Food insecurity is a major and persistent problem in Canada, especially in northern regions. Approximately 7 million Canadians live in food-insecure situations.
AgriTech North is tackling this challenge head-on. The Dryden-based company runs a year-round indoor agriculture centre where it grows and sells food locally. AgriTech is addressing both the need for locally available healthy foods as well as the high cost of produce. The company says it can lower produce costs in North Indigenous communities by at least 25 per cent.
“There are some remote communities that haven’t had good quality fresh produce consistently and reasonably priced for so many generations that they eat out of a box or a can, out of necessity, which often becomes cultural and difficult to change later,” says Benjamin Feagin Jr., Co-Founder and CEO of AgriTech North.
Feagin says this has led to considerable health issues that are only exacerbated by a lack of quality healthcare in Northern Ontario. He argues that chronic dietary issues can quickly become terminal in such conditions. “As a result, the lack of affordable fresh produce causes far more significant issues in the North than it does in Southern Ontario,” he says.
To help address these issues, AgriTech North has joined a team of developers, including the Rural Agri-Innovation Network and Acorn Information Solutions, to develop digital infrastructure that would support a regional food system. The Rural Agri-Innovation Network (RAIN) supports agricultural organizations, producers, suppliers, and agri-entrepreneurs in Northern Ontario. Its aim is to build a resilient farm and food sector in Northern Ontario through innovative research and agricultural development projects.
The Ontario Centre of Innovation (OCI) is supporting AgriTech North on this project through the Digitalization Competence Centre (DCC), which provides funding and programming to help Ontario SMEs better understand their technology needs and guide their digital transformation journey.
AgriTech North identified a substantial lack of digital and physical infrastructure for local food production throughout Northern Ontario, which has heavily contributed to food insecurity. AgriTech North argues that this lack of infrastructure has made it hard for local food producers to reach enough people. This differs from large urban areas where people and business have much more immediate access to each other. Throughout Northern Ontario, the cost of moving a product to a neighbouring town is more expensive, and there may only be a few thousand people at the end of that distribution chain. With DCC’s Digital Modernization and Adoption Plan (DMAP) program, AgriTech North is working to create digital infrastructure that can address these limitations.
“AgriTech North is addressing the technological limitations of ending food insecurity in the north with year-round growing,” Feagin says.
“There are a number of barriers that haven’t been addressed and manufacturers are claiming to have the solution already but, in reality, this industry still has a way to go and AgriTech North is addressing those gaps and barriers.”
Another way AgriTech North is addressing these challenges is through a different project with RAIN, Collège Boréal, and Truly Northern Farms. The team was recently awarded $1 million from the Homegrown Innovation Challenge, an initiative of the Weston Family Foundation. AgriTech’s team were one of 11 companies chosen to develop solutions that could future-proof berry and other food production in Canada.
AgriTech North is no stranger to winning awards, the startup won $100,000 from business pitch competition show Bears’ Lair on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. Feagin has also been named an Emerging Indigenous Entrepreneur through the RBC Rock My Business program and won $10,000 to support AgriTech North.
“AgriTech North is about more than just growing,” says Feagin. “It’s more than research and development. We are participating in a dramatic cultural shift towards healthier eating and the evasion of diet related disorders.”
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Photo credit to OCI, 2023.