Dryden’s Agritech North has won $100,000 in Canada’s first-ever Indigenous business pitch competition – and after a bumpy first year for the new company, a number of new expansion plans are in the works.
Agritech North works to grow a variety of lettuce, herbs, teas and fruits using a vertical drip-fed hydroponic farming system, producing hundreds of pounds of product year-round in a warehouse using water, opposed to soil.
Chief Executive Officer Benjamin Feagin Jr. and Master Grower and partner Fabian Prince Velez say the company’s mission statement is to help distribute fresh food to northern First Nation communities in an effort to fight against food insecurity and improve health outcomes, with community partnerships.
The two appeared on Aboriginal Peoples Television Network’s first-ever Indigenous business pitch competition Bear’s Lair this fall, in which 18 Indigenous entrepreneurs showcased their products and services to Indigenous business experts, similar to that of CBC’s Dragons’ Den.
After appearing in the fourth episode of the series on October 22, Agritech North was named as one of the competition’s finalists. And during the finale on November 6, Feagin Jr. and Velez were named as the winners of the show’s $100,000 grand prize.
“We’ve been through some bumpy roads over the last six months, so honestly, this is essential for us to keep going,” says Feagin Jr., in an interview with Q104, KenoraOnline and DrydenNow. “It’s a huge boon for us.”
“Based on the cards we’ve been dealt, we’ve had to innovate,” he adds. “Over the last six months, most of the equipment manufactured between lock-downs...almost everything arrived defective. Lighting, communications, air conditioners, everything. It was very difficult to get started.”
Feagin Jr. explains Agritech North has been producing in a pilot facility since May, but he says it was ‘an environment where nothing worked.’ They began on a smaller scale than they were hoping with the facility running at about 25 per cent, but after a few months of progress, they’re closer to 100 per cent.
“We’re almost there now. It really limited us to meet our financial projections and stay on track because of how many defects there were in the process. The goal is 450 kg [of produce] per week. We’ve got a ways to go to get to that, but that is the goal. We’re continuing to innovate the systems that we have.”
Now, the CEO says the $100,000 prize money will hopefully be matched by a number of other grants and programs they’ve applied for to help install a state-of-the-art Trigeneration solar thermal system.
“That’s not your typical solar system,” Feagin Jr. explains. “It’s very innovative. It produces energy, heat and cooling. In the summer, it has a chiller so we can invert all that extra heat to cooling, and maybe we don’t have to turn air conditioners on.”
“That would save us 20 per cent on our costs, and allow us to put things like leafy greens on the wholesale market. Right now, there’s just no margin on growing leafy greens in a system like this year-round. It's very expensive. We spend over $6,000 on energy alone.”
Feagin Jr. says the hope is to install the new system by next summer, and over the next 30 years, he expects it would save the company over $2.2 million in energy costs.
After that, Agritech North has plans to build a 100,000-square-foot Centre of Excellence and Food Security, with 60,000 square feet of greenhouse space and 40,000 square feet of vertical farming, shipping and receiving areas. It would be the first of its kind in Canada.
“We want to be able to grow essentially an entire vegan diet from one facility,” he explains. “We want to have starches, potatoes, carrots. And a wider variety of options. Larger head lettuce products, full-sized cucumbers and tomatoes, that kind of thing.”
And as the company continues to fight food insecurity in northern First Nation communities, Feagin Jr. says leadership plans to look at how they can improve distribution methods with a lack of a stable transportation network in the north, including the possibility of plane and drone deliveries.
“That’s a major hurdle. It’s not just the price of food, but the price of distribution. Northwestern Ontario lacks that infrastructure. It’s a significant capital investment. Drones could reduce the cost of distribution by half or more. And you don’t have to order a full pallet.”
This all continues a whirlwind of a year for Agritech North.
Other awards the company has won include Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre’s Innovative Project of the Year award, and Feagin Jr. was named an Emerging Indigenous Entrepreneur through RBC’s Rock My Business program, winning $10,000.
Feagin Jr. explains the $10,000 was used to launch the company’s e-commerce program earlier this year, allowing families and wholesale customers across the region the opportunity to purchase their products and get them delivered or be available for pick-up in a variety of locations.
You can find more on Agritech North HERE. You can find more on Bear's Lair HERE.