KELOWNA – The newest container farm in BC is at Kelowna’s KLO Middle School. Since mid-November, a 40-foot shipping container just outside the school’s front doors has produced lettuce, kale and bok choy. The next crop will include basil, thyme and oregano.
“Right now, we’re only growing about one-sixth capacity but the farm could produce 525 lettuce plants every harvest,” says Karla Lockwood, a Grade 9 math and science educator.
“This farm hits on the Grade 9 science curriculum of scientific method – starting with a question, developing a hypothesis, identifying variables, gathering data, analyzing it and reporting it. That’s all the competencies,” says Lockwood. “From a content standpoint, we teach nutrient cycles, the nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon cycles, which is exactly what a modular farm does. It’s an automated version of nutrient cycling.”
Raised in Kelowna, Lockwood watered plants at Lake Country Greenhouses in Winfield during high school and part of university. Her second teaching job was in Summerland, where the school also had a small outdoor greenhouse.
The container farm at KLO is much bigger since nearly every school subject across Grades 7-9 can be linked to the farm. Food classes, career education, math, physical education around healthy food choices, English and French classes where students can write about the project and even technical education, where students might design and build an entry area where students can prepare themselves to enter the farm.
KLO’s farm is the second pilot project President’s Choice Children’s Charity has funded. The first is at a school in La Loche, Saskatchewan. The charity helps combat child hunger by raising and distributing about $16 million annually. Funds come from donations by Loblaws customers, employees and suppliers, as well as direct fundraising. The charity is the largest charitable funder of school meal programs across Canada.
“We’re focused on tackling childhood hunger, food access and food-based education, but also innovation, which led us to offering container farms as a way to grow food year-round in the north, our first pilot project site,” explains the charity’s executive director Lisa Battistelli.
KLO’s principal Ashley Ragoonaden learned of the La Loche project when his son and the son of Peter Boyd, owner of the Independent store in Kelowna, were playing soccer. Boyd mentioned La Loche to Ragoonaden, who sought more information through the charity and spearheaded KLO’s grant application. He also won approval for the project from the local school district.
“I’ve seen schools with little gardens, but this was different,” says Ragoonaden. “My teaching team are really working on our environmental stewardship and sustainability. The farm connected immediately to those ideas.”
Battistelli says KLO was approved for several reasons: the potential to interest urban students in new farming methods and innovation, the possibility of using produce to feed kids and families, and KLO’s intention to work with Kelowna Secondary School and Okanagan College, both across the street.
But KLO’s commitment to develop a Grade 9 credit course rooted in the farm was the clincher.
“We recognize the limited capacity of all teachers to create new curriculum and/or lesson plans related to the farm and appreciate KLO’s commitment to sharing the content they create,” says Battistelli.
The charity fully funded the unit and equipment, transportation, set up and three years of 24-hour support, technical as well as servicing costs and supplies such as seed. The grant is worth approximately $250,000 so far.
In addition, the school’s parent advisory council committed $50,000 towards site prep.
KLO chose the Canadian-made Growcer brand container system. The Ottawa-based company was founded three years ago by Corey Ellis and Alida Burke, who wanted a customizable plug-and-play hydroponic food-growing system northern communities could use to grow healthy food and help them become more self-sufficient. The farm’s hydroponic system doesn’t require soil.
Lockwood says the students she’s had working in the farm at this early stage are highly engaged. The farm has also piqued the curiosity of others.
“The farm is an amazing way to grow food really quickly and efficiently. Instead of taking up a lot of flat ground, we grow the plants in shelves so that there’s more food growing at once,” says Grade 8 student Arsh Rifan. “The automatic water chemical control is a very handy piece of equipment because we don’t have to test the water every day. The hydroponic farm is the future of farm agriculture.”
“It’s a pretty amazing gift,” says Tamara Knott of Bright Greens Canada when she learned about KLO’s farm. “I hope the students will understand what they’ve been gifted.”
Knott and her husband Bruce have been producing greens in converted shipping containers in Central Saanich since 2016. She and two farm helpers grow about 70-80 pounds of fresh produce each week in two containers, located on a property within the Agricultural Land Reserve. About 70% is marketed to direct to consumers and 30% to restaurants.
Knott sees KLO’s farm as a great student learning opportunity. Her experience with Bright Greens has taught her the need for strong scheduling and recording of farm data and procedures. She believes having a system to transfer knowledge between teachers and students working in the farm will be critical as things can be accidently overlooked. A way to share knowledge between those working inside the farm is also important.
Lockwood and her colleagues are employing two apps to help coordinate farm operations. Growlink monitors the farm’s system while Artemis AG helps schedule harvesting, cleaning and other chores.
“We can set up independent users and as farm tasks are done individuals can identify what they’ve completed, make notes and even post pictures as documentation,” says Lockwood.
The farm has been a bright spot for the school in a year dominated by COVID-19. Future opportunities include using produce in cooking classes and the school lunch program as well as working with President’s Choice Children’s Charity to address challenges like creating enough fridge space for the harvested produce.
“We are working hard to create a culture of learning, not just one course … it’s about building an environment where, you know, everybody is involved, it becomes part of our fabric,” says Ragoonaden.