Yellowknife and Hay River
“We’re so far behind up here that we’re ahead,” Evellyn Coleman told me, explaining why her Territorial Farmers Association, the first in North America to consider accepting backyard and community gardeners as full members, was inviting me up to speak in the Northwest Territories.
Just south of the Arctic tundra, where lichen and moss are the dominant plants, the prospects of any kind of agriculture or farming in the Northwest Territories seem chilling and forbidding to southerners like me. But for some hardy souls among 40,000 territorial residents, life’s glass of icy water is half-full, not half-empty. The challenge of growing food in forbidding circumstances using mostly solar-powered methods has got them excited.
Seeing what some of these sub-arctic farmers and gardeners can do is not part of the standard epic showing how humans can overcome and conquer Nature. On the contrary, they are learning to be aligned with what Nature provides. Indeed, the limiting factor for food producers in the far north, where food self-reliance was not unlearned until the 1950s, is the colonial and mining heritage focused on high throughput of gold and diamonds in and out of a local economy. The alternative is nurturing an economy that relies mainly on circular flows of goods and services within itself, such as a regionally self-reliant food system.
I believe the lessons of what they’re starting to do up in the far north are relevant for some ten million people across North America living in isolated communities and dependent on imports for basic foods –thereby losing all the economic spin-off benefits that come with a local job-rich food system.
My plane landed in Yellowknife, where France Benoit, a new director of the Territorial Farmers Association, took me to her digs — an off-grid bungalow-sized cabin overlooking Madeline Lake about 25 miles east of the city of 20,000. Benoit has a lot to do that day, but offers me the gift of “Yellowknife time – nothing is so important that it can’t be put off until tomorrow so we can make time to talk today” – the warm and hospitable timekeeping system that keeps many of the NWT’s 20,000 residents loyal to the area.
Benoit’s cabin stands near the western cornerstone of a region of 1.4 million square miles of Taiga Shield, what the Dene people called “the land of little sticks” (Denendeh), and what she calls “boreal forest, Canadian Shield, and rock, rock, rock.” At least there’s no need to truck in materials for rock gardens, I think. But Benoit is even more positive. Thinking about gardening “is like putting new lenses on, looking at your world in a new way,” she says.
She leads me past the sign warning “Trespassers will be composted” to a garage that’s been converted into a greenhouse that operates unheated for eight months a year, growing dainty crops during the summer and giving a headstart in the spring to hardier plants that can be transplanted outdoors from mid-June to mid-September.
Surprisingly, the limiting factor for Benoit is not the short length of the growing season, which is made up for by the length of the growing day in the Land of the Midnight Sun. Over a season, plants enjoy about the same amount of heat and light as they would in the area around the Great Lakes. And because the growing season comes so fast and hard, the Far North is sometimes known as the area of bumper harvests and giant crop specimens.
Benoit’s problem is lack of soil and lack of rain, much needed when days are so long and losses to evaporation are great. Countless lakes can make up for the lack of rain, and a new city program to pilot composting with Ecology North (an organization run by Benoit’s partner) offers the possibility of local soil.
Compost supplies the soil in her greenhouse and outdoor gardens, all “raised beds” which heat up quickly in the spring and provide a flat working space in this hilly terrain.
From what I’m used to in southern Ontario, there’s not much that doesn’t grow here. Outdoors, she has cool-tolerant crops such as cabbage, rhubarb, Brussels sprouts, strawberries, zucchini, cauliflower, beets, bush beans, spinach, onions, bok choy, lettuce, celery and quinoa. In the unheated greenhouse, she has sweet potatoes, chickpeas, peppers and 20 tomato plants hanging upside down from a cylinder. Their roots grow upwards and the plant grows down to make full use of the normally-unused height of the garage, a space efficiency move that goes by the name of vertical agriculture. It’s outside-the-cylinder thinking like this that turns Northwest food challenges upside down and converts them into opportunities.
The life of commercial food producers is easier in Hay River, a few hundred miles south of Yellowknife and a world apart in terms of soil; it’s a cornerstone of Taiga Plains, and has rich soil from flooding of the Hay River.
Floods produce fertility, just like the Nile, says Gene Hachey, who manages the file for traditional economy, agriculture and fisheries in the NWT government. With two student volunteers, he helps out 29 community gardens, many of them in Aboriginal communities. I visited one of them in N’DIlo, near Yellowknife, where community service worker Melissa Doctor has converted an empty lot long used as a dump into a gardening beautification project. Doctor has adapted garden production Aboriginal traditions; the dill is popular with abundant wild trout from Great Slave Lake, and the potatoes and carrots are for stews featuring moose or caribou. There is a smokehouse for preserving fish, as in Aboriginal tradition, at the rear of the garden. “Once the kids try fresh food, there’s no turning back,” Doctor says.
Some of the community gardens across the territories are required to donate a quarter of what they produce to local food banks and women’s shelters.
The leading gardener in Hay River and president of the Territorial Farmers Association is Jackie Milne, who works a plot in the town’s industrial park, as well as her own three acres on the outskirts of town. I talked to her during a break from construction on her unheated greenhouse and forest clearance for livestock adapted to the North – ducks, geese, rabbits, and Icelandic sheep, which thrive on grass and produce wool, milk and meat. Milne makes her living half the year selling into the farmers market in Hay River.
I left the territory convinced that a new breed of farmers and farm leaders — mostly women, it might be noted — is taking the local food challenge to the next level. They’re not only showing how to innovate as producers in a cold climate. They’re showing how farmers in isolated areas can grow self-reliance – what’s sometimes called food sovereignty – as well as new food jobs and tasty fresh foods commonly missing in isolated and single industry towns.
“We can feed ourselves up here,” Milne says. “We just have to convince the government to support food and agriculture as significant activities.”
(adapted from NOW Magazine, August 26- September 1, 2010)