Non-profit’s research could bring fresh produce to underserved Canadians.

Jennica Taylor didn’t want to go outside. She knew her breath would fog as temperatures approached minus-40°C. She knew the sun would dissolve into the darkness before supper. And with Christmas just days away, she knew the roads would be bustling with snowy cars. 

Taylor bundled up anyway. It was time to visit the greenhouse. Harvest had arrived. 

“I was curious to see how much produce we would have after several weeks of greenhouse growing in winter,” says Taylor, a horticultural researcher in Red Deer, Alberta. “What I saw in the greenhouse exceeded my expectations – enough leafy greens to give Christmas salad to 13 people.” 

It was the first promising sign in a research project that could help bring fresh, healthy food to Canadians who most need it. 

That day and in the ensuing months, Taylor demonstrated that year-round greenhouse growing is possible even in the famously frigid climate of Alberta. After Christmas, she harvested vegetables every eight to ten days until winter’s end. She filled buckets with kale, spinach, arugula, herbs, and broccoli. 

Just as important as proving the viability of winter growing was showing it can be done with limited resources. Taylor’s greenhouse was a basic metal and polycarbonate structure smaller than some fifth wheels. Walls lined with foil insulation trapped the warmth of an electric heater. Tubs of water absorbed the sun’s heat during the day before slowly unleashing it at night. Some days were so hot inside the greenhouse that the automatic windows opened to prevent the crops from wilting. 

The findings energized Raygan Solotki. Solotki is the executive director of Green Iglu, a non-profit that funded the research as part of its mission to get fresh fruits and vegetables to underserved populations. 

“You would think that nothing would happen in winter unless we spent a lot of money. We didn’t have to,” says Solotki. 

Indeed set-up costs for the Red Deer greenhouse totalled just $20,000. Through its work over the years, Green Iglu has built more than a dozen larger, more elaborate greenhouses across Canada at an average cost of $135,000. The expense is shared between Green Iglu, charitable foundations and partner communities. 

“If we have lower-cost alternatives, then a greenhouse becomes an option for populations that wish to take food security into their own hands,” says Solotki. 

But to what extent the Red Deer experiment can be replicated elsewhere remains to be seen. Winters are much colder in the far northern reaches of Canada that would most benefit from local food production. Would the same greenhouse perform as well in those places? 

Electricity is another variable. An electric heater maintained the Red Deer greenhouse just above 0°C. The electric bill for five winter months came in at just $350. What happens when more heat is required? And in a region where electricity costs double those of Red Deer? 

It also needs to be determined how much produce can be grown in the 10-by-20-ft greenhouse. Last winter’s research used 20 percent of available space. If the greenhouse is brimming with plants, how much more heat is needed? How many more people are fed? 

Green Iglu is planning another winter of research to answer these questions. This time, Solotki wants to add solar power to the greenhouse to reduce, if not eliminate, the need for external electricity. That would make operational costs more palatable for remote communities. She also wants to move live chickens into the greenhouse. That would help keep the greenhouse warm through body heat while providing another food source in eggs and poultry. 

With the benefit of another year of data, Green Iglu plans to form partnerships in and around Red Deer to build small-scale year-round greenhouses. Solotki envisions the greenhouses serving “food deserts” – urban areas where finding affordable fresh food is difficult. She also foresees more collaborations like the one with Red Deer Food Bank, where Green Iglu is building growing facilities to serve the region’s poorest people. 

From there, Green Iglu will look to expand the concept across Canada. 

For Solotki, the end game is simple: “Get more food to more people.”