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Calgary’s Next Economy: Thunderbird Farms wants to supply food for a Nation

Daniel McGinnis was first introduced to aquaponics during a lecture at Lethbridge College.

He was driving bus as the time and it was a Friday afternoon when he went into town to listen to the lecture.

“I thought, this is pretty cool,” he said.

“They were talking about third world countries and helping to feed third world countries and I said, ‘guys, there’s a third world country just over here. I’m going back to it here after this lecture.’”

McGinnis lives on the Blood Reserve southwest of Lethbridge. He’s originally from the Saddle Lake Reserve northeast of Edmonton. He’d built a straw bale house on the reserve that burned to the ground. He was in a rebuilding mode at the time.

He started hanging around the college. McGinnis admits he never took any classes, but he chatted with instructors and eventually got into some meetings. There was one where he saw an aquaponics system built out of garbage.

“I was thinking, when we go home, we’re going to rebuild. If I can get food for cheap, I can build my house for cheap, the only thing I need is fuel,” he said.

“That’s kind of where it all started.”

McGinnis is the founder of Thunderbird Farms. He’s on a mission to provide a steady food supply for reserves across Alberta with aquaponics.

Aquaponics is a type of aquaculture where the waste product of fish is used to fertilize plants for growth hydroponically. Those plants then purify the water.

Meeting the community needs

While McGinnis wanted to provide himself a stable food supply, he saw the opportunity to create stability for others on the reserve.

He thought using aquaponics – a simple, cost effective food growth opportunity – could help underpin food security on the Blood Reserve.

“I see this as being kind of the cornerstone to an entire integrated system,” he said.

But, there are roadblocks, McGinnis said.

One of them is capital. He has a small greenhouse now; he built it himself, created the solar power supply (he’s an engineering technologist). McGinnis can’t yet grow year-round. He needs more infrastructure.

“One of the big problems here on the reserve is I can’t access capital. The banks won’t play with us. And you know, the government is really, extremely hard to deal with,” he said.

“And, as for angel investors, well, there’s not too many angels around here. So, we’ve been having to bootstrap it all.”

Still, McGinnis would like to have a small co-op set up for the Blood Tribe. He’s hoping to tap into the people on the reserve who want to contribute.

First Nations, first step

McGinnis said that the First Nations communities overall are just a small market. But, it’s a good place to start. Providing food security to Alberta or Canada’s Reserve communities is important.

“But this needs to be in every disadvantaged community,” he said.

Building the right foundation to move forward is why he took part in the Platform Calgary Junction program. He said that the marketing and distribution aspect is a major challenge.

He feels like he has a critical solution, but he lacked the business fundamentals to pull it off.

“That’s where it all kind of ground to a screeching halt,” he said.

“Sure, I can produce it. But, can I market it? Can I get rid of 800 heads of lettuce every week?”

If he can get everything in place, he said it would be big.

“Growing year-round with virtually no cost – just the cost of labour,” he said.

“That would fundamentally change the way we produce food.”