In the Farm -Part One
Can you envision a future where far northern remote areas are no longer concerned about food security, are self-sustaining with fresh healthy food and can offer year-round employment to the next generation in an ag-tech field?
Meet Benjamin Feagin Jr. He’s on a mission to do just that!
Benjamin is of Metis descent and grew up in Dryden, he has a professional background in scientific research and engineering and a master’s degree in Urban Ecology from the Center for Architecture, Science, and Ecology (CASE) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).
Armed with a substantial and well researched business plan Benjamin has been aligning himself in the past year with various academic partnerships, grant funding, business sponsorships and local government collaboratives to establish AgriTech North.
AgriTech North will operate as a social enterprise and will be the ONLY wholesale-scale year-round grower of produce in Northwestern Ontario.
“Our intention” explains Benjamin “is to be able to grow a full diet from within a facility. Everything we grow is committed to Canadian residents”
The project will begin with a full-scale 2000sq foot indoor ZipFarm™ at the former Dryden Parks Department building, and will initially staff three interns and three full time staff. It aims to serve all of Northwestern Ontario, with initial focus on the roadway communities between Kenora, Sioux Lookout, and Thunder Bay.
The mission of AgriTech North is to lower produce costs in Far North Indigenous communities by at least 25% and increase access to produce in communities that do not already have year-round access or storefronts. ZipGrow Inc. will be a part of that mission on the leafy green, fresh herb and fruiting crops side of the service.
The overall project is vast and complex and involves integral partnerships with Loomex Group, the Dryden Airport, Clark’s Air Service, Indigenous Aerospace and 807 Food Co-op. The fourth phase will culminate with a complete 20 million dollar ecosystem project with biomass feedstock.
In the beginning
The concept for AgriTech North came about when Benjamin was looking to move back to Dryden and start a business that would support his hometown community.
He had begun some initial market research in January 2021 and approached the city to see how they could be involved in the project. That’s when he first connected with Tyler Peacock, Economic Development Manager for the City of Dryden. As timing would have it, Tyler had been researching hydroponic options for Dryden. He was well aware of the food insecurity issues in the region and felt that they would be well positioned for indoor controlled environment agriculture to support the needs of the 60,000 residents in the area. The timing could not have been better.
In some of these communities that AgriTech North will service there are families that currently drive up to 2.5hrs each way with unreliable or no cell service to access affordable food.
“Increasingly we are witnessing times when you go to the grocery store and the shelves are not stocked.” explains Tyler. “Our community is near the end of the line when it comes to transportation and logistics. Sustainable communities are going to be communities that take control of their own production.”
After several months of further market analysis and investigation, Benjamin formulated a thorough and well researched business plan that includes a competitive analysis, market research, pricing and marketing strategies, to name a few. He returned to Dryden in August 2021 to action it’s implementation first hand.
Tyler and the city of Dryden’s junior planners assisted with zoning amendments which allowed Benjamin to secure the former parks building 60% lower than market value.
“Our land disposition policy gives us the ability to take opportunities that come to us in the way of development and measure their economic impact, and in turn provide a discount on a piece of property representative of the potential impact that it will have on the community.” explains Tyler.
The building is undergoing renovations to prepare the site for a spring installation of the ZipFarm™.
From seed to market
The initial growing launch plan will involve quick crops of leafy greens and fresh herbs.
“We are going to show the variety of what we can grow in these Towers and bring those to market” explains Benjamin. “As we get commitments from vendors, quantity and pricing we will taper back the varieties based on what’s selling best at farmers markets and adapt from there.”
In their first efforts to bring the produce to market, AgriTech North will offer marketing boxes with a full variety of the harvests. These will be delivered to restaurants, retirement homes and hospitals to initiate the discussion of what they would like to contract long term. Wholesale contracts will be a primary focus, with direct-to-consumer being secondary to minimize potential for market saturation during the typical conventional farming harvests.
Benjamin is developing this project with environmental responsibility including reduced carbon footprint. The facility will include a solar powered system with backup power for energy.
Empowered with knowledge
Benjamin first heard about ZipGrow through a referral from Northern Community Solutions. He had been working with them on technical work of planning a potential facility.
“The support that we’ve received from ZipGrow has allowed us to enter the market in an expedited fashion. It was game changing for us to come across with professionalism and readiness”
Like most ZipGrow farmers, he had no previous commercial vertical farming experience. He had a lot of questions in his mind about how the farm operates. “The workflow was important for the business planning process.”
Benjamin invested in a 3-day training program at ZipGrow headquarter in Cornwall during a period when the business development plan was wrapping up.
“A lot of our questions were answered during the training that allowed us to complete the business planning process and secure our funding table by fully understanding the operational aspects of the system and how changes in operation can affect the bottom line. This played an important role in the business development and in the future endeavour of being able to (vertically) farm multiple crops.”
His advice to other farmers looking to get into the field of Controlled environment agriculture is to take part in training early on. “Don’t wait until you receive the equipment.”
“Throughout the training process it was clear that it is easy to use and well thought out, that’s it’s not the first version by any means that it has been iterated upon many times. Had we done it ourselves or tried something else we would have been surprised. ZipGrow has already experienced those (revisions) and has built in fail safes and procedures and maintenance schedules and helps us to avoid pitfalls in our production and that knowledge is invaluable and could save us hundreds of thousands of dollars down the road in accidents.”
Benjamin continues to develop relationships with vendors and indigenous communities. He participates in lobbying efforts and community events and works with community members on collaborations to improve the impact made on Northwestern Ontario’s food security and food sovereignty efforts.
As we follow the journey of AgriTech North, we will be sharing more insights on the farm build stage, funding and partnerships and finding out what positive impact this project will have on the communities it will serve.
“I look at AgriTech North as a business that can fill a gap and if we allow that business to grow and build, it will be able to fulfill the needs of Northern Ontario,” said Tyler. “We are a community of trailblazers, we seek people who are looking to make a change and challenge the status quo. Ben is certainly that!”
Header image: AgriTech North will be located in former City of Dryden Parks Department Building – 4000 sq feet)
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Address: 650 Cumberland St | Cornwall, Ontario Canada
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