The seeds of a local hydroponic vegetable garden plan aren't about to grow any time soon despite a recent addition of financial fertilizer.
It was announced on Dec. 4 that the Northern Environmental Action Team (NEAT) in Fort St. John has received $10,000 for their Green Freight project from Shell's Fueling Change program, which allows Canadians to vote on environmental initiatives vying for a share of $2 million of funding every time they purchase Shell products.
"We would have really liked to receive $100,000, but $10,000 is awesome, too," said Karen Mason-Bennett, NEAT's program coordinator in Fort St. John.
"The project itself really required $100,000 worth of funding," she added. "So, at this point, it's on hold."
NEAT will be gauging public support for Green Freight and their board of directors will be reevaluating the project at some point in early 2013.
"It will definitely allow us to evaluate some other food security projects and things that are going on in our communities," said Mason-Bennett. "And maybe provide a little bit of funding to other organizations."
The way Green Freight is meant to work is that hydroponic units would be set up in shipping containers on a brownfield lot in Fort St. John in order to grow tomatoes, leafy greens and herbs. Rain would be collected from spring through fall to supply a portion of the two standard garbage cans of water required every four weeks.
NEAT is looking at alternative energy such as solar power for the considerable amount of energy required for lighting, heating and pumping the water and nutrients through the system.
All of that explains the high cost of the project and the need for additional funds beyond the $10,000 provided through Fueling Change.
Although NEAT wasn't able to realize their goals with this round of Fueling Change, Mason-Bennett has nothing but good things to say about the program.
"I think it's really innovative," she said. "I enjoy it."
Shell, which is active in the Montney natural gas play of the region, was also excited about the opportunity to fund a project in one of their operating areas.
"To be able to be involved with agencies where we operate is sort of first prize for us," said Shell spokesperson Patty Richards.
"The fact that it's just the general citizen who's voting is great in and of itself," she continued. "But then, if it's able to recognize projects in our communities where we have an asset, that's excellent. Because those are the agencies that we usually have direct relationships with and who we know on a community level.
"It just makes it all the more fun for us."
Consequently, Shell was quite disappointed to hear that NEAT is unable to move forward with the project at this time.
Richards explained that Fueling Change awards multiple projects with grants of $25,000, $50,000 and $100,000. All other projects approved to participate in the contest receive $10,000.
"While unsuccessful in achieving a larger grant, Shell and its customers are pleased to provide NEAT with a grant of $10,000 to support the project and encourage their continued fundraising efforts," said Richards.
Shell also works in the Edson, Alberta area, where the Edson and District Recycling Depot earned a Fueling Change grant for the second year in a row.
"One was for expansion of our existing building for the education programming and hosting seniors days and school tours and all that kind of stuff," said depot manager Anne Auriat.
"The $50,000 the second time around was for construction of our Take It Or Leave It program."
The program has been running for about ten years, Auriat explained, but its growing popularity has necessitated the construction of its own building.
"It just matches items that people no longer feel are useful or no longer need with people that actually need those items," she said.
"There's probably around 200 people every Friday and Saturday that come in to go to that program. And it just becomes a traffic jam in our regular recycling program."
The new building is about 2,400 square feet in size and features recycled paint on the interior walls and recycled rubber tire roofing materials.
"It will have some passive solar on the south side," said Auriat.
The facility will also include electrical outlets so that visitors can test the electronic equipment they might be taking home.
"Every time we try to build something, we like to make sure it follows … our philosophy," said Auriat.
The $50,000 grant is a significant contribution to the project.
"It pays for half of it," said Auriat.
"Fifty-thousand dollars for a non-profit group is huge when you are struggling to try and get provincial funding or other kinds of funding," she continued. "You have to host a whole bunch of bake sales and a whole bunch of garage sales in order to come up with $50,000. It's a lot of work.
"It's six months of advertising and promoting that project within your community, but it's well worth it."
Auriat said the popularity of Take It Or Leave It translated into considerable community support for the recycling depot's efforts to secure a Fueling Change grant, especially from seniors and the local schools.
"It was great public support," she remarked.
Auriat was also happy to see Shell contributing to one of their operating areas again through Fueling Change.
"What's important is creating an environment so that industry can partner with various non-profit groups, with residential groups, with municipalities," she said. "And those are all the factions of your community. You need to include all of those in any of your projects and build on that.
