How to Grow a Cantaloupe in the Arctic

In the Yukon, entrepreneurs and researchers wrestle with a question: Can high-tech greenhouses help tackle food security in the North?
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In the Yukon, entrepreneurs and researchers wrestle with a question: Can high-tech greenhouses help tackle food security in the North?
A caterpillar tractor with grader widens the roadway of the Alaska Highway, 1942. (Photo: Public Domain)

A caterpillar tractor with grader widens the roadway of the Alaska Highway, 1942. (Photo: Public Domain)

There’s only one road that leads north to Whitehorse—the Alaska Highway—and until recently, my small city was the only one of the three major settlements in northern Canada that was reachable by road year-round. Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, remains accessible only by boat—during a seasonal window—or by plane, and the highway to Yellowknife used to be interrupted by a river crossing, navigated by ferry in summer or by ice bridge in winter, with a gap of a few weeks in each shoulder season where the river, either halfway frozen or halfway thawed, couldn’t be crossed at all. (In northern parlance, those few weeks are referred to as “freeze-up” and “break-up,” and for Yellowknifers they represented a time when no groceries were trucked in.) But a new bridge opened to replace the ferry and the ice road in late 2012, and now Yellowknife, like Whitehorse, has a year-round link to the trucking routes of the south.

All of Nunavut’s communities are unreachable by road. In the Northwest Territories, some smaller communities are fly-in, while other, larger settlements, like Inuvik or Fort Simpson, remain dependent on ice roads and ferries to fill the gaps in the highway system. All but one of the Yukon’s communities are connected to the road network, but very few of them have their own grocery store: Most have a gas station with a few packaged essentials, and anything more requires a drive of several hours to Whitehorse.

We have the technology to grow hothouse tomatoes even in the extreme High Arctic if we want to. But heating that hypothetical greenhouse will cost a small fortune.

What this means is that for all of us in Northern Canada, to varying degrees depending on which community we live in, food—especially fresh food, and fresh produce most of all—is very expensive. And it comes from very far away.

Hence the Yukon Research Centre’s selection of a greenhouse theme for its fifth annual “Cold Climate Innovation RIC Workshop”—the R, I, and C standing for research, innovation, and commercialization. For two days in late March, more than 150 people gathered in downtown Whitehorse to talk about the evolving technology of greenhouses and controlled-environment growing systems, and how they might help us grow fresh food in the North. Was there a public policy solution? A business case for a commercial solution? How much could individuals do to help? I sat in and got a firsthand view of the tangle of opposing factors at play.

Presenters and attendees talked about high-pressure sodium lights versus LEDs. They debated heat sinks and raised beds, hydroponics and aeroponics, or the process of growing plants without the use of soil. They examined the methods used in large-scale commercial greenhouses in the south, in Ontario or British Columbia, and then considered the limitations on applying those methods here. (Most commercial greenhouses in Ontario, for instance, heat with natural gas. Our main options in the Yukon are oil, electric heat, or wood heat.) They talked about how to build structures that would encourage the snow to slide off the greenhouse roof, rather than piling up to force an eventual building collapse. One local amateur gardener explained, to oohs and aahs, how he grows cantaloupes the size of his head in his own sub-Arctic backyard.

The conference drew an interesting mix of people, from Whitehorse residents looking to use a personal greenhouse to extend the natural growing season, or to expand the variety of vegetables they’re able to grow (many root vegetables and dark leafy greens will grow quite happily in a southern Yukon summer, while things like tomatoes require a greenhouse), to entrepreneurs and policy wonks seeking a viable way to grow commercial produce across the North. There were different considerations for different regions, too: Here in Whitehorse, in the sub-Arctic boreal forest, gardening is a very different proposition than on treeless permafrost north of the Arctic Circle.

One slightly tense exchange illustrated the varying motivations at play among attendees. An expert in “vertical agriculture” was speaking about the potential for an enclosed, tiered system that would allow Northern communities to grow their own vegetables and herbs, and even the most finicky berries, year-round. He called that last outcome—strawberries in an Arctic winter—the “holy grail,” and an audience member rose to object.

