TH Farm outside Dawson City has recently introduced livestock including pigs. (Lori Garrison/Yukon News)

Dawson City’s Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in teaching farm grows up and out

Staff hope to eventually grow produce year round

Thirteen-year-old Dawsonite and future-farmer Jonathan Robinson, standing in the shade of the chicken coop with a hammer in his hand, has some strong feelings about going to school at the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Teaching and Working Farm.

“It’s awesome here,” he says, shifting shyly back and forth from one foot to the other. “I love all the different kinds of stuff, all the different animals.”

The “different animals” —pigs, chickens and rabbits — are new additions to the TH farm, which is in its second year of classes. The farm started up last season “on a shoestring,” says Dexter MacRae, director of teaching and training, with a set of large gardens and basic infrastructure. Now, the facility, located just outside of Dawson City proper, not far from from the airport, is expanding into livestock and other, more advanced agricultural ventures.

“Every day is a little bit different,” says Mercedes Taylor, standing in the open air kitchen where TH farm students prepare their meals. She is holding an armful of dill sprouts in a black seeding tray. More herbs for cooking line the windows of the cook shack. This is Taylor’s second year in the program, having begun learning at the farm in its inaugural year.

“Last year was really different. (There were) no animals for one thing,” she says. “But even the vegetables that come out of here are just amazing. We sold beets and carrots at the Moosehide (gathering) last year and everything was gone within a few hours.”

Taylor is, like most of the farm’s 22 students, a TH citizen. The farm is on TH traditional land, and the sign, upon entering, reads, in Hän, “Nän käk nizhi’ tr’ënohshe gha ëtr’’ëhoh’ay” which translates to “on the land we learn to grow our food.”

The farm currently has 22 students of varying ages, 17 post-secondary and five secondary, MacRae says. Students spend three hours a day in classes, which are taught in a large, open-air frame tent. The other four and a half hours of the day are spent in practicum, doing things like tending the sprawling garden beds, planting seedlings, operating and maintaining farm machinery and taking care of the pigs.

Most students live on-site in small frame tents. In the heat, some have left the flaps to their homes open. When the breeze catches them you can see briefly inside: Small, neat residences for one occupant, with a bed against one canvas wall a desk, a little place to hang your clothes.

Outside one of these 18 tents, a large black dog lays in the shade cast by the awning next to a pair of black rubber boots. This, MacRae tells me, is Cherry, the official TH farm dog (and the only dog allowed on site), who belongs to Josh Moses, one of the farm’s second-year students.

“Cherry’s part wolf,” Moses tells me, offering the dog a treat. She gobbles it up and sniffs at his fingers, looking for more.

MacRae tells me that, as far as he knows, there isn’t another program like the one at the TH farm in all of North America. Here, a First Nation learns to farm on its own land. TH citizens live there and manage it full it time as both a school and a community resource.

“What they’re doing here is really unique,” MacRae says, as he takes me out to visit the swine yard.

He kneels in front of the hook up for the electric fencing which rings in the pen. He tests it gingerly with a finger and determines it’s been properly disconnected when he doesn’t get zapped. The pigs lay in their enclosure on their sides, basking in the dust and the heat of the day, generally disinterested in moving.

“I’m not sure why they’re all locked in,” he says. “It looks like they might have just accidentally shut themselves in.”

MacRae opens the gate and the pigs — about the size of dogs at this stage — roll up onto their feet and trot over to inspect us. Their flat, wet noses snuffle over my fingers, the backs of my hands and nibble at the folds in my jeans. One pig takes my shoe lace in his mouth and undoes my boots, while another tries to pry the metal studs from my belt, and a third takes his head and rubs it vigorously back and forth against my knee.

Carelessly, I lay my notes down on the water trough. A piglet takes the opportunity to sample my work, eating a page straight out of my notebook.

Nearby, newly-constructed chicken coops — complete with protected outdoor runs, so that the birds get lots of fresh air and sunshine — are full of chicks. The Cornish-crosses are still fluffy and yellow and fit in the palm of your hand, although they will soon be the white, double-breasted, red-combed meat birds most people are used to seeing.

“They’re growing very fast,” says MacRae. The chicks were both locally-sourced and shipped up from Vancouver. Only six of 206 birds died, an impressive feat considering how notoriously delicate the young birds can be.

The farm also has laying chicks growing in a separate pen. I put my finger through the mesh to touch a one, a sweet little black-mottled fellow. He’s impossibly soft, like willow fluff. The birds scamper and jump and bump into each other, perfectly happy in their shady, open-air enclosure.

We cross paths with Derrick Hastings, the full-time, live-in manager for the farm. Hastings is resting against a fence in the shade for a moment, sweating and dust-covered, sporting a ball cap and a dirty Dawson City Music Festival t-shirt.

“You got that post out, eh?” MacRae says, pointing to a gaping hole in a newly-worked field.

“Yeah, damn man. It was right in there, like, four feet. Not as long as we thought it might be, though.” he says, shaking his head and grinning. “Things are coming along.”

A little ways away from Cherry and Moses’ tent, the ground has been sectioned off and levelled to make room for the farm’s next big project: a state-of-the-art greenhouse which MacRae hopes will be able to produce greens all year round. The greenhouse, still in the process of being designed, will be about 11 square metres and positioned as much in direct sunlight as possible, even in winter. It will recycle heat by using polycarbonate blankets which can be rolled down over the structure in the winter.

While there have been some rumours circulating among micro-green enthusiasts in Dawson that the new greenhouse will be a vertical project. MacRae dispels the idea. He says aspects of vertical farming, namely the highly controlled, industrial-style methods often required to make maximum efficiency in such projects work, is not in keeping with the philosophy of the farm.

“Under no circumstances are we interested in creating a farm that only produces food,” said MacRae. “We’re about health and wellness, not just a farm.”

Contact Lori Garrison at lori.garrison@yukon-news.com