Andrew Stairs is the new greenhouse manager for Nak'azdli.

Andrew Stairs is the new greenhouse manager for Nak'azdli.

Growing a community

Andrew Stairs from Hemingford, Quebec near Montreal has been farming all his life.

Andrew Stairs from Hemingford, Quebec near Montreal has been farming all his life.

His experience with greenhouses, farming and agriculture in general will be critical components of his new role as the greenhouse manager of the new Nak’azdli greenhouse.

The project, years in the making, is finally bearing fruit, even thought the greenhouse itself is still in the construction phase, as the greenhouse doors were just being put on a couple weeks ago, in a race against frost.

“We’re still getting organized and getting cleaned up,” said Stairs.

While Nak’azdli band members may not have a lot of experience with agriculture in general, Stairs is optimistic about the greenhouse and its potential benefits for the community.

He called his outlook “positive and upbeat” and said he believes the band is as well.

The experience will come, and Stairs’ 15-plus years in direct marketing farm products and overall knowledge as a third generation farmer will help.

“Hope for the best and cross our fingers,” said Stairs.

He also said he has been getting a lot of participation and advice from the community already. “Which is always appreciated,” he said. “There’s a tremendous number of gardeners in this town.”

This help will be critical, said Stairs.

“It’s going to require a community approach to succeed.”

The plants had been in place one and a half months when Stairs spoke to The Courier, and were covered in green tomatoes, and he said the plants were doing well, with the first samples having already been delivered to band offices for people to try.

Fresh tomatoes are expected to be sold in the Sana’aih Market, however, the washing tubs necessary to make the produce commercially sellable are not yet in place.

The first year a broad range of 10 tomato varieties have been planted, in order to help gauge which ones will fair the best in the local conditions – everything from Beefsteak and Roma tomatoes to cherry tomatoes.

Stairs was also still working on figuring out the greenhouse itself, as every greenhouse is different he said, with a range of watering systems, plastic, glass and heating systems.

The new Nak’azdli greenhouse did not yet have heating in installed, and there were some adjustments to make with the waterline, which was put outside the greenhouse instead of inside, which would have kept it from freezing.

The heating system planned for the structure is an outside wood furnace which will burn scrap waste wood from the nearby Tl’oh Forest Products mill.

But the over 500 plants in place were so far doing well, and required daily tending.

The work in the greenhouse of watering, pruning, pollinating the plants and harvesting the produce will be done by Nak’azdli band members as part of a work experience program.

Those who come and work at the greenhouse will be paid extra on their benefits and will gain experience and skills to hopefully make them eligible for other employment down the road.

This is part of the project’s social aspect, and Stairs maintained agriculture itself is a long-term and social investment in the community, and an investment towards food self-sufficiency and sustainability.

“It’s not easy money, it’s something for the long-term,” he said.

In the future, if the first greenhouse is successful, the goal would be to expand the project and build more greenhouses and also grow some hardier crops in outdoor plots.

Stairs said there are “high expectations for this project” but they “have to remain optimistic and conservative at the same time.”

The project has already had its share of setbacks, with the federal funding for the project delayed by a year and then approved this year on March 31 and dispersed on April 1, which is late to begin an agricultural project like this.

“We’re very lucky to have gotten a crop at all,” said Stairs.

Within a very short period of time, the band had to hire a manager, put together a crew and source the materials to make it happen.

Kirsten Rudolph of Sif’s Grove greenhouse was the original consultant on the project who helped get things going until they hired Stairs, and she said there were a few hiccups.

“We’ve never had a project like this,” said Rudolph.

The greenhouse was ordered with irrigation, however, when it arrived, no irrigation came with it.

This has meant the over 500 plants have been getting watered by hand, a very time-consuming process.

“We’re working with what we’ve got,” she said.

Now that Stairs has taken over, he is trying to train the workers, work on completing the greenhouse and get settled with his family, but he said he is “cautiously optimistic.”

“We have major challenges ahead of us,” he said. “We’re making good first steps.”