A greenhouse in Nunavut, Canada. (Photo: Royal Olive/Flickr)

A greenhouse in Nunavut, Canada. (Photo: Royal Olive/Flickr)

“Shouldn’t we get used to seasonal eating?” she asked, her tone so disapproving that it was obvious her question was rhetorical. The presenter paused, seemingly puzzled by the question. Wasn’t the whole point of this conference to help us evade the natural limitations of our Northern growing season? And didn’t “seasonal eating” in the most remote communities mean never eating any fresh fruit or vegetables at all?

Someone else popped up out of his seat. The point of seasonal eating, he said, is to reduce your carbon footprint by eating what’s available locally throughout the year—and if we were growing our winter berries locally, they’d be low-impact, so what’s the harm?

The original questioner frowned at that. I had a feeling she thought there was more to seasonal eating than a raw calculation of carbon emissions—several presenters at the conference had spoken about gardening as a way to form a connection to the land, of re-building our links to the places our food comes from, and so on. One gardener who emphasized natural and organic methods had mentioned that he uses earthworms in his beds despite their status, in the Yukon, as an invasive species. “I think we’re an invasive species,” he said with a shrug.


For the conference attendees who want to grow food for commercial reasons, or to tackle the broader public issue of food security, hunger, and malnutrition in the North—rather than growing food for pleasure or as a matter of personal principle—there is one major obstacle, and it isn’t a lack of available technology. One presenter, Ron Evans, put it succinctly: “Can we grow food in the North for cheaper than what it costs to ship it up?”

Food’s not cheap here, but neither is energy. Stephen Mooney, the director of cold climate innovation at the Yukon Research Centre, points out that we have the technology to grow hothouse tomatoes even in the extreme High Arctic if we want to. But heating that hypothetical greenhouse will cost a small fortune. Maximizing efficiency and roping in alternative energy sources are both key to making the idea of fresh, locally grown produce work across the North.

"Can we grow food in the North for cheaper than what it costs to ship it up?" Food’s not cheap here, but neither is energy.

Glenn Scott thinks he has a possible solution. Scott is a 44-year-old who moved to Whitehorse two and a half years ago after working as a departmental technician focused on climate change research at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. That job took him all over the circumpolar Arctic, and his experience managing data flow and power sources at remote research stations, combined with his exposure to the food needs of northern communities, left him with the idea for the Agridome.

The Agridome is not a greenhouse in the traditional sense. It’s a small, dark green dome—the outer structure was donated by Whitehorse-based Hydeaway Homes, a company that normally provides its domes to mining camps and other industrial players as portable, temporary, easy-to-assemble shelters. (Funding for the project, and a location for the dome while it’s in development, come from the Yukon Research Centre.) But Scott has lined his dome with a double layer of insulation and an inner coating of Mylar sheeting. Inside, he’s built a shelving unit designed to let him grow plants using aeroponics: He can fit 600 plants on the 32-square-foot unit. He spent the winter testing the system out for the first time, and found that the dome is so heat-efficient that with a small space heater and a single high-pressure sodium bulb, he can keep his plants growing even with outside temperatures as low as -35 Celsius. (Scott is one of the few Whitehorse residents who wished this last mild winter was harsher, so he could test the dome at greater extremes.)

All of the building materials for the dome were sourced right here in Whitehorse—a key point when it comes to cutting down on costs. The aeroponic system that feeds and waters the plants is controlled by a computer program, and Scott wants to develop it in such a way that anyone can use it with a bit of basic instruction. “In order to have it be both marketable and useful,” he says, “it’s got to be simplified.”

His “big vision” for the Agridome project, he told me, is to eventually have a network of super-efficient veggie-growing domes in communities across the North, with a central data center tracking results and offering support. “It’s going to be the people coming from those communities that make the decisions,” he says. The Agridome data center would help each location fine-tune their dome to achieve their specific desired results.

It’s a bold plan, one that will depend in large part on Scott’s ability to prove that the Agridome gets results efficiently, and that it can be built and brought online for a reasonable price. But if he can make that case, Scott’s right: We could soon see “fresh vegetables growing in the dead of winter, in places that’s never been done before.”

Dispatches From a Changing Arctic is a biweekly series of reported stories from Alaska and the three Canadian northern territories.