By Kelly Anne Smith
NIPISSING FIRST NATION — Nipissing First Nation has secured a fresh, green source of food with their new venture Mnogin Greenhouse — Mnogin means ‘grow well’.
Situated on Jocko Point Road at Hwy 17, the modular farm with three growing units will grow about 225-thousand heads of lettuce per year. Herbs will be grown too in the turn-key hydroponic operation.
At Mnogin Greenhouse, Nipissing First Nation Business Operations Manager Geneviève Couchie says she is excited to sow seeds.
“I can’t wait to see it because it’s completely soil-less.”
Conversations with potential customers will determine what is grown, says Couchie, who envisions growth opportunities for the Mnogin Greenhouse.
“We’ve talked about subscription boxes as a potential model as well as farmers markets. We’re not looking at being in competition with other producers in the area in the summer months, but there is some real opportunity for sure in the winter.”
She calls the timing of the venture spot on with high lettuce prices from south of the border.
Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod says the venture is about food sovereignty.
“When we look at what’s happening in the north, when you’re paying $14-$15 dollars for a head of lettuce, this could be a cheaper alternative if it expands into a venture that we could supply our sister First Nations in the north with a healthy food source or a lot cheaper price.”
The inspiration for the new start-up began with Mike Harney’s wife pointing out produce coming from California and Mexico. He’s retired but at the time, Harney was Nipissing First Nation Economic Development Officer.
“We had climate change starting to happen. And I hear from my wife when she goes to the grocery store… And that frustration when you get recalls on the lettuce from E. coli. It seems like a no-brainer to start growing our own food and not be reliant on others to give us greens and vegetables.”
Harney says one of the goals for Mnogin Greenhouse is to pass on the new knowledge.
“We are looking at, once we get our act together here and figure out how to operate this properly, we are going to offer training for other First Nations to come in and learn what we’re doing, so they could do the same.”
Nipissing First Nation is striving to have the Mnogin Greenhouse sustainable, adds Harney.
“We don’t want to just have it financed fully by Chief and Council pouring in all the money every year, so we have to sell enough to pay the bills and pay our employees… So, to do that, we need revenue. Revenue comes from selling the produce to restaurants, First Nations. We have a good food box that band members can subscribe to get fresh vegetables, so our greens can go in there, too.”
Funding partners include Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (NOHFC), FedNor, and Waubetek Business Development Corporation. Harney says the total cost of the whole project is $1.2 million dollars with 60 per cent of funding coming from partners.
A test harvest sowing and harvest will take place in January 2023. Couchie says the details of production have to be worked out.
“We have a lot of support from the company that we bought them from. They’re based in Ottawa. They do have several farms on other First Nations. There’s one they are working on in Sheshegwaning First Nation, on the Island. We meet with them weekly. They’ve been very supportive. They are going to keep working with us on our production schedules.”
Plans are adjustable for success says Harney.
“If things go well with a big demand, and we want to expand and supply food up north, we could make a mirror image of this thing and have another three units on that side.”
Couchie says the next door lot has already been secured for expansion.
“I think the demand will be there. There is room to expand at the back, too. There are even opportunities in grocery stores, where we supply the cooler and brand it.”
Harney adds that there is potential for value-added products.
“This is something our own entrepreneurs on First Nations can get involved with. We supply them with raw material, our lettuce, and they would package it into a pre-packaged salad. That’s a unique opportunity for one of our band members to get involved.”
Many positive benefits has Chief McLeod overall pleased with the Mnogin Greenhouse venture. He looks forward to the branding as locally and First Nation grown.
“This was brought to us by Mike as a potential, not only as a business venture, but a way of looking at food sovereignty as well as promoting healthy eating. We like the economic benefits of the local [market] plus expanding into a potential market of First Nations in the north that are paying astronomical amounts for leafy greens to ship up there. Also, there is added benefit of having our location as a training hub for First Nations who want to get into this type of business,” says Chief McLeod. “When he was working on it, it was pre-COVID-19. And then when COVID hit, we realized how important it is. Now that we are heading into somewhat of a recession, again it is hitting home just how important this type of venture is.”
Chief McLeod says the venture is part of Nipissing First Nation’s promotion to a good health.
“We’ve always been doing that with our health programs, for our seniors and at our daycares. We do have nutritionists that work out of our Health Department that promote healthy eating.”
It’s also responsible to consider the cost to the climate when importing greens, asserts Chief McLeod.
“When lettuce comes from California, that’s a lot of carbon footprint on the environment, just to get those lettuces up to our grocery stores,” he expresses. “This is local. It’s not going to supply everything but it is a step in the right direction. And in leading by example, this is how things like this can be done with very little footprint on even the local environment.”