A unique partnership between a Vancouver Island entrepreneur with a passion for agriculture, a Victoria non-profit and the City of Victoria has resulted in a project that’s helping keep local residents nourished through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Aeroponics expert Allan Murr, the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society (VIRCS) and the City of Victoria are working together on an urban farming initiative in two city neighbourhoods – Rockland and downtown Victoria.
Murr has installed dozens of his aeroponics pyramids in the Victory Garden at Government House and at Capital Iron’s Store Street location, and they are being cared for and supported by a team of volunteers engaged by VIRCS and the Friends of Government House. Seedlings for the pyramids were provided through the City of Victoria’s Get Growing program.
Aeroponics pyramids enable urban farming in small spaces
The aeroponics pyramids have been a passion project for Murr for several years. Each is its own vertical garden ideal for growing vegetables, herbs and flowers indoor and out. The system uses aeroponics technology to spray nutrient rich water to the roots of the plans, with leafy vegetables growing without and root vegetables within the pyramid. It is designed to grow plants at a 30% faster rate than traditional methods, using 80% less water. Microsoft purchased 20 of the units for their Seattle campus, and installed them in the cafeteria for employees to grow vegetables and herbs.
Murr says he decided to donate his pyramids after seeing news stories about Victorians affected by food shortage and food insecurity during COVID-19. He reached out to the City of Victoria and was connected to VIRCS Executive Director David Lau, who made plans to add the pyramids to their ongoing Welcome Gardens program.
Local organizations step in to fix gap in food supply chain during pandemic
“COVID-19 has impacted our food supply chain to varying degrees,” says Lau, “but it has noticeably decreased the excess food supply that distributors had previously given to local human service agencies that feed local unhoused and food insecure. When the City of Victoria’s Garden Coordinator told us that a local inventor had offered access to 50 specialised experimental aeroponics growers, we were immediately intrigued by their fascinating technology and potential.”
What impressed Lau the most was “the high volume of produce they create in relation to the small space they take up, the absence of soil, negligible amounts of water and electrical power. They practically run themselves once they are set up. They grow a truly wide array of produce. For community agencies whose clients combat nutritional issues, they are a remarkable advance. We want to champion that.”
Lau also applauds the City of Victoria councillors and staff who have provided integral support as well as the volunteers who run it and the team at Government House and the owners of Capital Iron, Mike and Eveline Black, for donating the spaces. “We have also benefitted from faculty at UBC Agriculture who reviewed our initial plans and encourage us and the City to keep the project moving forward. There are very few situations where a community organization launches a food security project using such cutting-edge technology!”
Community collaborations nourish Victorians
VIRCS and the food share program chose Government House and Capital Iron locations as a trial to see how the pyramids fared under various growing scenarios and spaces. “After this growing season, if we are successful it is our goal to pass on what we have learned to other community service organizations that provide food for food-vulnerable people.”
Murr was thrilled to see his pyramids placed in both locations, but particularly in Government House’s Victory Garden. “I’ve always envisioned them there, as I live a few blocks away and often walk the grounds. I’m so proud to be part of a food relief program and happy to use my pyramids to help out our community.”
The Honourable Janet Austin, OBC, Lieutenant Governor of BC, says her team were particularly pleased at the opportunity to include the aeroponics project within Victory Garden, which they’ve temporarily renamed the Victory Over COVID-19 Garden. “It has been a fascinating experience,” she says. “The Friends Of Government House (the volunteers who help grown and manage the Gardens) have always done excellent work in making the most of our vegetable beds—their edible gardens were established in 2009, and now yield around 4000-5000 pounds of produce a year. So it’s been wonderful to complement the work of the Friends and the Victory Over COVID-19 Garden, establish partnerships with organizations like Get Growing Victoria, and further our ability to provide healthy food to those in need in our community. The aeroponics pyramid garden is an innovative new way to meet these needs.
Thanks to the guidance of Alan Murr, and in partnership with the Welcome Gardens at the Victoria Immigrant Refugee Community Settlement Services, we’ve already had several harvests, made adjustments to the infrastructure, and trained additional volunteers on how to utilize these unique structures. I’m very pleased with the output so far and how much it has enabled us to donate. I look forward to seeing how much we will have supplied to the Food Share Network at the end of the year.”
Eveline Black says she and her husband Mike are equally excited about hosting the pyramids at their Capital Iron store, a downtown fixture known for its community support. “We felt the project was a really good fit for our space and being able to give back to the community especially during the pandemic where food might not always be available to everyone.”