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Hydroponics help First Nation grow.

A hydroponic vegetable operation within the walls of the Thessalon First Nation's Bio Centre is gaining momentum as the community examines ways of diversifying.


The Bio Centre is located on Highway 129, about 10 kilometres north of the town proper on the north shore of Lake Huron, 90 km from Sault Ste. Marie.

Through a comprehensive plan developed by KPMG, it was suggested the community diversify its tree seedlings and Canadian Yew operation to include hydroponics to grow cucumbers and tomatoes.

"That is our next phase and will involve renovations to our greenhouses," says Thessalon First Nation's economic development officer, Pam Yukich.

The vegetables would be sold to a Leamington market operator who would in turn sell to Detroit businesses.

Possibly 11 of the 17 greenhouses, acquired four years ago from the Ministry of Natural Resources Kirkwood tree nursery as part of a land settlement, will be used for the new initiative. By 2007, the first shipment of vegetables is to be transported south.

"Right now we are going to let the market direct us," says Bio Centre project manager Randy Bellerose.

In the meantime, four greenhouses are currently used to grow Jack and white pine seedlings along with the Canadian yew, a low evergreen shrub commonly known for its taxane properties, which is used in drug cancer treatments.

Thirty thousand 30-month-old seedlings are a part of a four-year initiative with the First Nations Forestry Program, Bioxel Pharma Inc., Ontario Forestry Research Institute and local farmer Brian Whelan. This year the lot was transferred outside to three different locations where researchers will work on identifying the best conditions that will produce the most elite plant.

This project has been duplicated, creating a larger inventory base.

"The purpose of the project is to see if we can find a new crop for Northern Ontario farmers, because it is more of a moneymaker than hay," Yukich says.

Bio Centre is honouring a contract with Nipissing sustainable forest license holders to harvest 30,000 cuttings on the first batch of yew, which will be ready in 18 months.

"They want the Mountain Yew to be an under-storey of their tree plants," Bellerose says.

A community forestry organization is interested in ordering 300,000 plants, but must rely on government funding to pay for them.

In spite of the forest sector softening, companies including Domtar and Vermillion Forest Management Company Inc. have ordered tree seedlings from the Bio Centre.

Domtar has ordered 50,000 tree seedlings to start. They were just delivered last month after being nurtured over the winter months. Upon delivery the company put in another order, this time for 150,000 to be delivered in the spring of 2007.

"If we deliver and it's a success then they will probably go to 250,000," Yukich says.

Vermillion wanted 150,000 seedlings to be grown in Jiffy pots, so an enhanced tree seedling program, sponsored by First Nations Forestry Program, was set up for the 15 employees, Bellerose says.

The idea is to introduce the employees to all aspects of the nursery business while enhancing their education.

The Bio Centre is managed by the Thessalon First Nation Development Corp.'s Board of Directors, a separate entity from Thessalon First Nation Chief and Council.

"This is to separate business from politics," Bellerose says.

"We cannot run a business being overruled by someone who is not in the business."

This philosophy has assisted in attracting existing companies, Bellerose says. He predicts it will help obtain larger contracts in the future.

"The more companies we get out there the better off we will be."


Northern Ontario Business
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Author:Louiseize, Kelly
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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