Family turns small-town Sask. school into indoor farm — and runs a drive-thru for veggies

June Nel waits for the next customer to roll up to the drive-thru window at Let-Us Grow Hydroponics.  (Kendall Latimer/CBC - image credit)
June Nel waits for the next customer to roll up to the drive-thru window at Let-Us Grow Hydroponics. (Kendall Latimer/CBC - image credit)

On Thursday afternoons, dozens of people form a long line outside a drive-thru window in the quiet town of Hudson Bay, Sask.

The customers swing by to snag some fast food, but what they're after isn't deep fried. It's fresh and green and grown right in the building — the community's old elementary school.

"I think when my husband first said 'let's grow lettuce inside an old school building,' I did not really think that it would become what it has," said June Nel, who runs Let-Us Grow Hydroponics alongside her husband Jan.

"I didn't really realize how the community would love it and embrace it, and how much I would enjoy doing it."

The Nels use a hydroponics (water-based) system to raise the plants from seed and then sell the produce to the community.

The couple and their two children have converted classrooms into garden spaces. Rows of leafy greens have replaced rows of desks, with radishes and herbs grown by green chalk boards, and cucumbers climbing up toward the ceiling.

The business offers a way for people to consume locally grown food in an area that June describes as "the middle of nowhere." The remote community is about 300 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon. Produce is available in local stores, but for most of the year it's trucked in from far away places.

"Growing something like this locally means that we can have fresh produce every day of the year, with it being harvested today, packed today, in the store tomorrow or on your table."

Kendall Latimer/CBC
Kendall Latimer/CBC

Becoming indoor gardeners in an old school wasn't always a goal for the Nels. They immigrated to the town from South Africa, following a job opportunity for Jan.

But they live near the old school, which had been sitting empty and was at risk of demolition. The town put out a call for proposals to see if someone could make use of the facility.

That's when Jan became inspired to pursue the hydroponics business. Their proposal was accepted and they started planting in one classroom during 2019. Now they have several rooms plus the library on the go, offering delivery, pick-up and drive-thru options for community members.

Kendall Latimer/CBC
Kendall Latimer/CBC

"The more we can gain control over our own food systems, the better," said Karen Tanino, a professor in the department of plant sciences at the University of Saskatchewan.

She noted that the global pandemic and other issues, like the avian flu, have shown how vulnerable the country's food supply can be. Canada's food distribution centres, which import produce and then supply the majority of grocery stores across the country, only have about three days worth of produce on hand, she said.

WATCH| Take a tour of the sprawling indoor gardens and drive-thru to get the fresh veggies to the community

Hydroponic farms can help bolster local food supplies and be more sustainable than traditional soil-operations. They often use recycled water and require less water usage overall.

"In the field the same amount of tomatoes would use about 300 litres per kilo of tomatoes, but indoors you would use four litres per kilo," she said.

Kendall Latimer/CBC
Kendall Latimer/CBC

She predicts more producers will turn to protected cultivation — growing food in environments that allow more control over the conditions — as weather patterns become increasingly unpredictable and more severe because of climate change.

Around the world, more producers and hobby-farmers are turning to hydroponics because grow lights have gotten better and the technology has become more affordable.

She said that while there are many benefits, hydroponic systems still come with many challenges. They require careful management as disease, pests and complications with nutrient and oxygen levels tend to pop up fast. These problems can wipe out indoor crops much faster than what typically happens out in the field, she said.

And Tanino said that while the hydroponic grow-ops can strengthen the local food supply chain, the technology is limited to certain fruits and vegetables, and doesn't work for diet staples like potatoes, grains or pulse crops.

"It's not the answer to the food security question or challenge, but it will play an increasingly larger role."

Kendall Latimer/CBC
Kendall Latimer/CBC

In Hudson Bay, the Nels are excited by the community's interest in their produce and hope to expand their operation.

They want to grow in more classrooms, to sell in nearby towns and eventually open up a cafe in their Hudson Bay building. They also dream of creating a training room to share their knowledge with people from other small towns.

"If every small community in Saskatchewan could have something similar to this, just think of how that would change how we eat," June said.