"It's really good that they are here and putting money back into this community."
David Winkler of The AREA was just as happy to see Fueling Change money going toward initiatives in the Canadian oil and gas capital that is Calgary.
"Calgary is an oil and gas city," said Winkler. "We grew up with oil and gas."
Winkler describes the AREA – the name stands for arts, recreation, education, environment and agriculture – as a privately owned community hall occupying a quarter-acre property in downtown Calgary.
The AREA received a $25,000 grant for an urban agriculture project utilizing the garden section of the property.
"That garden space is used for education," said Winkler. "People can grow in the garden space. And then they teach what they're trying to accomplish.
The funding helps to pay for the educational tools that we can use to demonstrate urban agriculture," he continued.
That includes constructing a simple greenhouse and teaching people how to use such a facility effectively to extend the growing season.
"It just basically allows people to have a visual understanding of what makes urban agriculture successful and easy to do."
Winkler said that Shell employees had volunteered at The Area even before this round of Fueling Change began.
"The people that work at Shell are people that we know," he added, noting that that is a fact that can be forgotten by Calgary residents from time to time.
"That's a problem," said Winkler.
"People fully misunderstand the … industry itself. These are people just wanting to get a day's work done, keep the lights on in their house, have a family. Eat. They're human just like us."
Many of the projects in the Fueling Change competition are very local to their communities, as is the case with Green Freight, Take It Or Leave it and The AREA's urban agriculture project, but the voting process shows that they still resonate with a larger segment of the Canadian population.
"They're asking people to vote for project ideas that people might not necessarily come into contact with at all in their daily [lives] and that probably is its biggest strength," said Mason-Bennett.
"I think that people are appreciative of new ideas," she added. "And I think that they're appreciative of things that can make people's lives easier, especially when those things are something that they might take for granted.
"An idea up here is definitely local food, but also public transportation. If you live in Vancouver and … you frequent your farmers' market and you take the bus, you would definitely want to see other people have access to those things as well."
"I can't speak for why somebody would vote for a particular project," said Richards, noting that she casts her own votes with her hometown and her own particular interests in mind.
"I'm really intrigued and delighted by the projects that feature the power of people," she continued. "One of the reasons that I'm proud to work for Shell is that the people who work for Shell are pretty impressive. And you can talk about being a big company, but we're a big company that is made up of people who are trying to do things the best way they know how. And Fueling Change is just one way that we recognize that same sort of initiative in communities.
"One of the things we try to do as a company is talk about what impact we can have, what our footprint is and how we're trying to make that better. And these projects where it's individuals trying to make a difference on their own footprint, I think that makes a lot of sense to people. And it's appealing to them. Because they also see how it's replicable. They see how they can do it themselves."
"I think it highlights the possible," said Mason-Bennett, discussing the impact Fueling Change and Green Freight could have on the community.
Mason-Bennett suggested that Fort St. John residents haven't really adopted the idea of eating locally in the same way as other communities in British Columbia, partly because of the long winters and short growing season in the region, but Green Freight could change that behavior.
"It just makes it flexible," she said of Green Freight. "So, you could eat certain things that were locally produced and hopefully that would open the door and the conversation to producing more locally, as much as we could."
"We've gotten away from growing our own food for various reasons," said Richards. "Most of us, somewhere in the last 100 years, came from some sort of agricultural background. And that is shifting.
"It is nice that these projects get us in touch with the landscape around us."
The funding shortfall isn't the only obstacle NEAT has faced trying to get their hydroponic program up and running. They have also seen opposition from the City of Fort St. John over permitting issues.
"Permitting is always a little bit of an interesting thing," said Mason-Bennett.
"Their concern – and rightly so – is that they've worked really hard to get containers out of the city and we wanted to bring them into the downtown core. There's a little bit of a conflict there, though a friendly one, I believe. And I think we have the opportunity to definitely work through that.
"There was a lot of support for this project."
Mason-Bennett believes that the use of the shipping containers should trump the aesthetic issues, but also noted that NEAT has ideas as far as beautifying the project.
"There are a lot of options that we explored," she said.
"One of them was a façade that would turn them into something that looks like buildings that were around. And then we could definitely highlight sponsors for the project on those facades. The other thing was to create landscaping on the outside that mirrored what was happening on the inside.
"We would look at landscaping around with edible plants."