Squamish Nation expands business to organic farming 

Baby spinach and other leafy greens to be sold in Choices Markets


There's an aggressive push from Squamish Nation these days to get business booming and money flowing to its members.

Take the new gaming centre now under construction on the Sea to Sky Highway, or last week's announcement of the multi-million dollar deal for their residential subdivision in Alpine.

There's also the breathtaking year-old cultural centre in the village, and the 18-hole golf course on the books for the Callaghan Valley.

Land development has always been the forte of the Squamish Nation. But now they can add something new to their growing list of business deals: organic farming.

"Land development comes and goes," said Chief Gibby Jacob this week. "But everybody's got to eat. So I thought this was a natural thing for us to get involved in."

He is talking about the First Nation's new involvement with an indoor farming company called TerraSphere Systems, which uses vertical growth carousels to grow produce such as baby spinach, baby lettuces and herbs.

It's dubbed a "high-tech greenhouse" and though it is not yet built, Squamish Nation has purchased the rights to any future facilities that are built in Vancouver.

One such facility is just on the horizon, according to TerraSphere's technical director Nick Brusatore.

"This facility is going to do extremely well for the amount of size that it takes," he said.

"To be able to grow, package and label their own product with a tremendous shelf life, locally grown with a very low carbon footprint, it's going to be quite exciting. It's definitely a premium product."

So convinced is Brusatore of the product that the CEO of Choices Markets, the largest grocer of natural and organic food in Western Canada, has agreed to buy and sell Squamish Nation's products in their eight stores.

"I think it's got lots of potential," said Choices CEO Mark Vickars. "This will come on stream and we'll see how it evolves."

Though Choices sells other products grown hydroponically or in hot houses, nothing compares as yet to the TerraSphere technology. He calls their invention "a new twist on an old tale."

"There's a big industry here... in B.C.," said Vickars. "This is just the next evolution in that industry."

Among other things, the technology allows the plants to grow in a small area. Whereas a traditional greenhouse can grow 11.5 pounds of spinach per square foot annually, TerraSphere can grow 50 to 60 pounds of spinach.

All the water used in the process is recycled and the physical farming doesn't take up much space.

To talk to its inventor, Brusatore, is to get a sense of being on the cutting edge of something big.

"(The Squamish Nation) are going to be able to invest back into an entity that is going to be a real true form of self sustaining economic development in a very green fashion," said Brusatore, who is married to a member of the Squamish Nation.

He hopes to have the first crop coming out of a new TerraSphere facility by November or December. After that it will be a matter of ramping up production based on uptake at the stores. And he believes the product can speak for itself.

So does Jacob, who has tasted the baby spinach and other leafy greens.

"(After) 17 days on the shelf, it's still crisp, green, absolutely marvelous spinach," said the chief.

"It's truly outstanding, better than I've had anywhere else."

This is not a project the Squamish Nation has entered into lightly. It has been following TerraSphere's evolution these past three years and has sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into it. Jacob said their investment is not quite at the $1 million mark.

"It's not been inexpensive but I think it's definitely going to be worth the investment," he said.

"Right now what we're looking at is the ability to pay off all of our capital costs over two years."

He admits that there was some skepticism among council but in the end they decided there could be big pay offs in the future.

Jacob said: "To get into something other than land development and expand our portfolio of businesses, I think was something that was worth hanging in there for."

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