Now in its third year of operation, the James Bay Eeyou School Greenhouse Project is reaching new production levels, learning what works best and helping other communities get their own greenhouses off the ground.
What began as a class project in Rubin McNeely’s pre-work training program to develop local agriculture through greenhouses and outdoor planting has started to provide food for the community and job training for students aged 15-18. The program has become an information source on how other communities can start their own northern greenhouse projects.
McNeely said the Chisasibi band office and local construction workers were integral in sponsoring the project and constructing the original greenhouse. Since it was built, his students have added new methods and technologies each year. The greenhouse generates local employment, hiring two youth through the band council to maintain it throughout the growing season.
“Last year, my class created a whole new indoor program. It is amazing, they did an incredible job. We now have a hydroponics unit. Part of the classroom was renovated for the unit, so now we can grow indoors,” said McNeely.
McNeely noted that his greenhouse work is not just focused on Chisasibi. He conducted a feasibility study for the Cree Nation Government on greenhouses and other agricultural technologies that can be used throughout Eeyou Istchee. During this process he interviewed people from all communities to find out their interests and needs. Now other schools are contacting him to look at how they can set up their own programs.
To date, Chisasibi is the only community in Quebec that is running a greenhouse as an educational program.
While issues of food sovereignty were part of the motivation, climate change issues and business development have become part of the project concept. While the Cree don’t have a tradition of agriculture like the Iroquois, the emergence of northern greenhouses and the technology for them is spreading and McNeely’s students are getting a taste of what could be a future career.
Much of the training on how to develop and maintain the crops has been conducted in partnership with McGill University. Four years ago, then-undergraduate student Rose Seguin visited the community and trained those involved in the project.
Students are learning how to run the greenhouse, which is powered by solar panels and thermal energy. Working with the Northern Farm Training Institute in the Northwest Territories, McNeely said they are learning about different ways to power northern greenhouses.
While this year’s harvest may not be as large as the previous one, McNeely said they decided to experiment with different flowers to see if locals were interested in buying them and if it would inspire students to take it on as a future business venture.
This year’s planting for both indoor and outdoor crops included potatoes, Swiss chard, pumpkin, corn, beans, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers and rhubarb as well as a variety of herbs, such as mint and sage, which are ideal for traditional uses.
While McNeely said that they are still experimenting with planting in Chisasibi, the program would like to train a future Cree workforce.
“I have a pretty good idea of the overall concept in terms of what needs to come in,” he observed. “A lot of things need to be done through agricultural experiential learning similar to the way people go out into the bush and learn things. We need this with growing food. Students have to see it, touch it and learn it this way.”
For more info: www.facebook.com/JBESGreenhouse/