fresh food grown at the vertical farm has already made an impact.

“As of last week we had about 960 bags of lettuce,” Stephanie Cook from the Opaskwayak Cree First Nation.

At the moment, Opaskwayak’s vertical farm is limited to leafy vegetables and some root vegetables, but there are plans to grow fruits and grains sometime in the near future.

The eventual hope is to expand the farming system to other communities in Canada’s North.

“We’re looking at the territories and the Arctic, where they face similar problems,” said Russell Constant from the Opaskwayak Cree Business Development Corporation.

A similar idea was brought to Nunavut last summer when a group of Ryerson University students build a greenhouse in hopes of growing fresh fruits and vegetables year-round. Fresh produce in Nunavut costs about four times as much as it does in urban areas in Canada due to high shipping costs.

With a report from CTV Manitoba Bureau Chief Jill Macyshon