Original Published on Jul 29, 2022 at 20:59

By Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

THUNDER BAY, ONT. — Seven entrepreneurs from Northern Ontario have been selected for the second phase of Bioenterprise Canada’s Northern Ontario Innovation Challenge. 

The first phase consisted of a call out to Northern businesses who were involved with agri-food growing or processing, indoor farming, cattle and dairy farming or have an idea that could be developed into a new agricultural approach to farming. 

In this second phase, each of the seven finalists was issued a 12-month complimentary membership with Bioenterprise Canada and their Agri-Tech Engine. This provides them with access to present their business and work with the Bioenterprise team while accessing its national network of mentors and partners. 

The phase will culminate in September when each participant will give a virtual presentation about their business in front of a panel of judges from a cross-section of the agriculture industry, private sector leaders and academic researchers. 

The winner will receive a grand prize of $5,000. The top three will receive an upgraded Access Plus membership to Bioenterprise Canada’s Agri-Tech Engine.

“We’re trying to surround these companies with some support and get them working with us the way that our members do across Canada,” said Dieter Voltins, Bioenterprise Canada relationship manager for Northeastern Ontario. 

“We have over 100 different companies across Canada that are working with Bioenterprise in different capacities, addressing different points, getting some mentorship, accessing our network or services and whatever those particular businesses need. This is a way to introduce that to these seven businesses, and really lower the risk for them.” 

One finalist, Mike Visser, who is a cattle producer and the owner of My Pride Farm, raises his own cattle and sells the meat through local avenues such as the Thunder Bay Country Market and other area food stores. He says he hopes that working with Bioenterprise Canada will help streamline some marketing avenues and maybe open up new marketing opportunities for his business.

“Being chosen will help with that because we are now connected with a business advisor for one year,” Visser said. “They’re working with me to identify challenges and hopefully find solutions to them.” 

Benjamin Feagin, another finalist, owns and operates Agri Tech North, a first-of-kind wholesale scale, year-round grower in Northwestern Ontario that grows fresh produce, culinary herbs and small fruiting crop varieties in Dryden.

Feagin says they have been working on their concept since January of 2021, and began farming operations this May. He called the business a “social enterprise beneficial corporation” and says its mission is to reduce fresh produce costs in Far North Indigenous communities by 25 per cent and increase food availability in communities that don’t already have year-round access.

“This (opportunity) can benefit our company in multiple ways,” Feagin said. 

“We are a research and development centre that is geared towards advancing combinations of technologies that allow us to grow a full human diet from a single facility and enable our rural and remote communities across Canada to be able to establish their own local production. 

“Having the support from the challenge — and if we were winners — would not only bring us recognition and notoriety but also would bring us the resources necessary to bring forth our advancements to enable our rural and remote communities to do just that, establishing their own localized production.”

Feagin added that they have had some issues with supply chain disruptions and the regional flooding has made it difficult to find the labour to complete the work. 

“We’ve had to be our own kind of plumbers and such to try and get through to the final renovations required to get everything up and running, so we’ve had some significant delays and we’re just in the final steps of getting the other half of our operation up and running,” he said. 

Once completed, possibly this week, Agri Tech North will more than double its capacity and will be able to produce 400 kilograms of food every week in a 2,000-square-foot growing space. Food items will be made available in the region and in Thunder Bay food stores and restaurants.

Amber Kivisto, owner of BioNorth Solutions, is a finalist who develops plant growth and works with microbes to clean soil and improve soil health to drive growth and reduce fertilizers. 

“(Bioenterprise) connected us with people that are regulatory experts, which is very important so that we can look at what people require, who are going into other markets such as the U.S. or abroad,” she said. 

“They keep an eye out for any kind of funding opportunities and any kind of commercial partner which could be really big for us because we don’t have any agronomists on staff. Having agents or distributors that are in that field would be tremendous for us when we release our (promotion plant growth) product.”

Kivisto added that Bioenterprise is also associated with some of their testing protocols, and when you’re working with something that’s relatively new in the market, it requires a lot of data to encourage people to make the switch for what they traditionally do.

The northern challenge pilot project is funded by the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario (FedNor) Regional Economic Growth Through Innovation Fund, which supports the growth of Northern Ontario businesses.

Also included in the seven finalists are Cramer Dairy Farms Inc. of Slate River, a farm diversifying into beef production; Northern Vinter Inc. of Thunder Bay, a boutique fruit winery; TECC Agriculture Ltd. of New Liskeard, a precision agriculture company, and Dalew Farms Inc./Click Fork of Lavigne, an online farmers’ market for local food.

This item reprinted with permission from The Chronicle-Journal, Thunder Bay, Ontario