Long before a global pandemic made food security a widespread issue, with empty shelves across the country, Derrick Big Eagle was working on a new food-growing development for Estevan.
Now the combination of Estevan facing a transition away from coal-fired power generation, ever-increasing carbon taxes in the coming years raising transportation costs, and economic opportunity have come together to make the business case for producing vegetables in Saskatchewan’s sunshine capital.
A serial entrepreneur, Big Eagle announced his latest venture, Evolution Growers. It will start with a $20 to $30 million, 200,000 square foot “indoor agricultural facility” to be located just east of the Estevan Comprehensive School. A new sign went up on the site Wednesday morning.
To put that 200,000 square feet to scale, Estevan’s Walmart is a little over 100,000 square feet in area. And that’s for the first phase, according to Big Eagle. The intention is to expand further down the road.
Big Eagle generally refrains from calling it a “greenhouse,” saying, “There's going to be a little bit more of technology and robotics.”
Part of the research included going to the Netherlands as part of a federal government trade mission. Several City of Estevan officials also took part. That trade mission provided an opportunity to see the latest in growing technology, which Big Eagle plans to incorporate.
Evolution Growers will be a subsidiary of Tomahawk Energy Services, a private, locally-owned firm with Big Eagle as CEO.
Exactly which crops would be grown is yet to be determined, but Big Eagle did reference vegetables and produce, to be decided in the near future.
One of the most significant costs for indoor agriculture is heating. Usually this is done with natural gas, but Big Eagle says they intend on using geothermal. He, personally, has had geothermal heat in his house for 26 years now.
“I believe geothermal is a way of the future. Has it be determined yet? No it hasn’t,” he said of their final heating decision. “I think, with my involvement in oil and gas over the last 36 years, and being a strong part of that, I think there’s opportunities to be influential in helping out with figuring out the geothermal process. And that’s what we’re going to do, as a First Nations company; we’re going to help with this and bring what we can to the table for the planet to use. And I hope to be able to capitalize on that at the greenhouse, not only with heating and cooling, but also with electricity.”
Solar power is also being considered. Big Eagle said they would have a “negative carbon footprint.”
As a backup heat source and for supplemental heating when necessary, he said they are looking at using captured natural gas from local oil production that would otherwise be flared.
The land to be developed is currently city-owned land. “They city has set aside enough land for us to grow these facilities exponentially,” Big Eagle said.
How much land is still in discussions, according to Ward, who said it was in early stages. He noted that this was developed with the previous council, and the newly elected council will make final decisions.
Ward said, “The city is very excited about any economic development opportunities that can come to the area. We’re always excited for new and innovative ideas, and working to bring investment and employment to the area, especially with local partners like Derrick, who’s a name in the area.”
Big Eagle said, “The way I look at this is, is it's unfortunate for our coal and our power plants and what we have there. And I think it's pretty much become a reality,” he said. Having played hockey as a kid in Estevan, and operating a business in the community, he calls it his “second hometown.”
Big Eagle said there are families who, for generations, have worked in coal mining or power production, and that opportunity may not be there for their children. This venture may provide opportunities to stay in Estevan.
“So if we can help with the transition by creating an avenue for new jobs in a potential different sector, to make Estevan more of a diversified economy, then you know what, they don't have to lose their houses and they don't have to take a loss on them, and move somewhere else and uproot generations of families that have been living in Estevan, as it's been.”
As for the type of jobs created, and whether that would be the typical type of work associated with greenhouses, he said, “If you're not better than your competition and it's just pricing. So we're going to be better.”
“As far as the construction process and everything, it should be up to anywhere between 100 and 200 people. And then after, when it's built and up and running, it should be close to 50 to 100 people that will be employed, just for that part of the greenhouse.”
He added that there would be numerous opportunities in spinoffs, like transportation, packaging and distribution.
The intention is to break ground in spring 2021 and hopefully the first phase will be built by early 2022.
One of the common themes in economic development is the concept of “clusters,” where the development of several companies in an area that do essentially the same thing or similar, related work, creates a local hub of knowledge, workforce and abilities. In addition to this project, the Deep Earth Energy Production Corp. (DEEP) geothermal project south of Torquay is also talking of greenhouses as a secondary development to their power generation primary work. In this case, DEEP is looking at using surplus heat leftover from electrical power production to heat greenhouses at a greatly reduced cost. Asked if the Evolution Growers and DEEP could mean the start of a greenhouse cluster for Estevan, both Big Eagle and Ward spoke in favour of the idea.
Big Eagle said, “We welcome that. Something has to start it off and make that initial plunge. And we’re there, with it.”
“With the food insecurity issues, the carbon footprint and the coal transition that is possibly going to slow the city down, we acknowledge all that. And I think this indoor agricultural facility, helps cure all those issues,” Big Eagle concluded.