Potlotek Greenhouse staff member Ben Lafford is pictured tending to a row of cucumbers in the garden. As one of the earliest volunteers, he helped cut trees to prepare the area for the greenhouse and garden project.

POTLOTEK, FIRST NATION: An initiative to enhance food security is off to a promising start.

The Potlotek First Nation greenhouse project broke ground just over a year ago, and as the organizers and staff wrap up their first growing summer, they’re taking stock of lessons learned and preparing plans for the future.

The greenhouse is part of the Community Garden and Food Security Project, an initiative of Ulnooweg’s Digital Mi’kmaq branch. Potlotek is one of the first Indigenous communities to partner with the organization in the first stages of the project.

Potlotek’s economic development officer, Tahirih Paul, and Philip Edwards, the community’s director of public works, joined forces to lead on the local level in the early days, while John Lameman was hired as the greenhouse manager last March year and displays a strong level of enthusiasm.

“John has incredible ideas of what we can do,” Paul said, noting that future hopes include a fruit orchard behind the greenhouse and highbush blueberry plants near the road.

“I’m very impressed overall with the crews that have helped and the community volunteers. John has been very instrumental. He’s taken it upon himself to learn a lot.”

Paul and Lameman both shared their appreciation for partners like Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources (UINR), Ulnooweg, Maritime Greenhouse and Abundant Acres Farm in Hants County, as well as for support from local growers like Acadian Acres Farm and Wild Edibles in Samsonville, run by Nathan and Carmen Sampson, and David Cotie’s Red Shed and the Greenhouse Co-op in St. Peter’s.

“We’ve been very fortunate that the local farmers, people who have been doing this for decades, have been assisting us a lot,” Paul said, noting the donation of seeds and a wealth of expertise.

“Anybody who grows in the area has been super supportive. They come check us out and say, ‘here’s some suggestions, if you want them, here’s some free seeds if you want them,’” said Lameman, pointing to a row of cucumbers donated by the Co-op Greenhouse.

“They all believe in food sovereignty and have been so helpful in making sure we are successful,” added Paul.

The investment of the community has been key to their early success, with Paul noting strong sales and positive word of mouth advertising, in addition to the use of social media, to let the community know what is available and when.

The greenhouse location, across the road from the community’s two schools on Sitmuk Road, was a wooded area when the project began but the community rose to the occasion with volunteers who grabbed power saws and got to work clearing the land.

The 30-foot by 60-foot geothermal greenhouse will allow for year-round production. Crops including kale, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, Swiss chard, cucumber and tobacco will soon be harvested for the last time this season from the 70 by 50-foot garden. Meanwhile construction of a potting shed has begun.

“Our materials for our potting shed have been ordered. They should be here in about two weeks and that should allow us to start our seedlings earlier on,” Paul said last week, gesturing towards the cement slab already completed.

“We’re hoping that we will have 365 days of growth.”

The potting shed will also house equipment and other materials that are currently in the greenhouse and will serve as the area for harvested vegetables to be cleaned and prepared for sale.

Located behind the under-construction building is a fenced-in area with 30 honeybee hives, a result of a partnership with Sydney-area apiary Tuckamore Homestead. The honey is currently sold out and that part of the project is on pause for the moment.

“The honeybees are still busy but we’re trying to rebrand what the label and the jar will look like coming out of here,” Paul said, of the current break in honey sales while the logo design is formalized.

Despite having their share of hiccups getting the venture off the ground, both Paul and Lameman say they are pleased with the progress they’ve made.

“It’s year one, it’s a really big learning year and I’d say we’re doing okay,” Lameman said.

New staff members joined the team last week, replacing some students who are returning to school, and the work continues as they prepare for their first fall and winter growing food in their community for their community.