Emily Bland wants everyone in Canada to have affordable, fresh food
by Jodi DeLong
Emily Bland’s excitement over her company’s projects and goals bubbles through her voice on the phone. The 25-year-old is the “SeedEO” of SucSeed, a social enterprise based in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, creating compact hydroponic systems for growing fresh herbs and vegetables such as salad greens.
Although she’s a third-generation farmer from Grand-Falls Windsor, where her family produce eggs, food crops and have various types of livestock, Emily went to Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) with plans to become an accountant. Those plans changed when she became involved with Enactus Memorial, part of a worldwide network of university students who create projects in response to environmental, social and economic challenges.
Emily says, “In 2015 I became our chapter’s president, and we were seeing all these heartbreaking stats about food security in northern communities of our province. We discovered that 96 per cent of people were unhappy with their fresh produce, its poor quality and high cost, and we were determined to do something to start to change this.” On the family farm, she grew green onions and lettuce hydroponically, and this helped inspire the idea to develop a low-cost, easy to use and affordable hydroponic system for home use.
The first prototype growing system was made with recycled materials—held together with duct tape and Velcro, Emily says. With help from the engineering and technical teams at MUN as well as staff from the Botanical Gardens on the campus, the students came up with a model that wouldn’t use a lot of electricity and wasn’t big and complex. It was the bare minimum that a family would need to grow fresh produce. A fish tank pump would supply nutrients to plants growing in rock wool rather than soil; LED lights would provide light at a fraction of the cost of other growing lights; the plants would grow to harvest size more rapidly and with significantly less water use—and could be grown indoors in any situation.
At the time, Emily says, “Our goal was to put 15 of these gardens in Labrador communities—that would be a huge success in our books.”
To get the word out and perhaps find some sponsorship to help with the cost of building the units, they put an article in the local newspaper. Within 24 hours of the article going live, they had received more than 100 emails from people across Canada and the US wanting to purchase the units—“before we even knew if they would work!”
Once the design was finessed, the Enactus Memorial team needed to figure out how to build the units. Sensing an opportunity for further social action, they teamed up with Choices for Youth, a St. John’s-based registered charity that works with homeless and at-risk youth. Initially, Emily says they expected to build 100 units—a year later there were 500 of them in operation.
After taking home the Enactus World Cup in 2016 with their SucSeed project, the MUN chapter was moving on to other projects. Emily and her friend Amanda Peet were both getting ready to graduate, and Emily had lined up work with Ernst and Young, but as she explains, “I thought I had my whole life figured out, but I couldn’t bear the thought of not continuing with SucSeed. So, I pitched to the team and said maybe we could try to turn this into a standalone social enterprise.” In short order they were able to improve on their product, figure out a business model that made sense, and began a whole focus on promoting SucSeed systems to educators throughout the country.
The success of SucSeed has been exciting, because, as Emily stresses, “We need to get more people involved with agriculture, knowing where our food comes from, how it gets to our plate…the importance of food safety and security and education.” She is utterly passionate and dedicated to the cause, and not just for her home province. “It’s a challenge we all face as Canadians and around the world,” she continues, “and it’s something that is going to take a lot more than a couple of people coming together with an idea to find solutions.”
The kits come with everything needed—grow tank, pots, rockwool, liquid fertilizers, water pump, seeds, grow lights, pH test kit—and detailed instructions, but it truly is an easy set up. No need to have a bright window—just a little space in which to place the grow tank, and away you go.
Currently, there are about 200 kits in northern communities across Canada—the territories and Labrador—and about 1,500 in total across Canada. There are units on board research vessels, in retirement homes, in corporate growing programs to help get healthy food into offices, along with reducing office stress via horticultural therapy programming. Emily says, “We’ve got a little bit of everything because the systems can be so versatile—the biggest challenge has been picking what that one customer sector is that we should focus on, and we determined education is the way to go.”
While there are certainly families growing vegetables in one of the several sizes of hydroponic gardens the operation offers, the main push in recent months has been refined to getting units into schools. “We need food education talked about in the classroom so that kids are engaged with growing food from a young age,” Emily stresses. “And they get so excited by growing herbs or lettuce or kale or tomatoes!”
The units can be used as teaching tools throughout the education curriculum—the SucSeed website offers great suggested activities in pretty much every discipline—and students get to tend their crops and track how they grow. The most commonly grown crops are salad greens and herbs, especially for beginning growers. They’re easy to grow: “Put the seeds in the rockwool, add water to top it up, follow the feeding instructions and most of the time you’ll have great success.”
Harvest for greens such as kale and lettuce can begin in as little as four or five weeks after planting, and can be harvested for a number of weeks if the grower prefers to simply cut leaves rather than harvest the whole head. As students (or other growers) gain some experience, they can go on to flowering plants such as peppers, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and squash, even strawberries. These crops take longer to grow (up to three months before initial harvest for the tomatoes and peppers and require more precise growing instructions, but for
those wanting some variation in their crops, they’re worth the extra effort.
Asked about marketing techniques, Emily Bland says the biggest impact has been through word of mouth, with parents and teachers seeing the potential in the grow units and then advocating to school board leadership to get them on board. There’s cold calling and social media too by Emily and her colleagues, and she’s travelled across Canada to do presentations on the benefits of SucSeed for communities. One small hurdle to some school boards is the cost of the units, which range from $169.99 to $699.99 depending on size, but Emily is proud to say that “our biggest competitor (in the United States) is up to three times as expensive as our units. Often, community organizations, businesses, and even parents step up to cover the cost, because school boards are always looking at expenses. We are confident, however, that there is huge, huge value in teaching kids about agriculture from an early age.”
One of the aspects of SucSeed that Emily is most proud of is the company’s relationship with Choices for Youth. Young people come to work in manufacturing the systems, and “it’s incredible to see how much they learn and how much they grow.” Some of the youth find career paths after having worked with SucSeed, and Emily says it’s also important for them to realize how much impact and how valuable their contributions are. “Every time they build a unit, that will mean 24 more students learning about agriculture in the classroom; it could affect a group of seniors doing horticultural therapy; it could mean someone in northern Canada having access to fresh greens year-round.”
It’s a positive and growing experience for all involved.