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Peep Into the World of HydroFlora: sustainable systems, demystifying hydroponics and why you should care

by Aimée Tian

HydroFlora is a Montréal-based community of social entrepreneurs that focuses on sustainable development through hydroponic solutions. They describe themselves as an organization that dedicates time to researching sustainable alternatives to intensive farming practices and promoting civic engagement through educational workshops with all members of the community. Currently, they operate on several different levels, providing services in both consultation and education. As per their mission statement, HydroFlora’s main goals are to “introduce and nurture innovative and sustainable agricultural practices that support people through community development, skills training and better access to fresh and healthy foods”. 

Read up on my conversation with Founder Dominique Smith and Marketing Director Clifford Pape here: 

Aimée Tian: Just to begin, how did this project start? 

Dominique Smith: It started about a year ago - November 16th is actually our one year anniversary. We emerged out of a student organization at Concordia, through the CFC (Concordia Food Coalition). Concordia has multiple organizations designed to do the same thing that we’re doing. For example, the greenhouse is a collective that allows organizations such as ours to incubate and form their own initiatives, giving them a sense of place and serving as a green oasis in the city. 

ATHow did the two of you meet? 

Clifford Pape: We actually did our undergrad together, in urban planning. And since most of our classes were on the 12th floor, sometimes after class he would be like ‘Hey Cliff, I’m going up to the greenhouse to check out some stuff’. I wasn’t [initially] as deep into all the plant stuff as he was, but I’d come up once in a while just to lend a hand. 

Then when I finished my City Farms internship, he just said to me, ‘Look, why don’t you just come [work] with us, and then you can be with your boys?’ So I came here, tried to find my place in the organization. Since I’m more into marketing and communications and the design aspects, when I was trying to find my role in all of it, I kinda thought: ‘these are plant nerds, they could use an aesthetic eye’ [laughs]So I did a bit more research. 

We started testing out a bunch of planters at my house – literally bought a bag of cement, and started messing around. We made a few that looked good enough so that when people came over they’d be like, ‘Oh hey that’s really nice, where did you get it?’. I linked up with the guys again, said ‘Hey come to the crib, maybe you’ll like it’, and they liked it so much that they booked a space with the greenhouse, where we now use as a workshop.

AT: And what are each of your roles with the company?

DS: I’m the network and outreach coordinator. My job is to be on the forefront; always selling the idea in multiple assets. 

CPAnd I’m the marketing director, also the one of the designers on the projects. 

AT: Are you guys still students here?

DS: No, alumni. We graduated in 2015.

ATHow many people are currently involved with HydroFlora?

DS: Right now, I would say a strong eight. 

HydroFlora is multifaceted, but actively we’re two things. We do a lot of marketing prowess with plants, and we do education. A lot of people question how we plan on organizing it. We’re a collective, really. 

AT: Would you care to elaborate on your work with the hydroponic curriculums for students? What do those consist of and what sparked your interest?

DS: Yeah, so that’s still in the works. We’re going to be teaching in nine different [anglophone] schools in Montreal. In Laval, two big high schools have merged and became Laval Senior Academy. They’re trying to create the same thing that Concordia has: a greenhouse…but they’re just in the beginning stages. In this school, there’s a lot of funding issues – a lot of these kids maybe test really well, but they are isolated from [bigger opportunities], and sent there to be in a work/study program. 

The reason why this is so important for me is that when you’re sitting in these schools, you have to know that some of these kids don’t even have parents, they came up in group homes. What I’m trying to do when I go is to get these kids really involved. Kids can get their hands dirty who do not [usually] have the opportunity to do so. It’s just getting them out of their normal zone. 

Working with stuff like this at a younger age, I’m hoping that I can ignite the idea of working with your hands, making it practical, rather than keeping it in a book. There’s a lot of bureaucracy at these schools, even with the teachers. By bringing HydroFlora to these schools, we can try to educate students and teachers together. I’m doing this for the kids who are stuck in these systems, cause often they’re told by superiors that there’s something wrong with them.

ATHow did you reach out to all these schools?

DS: Honestly, you just gotta go. It’s open for anyone! The English school board was my niche because the Québec government isn’t really doing as much for these schools. They’re bringing a lot of these schools together instead of expanding them.

What we do in the relationship of students and universities (and high schools as well), is that they lack a connection of gaining experience in the sustainable world, because it’s still [relatively] new. When these students get to their last level of education, where are they gonna get their internships? I mean, they’re all going to be trying to get into the same institutions, but they’re only gonna hire one person, not a hundred. And that’s what I’m trying to fill in: get down that experience, work with us. You get to be on the front lines. When I graduated, there was no stage for me. Urban Planning, Poli-Sci…ain’t nothing. If you really want to open up this new realm, you have to do it for everyone, not just certain people with like, a six-year background in biology. 

CP: Moreover, if you’re someone who just wants to learn these things for your own personal use and someone who just wants to approach life decisions in a more sustainable way, your channels for getting those kinds of degrees [are sometimes] quite limited. What I think is really interesting about what we’re doing is that we’re so multi-faceted. We’re people who all have their own thing that we’re good at, and we’re trying to put them together to push for sustainable ideas. 

AT: Okay, let’s backtrack a bit. For those who don’t know, what exactly is hydroponics?

DS: So basically, hydroponics is growing in soilless media. You just use water or rocks or sand, nothing with organic material inside. It’s the easiest way to grow food in an urban environment and that’s why we do it. We want to show that you can use it to grow [virtually] anything – I’m proving it by growing bananas, figs, everything. 

