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Chisasibi’s agriculture research dome empowers food sovereignty

BY Patrick Quinn Nov 13, 2023

The construction of a new geodesic agriculture research dome is gaining attention in Chisasibi. It’s the newest project of the growing Chisasibi Resource and Research Institute (CERRI), a community-driven project. 

The dome and an accompanying greenhouse to be built early next year aim to improve food sovereignty in Chisasibi, where grocery prices are high and accessing fresh produce is challenging. This summer’s fires underlined this urgency as closed roads prevented deliveries, resulting in empty shelves before plane shipments arrived.  

“This initial dome is our first attempt at experimenting with different ways of growing agriculture according to what the community would like to eat,” said Jason Stevens, CERRI’s environmental sustainability specialist. “We’re going to be experimenting with soil regeneration and hydroponics.”

Stevens explained that any hydroponics project must be kept in a closed system, to avoid any synthetic fertilizer or pesticide from contaminating the environment or entering the food chain. With domes providing relatively efficient insulation, he hopes to keep it open year-round. 

“We’ll be able to have people visit in the winter and give workshops,” Stevens explained. “Even if the cost of heating is too much to be cost efficient for produce, we’re still able to experiment there year-round and welcome the community. This is not solely for food production – it’s to experiment with food production and engage with the community.”

With the greenhouse’s anticipated opening next summer, community members will be invited to participate in developing collective gardens. Everyone is encouraged to help decide which crops to grow with guidance from the agriculture team, learning as they go and sharing in the harvest. This community-driven input will inform the dome’s ongoing research into optimal growing techniques. 

While greenhouses can extend the growing season for summer crops like cucumbers and tomatoes, geodesic-shaped domes are designed to withstand harsher winter conditions. With solar-powered intake fans on the bottom and exhaust fans on the roof, thermal mass materials on the walls of CERRI’s dome absorb the sun’s heat to be released at night.

“The sun reflects into a pool of water, which maintains heat during the night and releases humidity inside the dome,” Stevens told the Nation. “You can also use rocks as a thermal mass under the beds and blow hot air into the soil to minimize the heat you need. Still, when it gets really cold, you can’t eliminate heaters in this environment altogether.”

While reaching sufficient warmth for crops like tomatoes will be impractical in winter, Stevens speculates that leafy greens will thrive. Geodesic domes are a less limited agricultural alternative than container farms, which have been increasingly popular in the Far North because their thick insulation, hydroponics and artificial light can sustain greens through long dark winters.

Contributing to emerging agriculture research in Eeyou Istchee is a relatively recent initiative of CERRI, which was established in 2016 based on a “two-eyed seeing” paradigm that integrates western scientific methods with Cree traditional ecological knowledge. A key objective is training local youth to become the next generation of community researchers. 

“The research centre stems from looking at how my trapline has changed since La Grande [hydroelectric] complex,” said president George Lameboy. “The idea was to give some meaning to research to younger people, give that pride that they discovered working on their family’s trapline. The microscope can maybe pique the mind of some young Cree, with a different perspective and a touch of western science.”

Research into coastal habitats of migratory birds has led to archaeological projects, fish population monitoring, climate-change analysis and even wastewater surveillance for Covid-19. Since Stevens joined CERRI about a year ago, his position has exponentially evolved according to community needs. 

To regenerate the soil, he was tasked with developing a compost program for the whole community, which then needed to be integrated with the existing waste management system. Now Chisasibi has plans to offer home pickup for composting and replace its eco-centre that burned down.

“Since a lot of soil around the city is sandy, the bigger challenge is looking at regenerative soil techniques to make the soil fertile without taking it from other spots,” explained Stevens. “Part of the experiment is to have people growing in their backyards – one idea was growing berries or rhubarb. Apparently, potatoes grow well in a sandy soil.”

Although these attempts may not initially yield large harvests, the idea is to breathe life into the soil so future years will be progressively more productive. Stevens believes in the regenerative potential of compost tea, which involves combining a piece of compost wrapped like a teabag in a water bucket with air bubbles and molasses. Its microbes will double after two hours and within a day it can be sprayed onto soil to spread nutrients. 

The goal is that these initiatives take root in the community, so people start to help each other with their own projects and create ripples of new opportunities. When Stevens talked about seeking certain worms for vermicomposting, a local woman volunteered to provide them. If that project is successful and they multiply, he hopes to provide them to others and spark a chain reaction.

There have already been discussions with the Cree Health Board about launching cooking workshops to introduce tasty ways of preparing vegetables like kale, which could lead to greater interest for growing it in the greenhouse. With a rooftop greenhouse at the soon-to-open high school, Stevens looks forward to supporting the next generation’s education in food security. 

The dome is just the first stage of empowering community members to experiment with growing techniques, learning from mistakes to develop fresh and nutritious food close to home. Stevens said this could include attempts to expand berry growth in the wild or nurturing medicinal plants in local gardens. 

“One of the researchers wants to talk to people and see what’s in this area that they are foraging for,” said Stevens. “Maybe some of those plants people are using for teas, we can bring them back in the community. It’s always a work in progress but it’s meant to be. It’s not just about getting the result but equally important is learning how to do it.”

By Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.