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UNB graduate brings hydroponic farming to Blacks Harbour ‘food desert’

Author: Tim Jaques

Posted on Jul 8, 2024

Category: UNB Saint John

Brian Goggin

Brian Goggin is greening a desert - a food desert.

Goggin (MSc’22) is creating a sustainable agricultural hub in Blacks Harbour, where the nearest large grocery store is 20 kilometres away.

“This overlaps with other rural issues like lack of access to public transportation, higher rates of low-income households, and overall lack of food infrastructure,” said Goggin, the manager of a hydroponic farm operating in what was once the village grocery store.

“These issues compound and lead to health risks like poor dietary habits or increased rates of chronic health issues.”

In 2021, community environmental organization Eastern Charlotte Waterways (ECW) moved to address challenges faced by local rural communities, including transportation, housing, and food security.

That resulted in Project: Village Indoor Farm & Living Lab, launched “to invest in our local food system, nourish our community, and empower a resilient food economy.”

Goggin joined the project while still in graduate studies at the University of New Brunswick (UNB).

He came to hydroponic farming indirectly. He began at the Huntsman Marine Science Centre in St. Andrew’s as an aquaculture research technician, where he learned the basics of recirculating aquaculture systems.

He later worked with his UNB professor, Dr. Thierry Chopin, at Chopin’s Seaweed and Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture Research Laboratory, where nutrient-rich wastewater from aquaculture was used in a hydroponic system to feed plants and remediate the wastewater.

“It is the combination of finfish aquaculture and hydroponics where you use a hydroponic system, but the source of the nutrients comes from aquaculture. It is a natural organic fertilizer,” he said.

This is what got Goggin involved at Blacks Harbour.

“They caught wind that I was doing some kind of indoor farming in the lab, so they had some technical questions. Around the end of 2021, I became involved in helping to do some technical writing. They contacted me to help write grants to get the ball rolling. I started with ECW in May 2023. I was working both at the lab and for them,” he said.

Investment from ECW, the municipality of Blacks Harbour, and federal departments such as the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) started the project while the Local Food Infrastructure Fund of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada funded the hydroponic system.

“There is a lot of preparatory work. The biggest challenge is you do all this work to prepare for a building retrofit. You have engineered drawings and all these plans, and then it is such a process to take it from a drawing to reality,” Goggin said.

“There are so many steps to retrofitting a building that if there’s a snag or delay in one, it affects all the others, and there is a lot of effort going into coordinating all the different contractors and services.”

He manages a hydroponic tower farm. It was Goggin’s job to lay out the grow-rooms, design the electrical and lighting systems, and calculate water usage and temperature control.

There are 50 towers, each eight feet high, each holding 44 plants. Goggin said the principles of water-recirculating in hydroponics were like those he used in aquaculture at Huntsman and Dr. Chopin’s lab.

“It is just connecting all the pieces,” he said.

The system provides the plants with nutrients, oxygen, a growing environment, temperature control, air quality, and light. Every 15 minutes, pumps circulate a solution of natural mineral-blend nutrients dissolved in water to the exposed roots of the plants hanging in the tower.

An open-loop groundwater geothermal system provides heating and cooling.

“We had great contractors to help us make this into what we wanted it to be because there is no blueprint or ideal system. We leaned on the contractors’ expertise,” Goggin said.

They grow things like leafy greens and herbs like basil and cilantro.

“People are looking for fresh greens. And that is why we have chosen these crops because they have been proven to grow indoors and in hydroponic systems,” he said.

“I can harvest a tower every four weeks and have a constant high output in the tower farm. A benefit of growing indoors in this controlled climate is that we can consistently plan our harvest cycles to harvest every week and do that year-round, for all four seasons.”

Herbicides or insecticides aren’t needed. Area restaurants and small-scale grocery stores buy the produce, which is also sold at farmers markets in St. Andrews and St. Stephen. The farm has a Blacks Harbour storefront, as the building came with cold storage infrastructure.

Food banks and community food programs, including school programs, will receive up to 30 per cent of the produce at no cost. This is how the initial investment will be leveraged for long-term community health.

“We’ve got great feedback on the freshness of the product, the taste and the shelf life,” Goggin said. “We operate under a social enterprise model. The idea is that it will be self-sustaining. We want our sales to cover operational costs, and any surplus will be reinvested into food-related social programs in our community.”

With funding from the RBC Tech for Nature program, the farm has provided free transportation for students to visit and learn about indoor farming. In May, seven groups of students participated in hands-on activities.

“Students got to see firsthand how our farm worked,” Goggin said. “They were able to harvest plants and try them fresh off the tower. In their outdoor lessons, they learned biological concepts like pollination and how to plant and grow their own food at home. I want to stress the importance of traditional gardening and agriculture as well.”

With support from the Fundy Community Foundation, plans include cooking classes emphasizing growing, harvesting and preparing food. An interactive web map called the Local Food Connections Map is in development in collaboration with Dillon Consulting, which provided mapping services at no cost through its Million Meals Campaign. The map will help people find local food sources and foster connections within the community. A longer-term goal is a greenhouse.

“That is what is driving me, taking this grocery store and using it to grow food and be a welcoming and inviting place that people are drawn to and will actually make a difference in people’s lives by connecting them with their food,” Goggin said.

“I want to empower people to make healthy choices and become interested in agriculture overall. Reconnecting to where your food comes from will be an important cultural shift for people, and I think when people reconnect to their food sources, they become inspired. And eat better.”