Dryden’s vertical farm feeds a need

By Sandi Krasowski
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Chronicle-Journal

THUNDER BAY, ONT. — Benjamin Feagin, owner of AgriTech North vertical farm in Dryden, says their second-place recognition in Bioenterprise Canada’s Northern Ontario Innovation Challenge is beneficial by putting Northwestern talent in the spotlight.

“While it’s painful to see that there’s no funding awarded at the second and third level of the innovation challenge, the reputation that it has afforded us alone is still helpful and it helps us in the long term,” Feagin said. “But yeah, we were really hoping for that first place.”

The first-place prize of $5,000 was awarded to BioNorth Solutions of Thunder Bay, while TECC Agriculture Ltd., a precision agriculture company in New Liskeard, rounded out the top three.

Feagin says Northwestern Ontario is often seen as a territory in which innovation doesn’t happen, while southern Ontario Innovation projects receive vital provincial, federal and municipal funding. 

“Being able to feature the innovations that are occurring in Northwestern Ontario provides significant value to changing the discourse around what’s happening up here and what we have to contribute to a multitude of different industries,” Feagin said.

AgriTech North says they are the first wholesale-scale grower of fresh produce in the Northwest. It grows leafy greens and small fruiting crops and has a year-round distribution chain. The facility serves mainly rural and remote areas, which Feagin says are often left behind by urban infrastructure. 

“There is no distribution infrastructure that currently exists for the cold and frozen chain, (the infrastructure used to move fresh product around),” he said. “There are trucks that pass by that have cold, frozen or room temperature storage, but the infrastructure is lacking in our communities in the sense that there’s nowhere for those (trucks) to go in order for them to be acquired in our rural communities. And that’s one of the challenges that’s causing our food insecurity in Northwestern Ontario, is lack of infrastructure.”

Feagin says there are significant innovations in his area of work that can easily be applied to these challenges. 

“And that’s the market gap we’re filling. We’re a social enterprise beneficial corporation or B-Corp for short,” he said. “We are built upon a foundation of transparency and we have four pillars in our B-corporate registration; food security, sustainability, education, and workplace diversity, equity and inclusion (D&EI). We are 100 per cent D&EI staff, we’re Indigenous, differently labelled and LGBTQ.”

Feagin says the food industry is extremely capital-intensive and as a result, food organizations are pressured to take on substantial equity investment to make their profit possible. He says Ontario’s statistics show that more than 70 per cent of what’s grown in greenhouses across Ontario is exported to the U.S. 

“We’ve made a decision as an organization to refuse equity investment because it’s an incompatible concept with food security. One cannot have equity investment and be a food security project from our perspective. We have food insecurity because we don’t grow enough . . . and because equity investors are pressuring these organizations into selling south of the border where there’s more money involved,” Feagin said.

He added that everything AgriTech North grows is dedicated to Northwestern Ontario with a specific emphasis on “our rural and remote communities and our Indigenous peoples.”

Feagin operates his business with five employees and is hoping to grow. He said staffing has become challenging, mostly because they’ve had a significant financial shortfall due to almost every piece of technology they recently received, either electrical or mechanical, being defective upon arrival.

“Air conditioners, all the pumps, all the sensors, everything has been defective and so we’ve been working through that for the last six months trying to get equipment that works,” he stressed. 

“We attribute that to much of it being rushed out in between COVID lockdowns and or being damaged in shipment (compounded by) the current issues with the supply chain. That’s a significant deficit that has challenged our ability to survive.”

He added that “there’s nothing there” for them in terms of COVID-19 relief funding while they are “definitely taking the brunt of COVID impacts” as far as the supply chain is concerned. The company didn’t receive any COVID relief despite having been directly impacted by the pandemic because they are a new startup company and didn’t have revenue prior to COVID.