As you can see here, this whole system is this plant submerged in water. Normally, we’d think: you can’t do that, because the plant should drown. Well, if you give a lot of oxygen to the plant via the root system, you can keep it alive just like you’d keep an aquarium alive. It’s the same process. This is just showing how the roots have grown over time. We don’t water this plant from the top - it’s all being kept alive via this one organic system; it’s like one big forest that we’ve built.

CP: Think about it as a cycle. Everything just goes back - the water is recycled too.

AT: How did you get your understanding of how this all works?

DS: YouTube! And that’s what I say in my workshops at the schools, that you don’t have to be a plant physiologist to do this.

AT: So how much upkeep do you need to do with the whole system?

DS: It’s not as much as you would think! Essentially, this thing runs by itself. I just have to come in and do little checks. I use this as a hands-on tool so that when I do my weekly workshops, the kids get to learn so many different things: plant physiology, composting, basic hydroponics, how to take care of pests. That’s also what I do when I go around to the schools. I use hydroponics as a ‘school-in-a-box’. And the materials are super cheap: these are literally recycled bins that we’ve cut open. 

AT: What about some of the products that you guys offer? I’m really into the mini terrariums that you guys have posted on Instagram.

CPYeah, we try to hustle as much as we can – we try to think of different strategies that can bring in people who are interested in things other than plants. We’re also trying to maintain a certain aesthetic that people can gravitate towards. When we first started selling products at the market I had no idea whether they’d sell or not – it was just a means for me to continue pushing my marketing, saying: Hey, we also have products! We also have a presence. It was really a marketing tactic that turned out to become a business in itself.

AT: Where do all the streetwear influences come in, though? What’s the correlation?

CP: So when I joined HydroFlora, part of the whole aesthetic I wanted to bring to it was all of this. Me and my connections with streetwear goes way back…I’ve been a sneakerhead for almost eight years now. It’s really a community. Everybody in that world knows each other. 

I just wanted to make something that would make people’s space look nice; bring a bit of life into your house. Montreal can be super depressing in the winter. The streetwear crowd, often it’s people who like to decorate their houses, who like to have things looking ‘clean’ and whatnot. And since I was already into sneakers, I was like, ‘this could fit well’

What’s cool is that it gets people who are into sneakers to learn more about plants, because now I have a whole bunch of sneakerheads hitting me up about the mini sneaker terrariums and stuff, like How does this work? What is this? We’re able use the visually-appealing things to bring more people into something that is more meaningful. I guess part of our advantage is that we’re young and we’re into all kinds of things that some of the older people who own the big plant stores aren’t so exposed to.

AT: And what about the Saintwoods collaboration? 

CP: So the Nike x Saintwoods collaboration dropped November 18th. They hit us up to help them with their exposition - they had a huge pop-up in Toronto where they collaborated with Nike on some AF1s. And one of the guys on the creative team, he’s been a fan of our products since early on. I’d known him for a bit too, so just getting him to know the company a bit better - I guess it sparked an idea in his head. So as they were working on the Nike collab and figuring out how they wanted to present it, they thought, Oh, something that’d be really cool is having these guys make a piece for us. 

They wanted a big sneaker box, with a basketball court and a whole bunch of plants inside. And since we are a company with people who have the know-how, we could kind of rally everyone behind the project. For this one, we actually had to work with 3D printers. 

When Saintwoods asked us ‘Hey, can you do this?’, we had never done it before,
but we just shook their hand and went with the flow. I’ve found that Montreal is very open: if
you have a good idea and you’re a creative, it’s not that hard to collaborate
with other people.

ATWhere do you guys see HydroFlora headed for, in the future?

CP: We’re actually in the beginning stages of planning a humanitarian project down in Haiti. We’re trying to help with food shortage by building aquaponic systems, taking a community-based approach so that the people down there can learn about the systems and keep them running even when we’re gone. I’m trying to be the liaison between those [communities] and the people I know down there who are doing sustainable work. 

DSI just don’t want to feel trapped. I feel like often times with a startup or a business, people lean towards a tendency to try and categorize themselves. Yeah, the Saintwoods project may be a huge undertaking and yeah, teaching schools may be a huge undertaking, but that’s the essence of small business: to take on these things and try to do it all.

AT: Is the company just based out of Montréal at the moment?

CPWell, yes and no. I actually have a friend in LA who’s going to try and push HydroFlora product down there. He’s making a whole website, it’s his new business venture. We definitely want to expand more, though.

ATDoes it ever get to be too overwhelming?

DS: Life is overwhelming. 

ATTrue. Lastly, why do you think this is all relevant to the arts and culture sector? Why should people care?

DS: Cause everyone eats! Don’t you eat food? 

We brought art into this realm – we did that by bringing in planters. We did that by bringing Nike into planters. The next level could be anything. We could do more grow walls. We could do murals with moss! There’s so many things you can do with regard to how these living art walls function. That’s the science of hydroponics.

Plants are already used aesthetically. All we’re doing is just saying that that’s what we’re doing.

All photos courtesy of HydroFlora.

For more information on how to get involved, you can contact HydroFlora directly, at [email protected]or visit them at the Concordia Greenhouse and take a tour of their installations.

1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W.
13th floor
Montreal, QC H3G 1M8

Follow them on their socials: Instagram and Facebook.

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