Farming for Yukon’s future

Matt Ball gets excited about seeds, especially seeds you can grow in the Yukon.

Matt Ball gets excited about seeds, especially seeds you can grow in the Yukon.

Ball is the head agrologist in charge of the experimental farm at the Gunnar Nilsson and Mickey Lammers Research Forest near the Takhini Hot Springs Road. On Wednesday, he gave a group of agriculture enthusiasts a tour of the farm and explained some of the work the farm is doing.

The farm has a number of plots where Ball is testing to find which varieties of various crops can survive in the Yukon’s harsh climate.

“The crops that we focus on, we focus on because for thousands of years someone else has focused on it,” Ball explained.

“They’ve made it so that that little seed is a bigger seed … and is much more worth harvesting.”

When the tour came to the haskap berry plot, Ball got particularly animated, even if the plants still look a little anemic.

The berry orchard is a new addition to the farm this year, so the plants haven’t had time to grow beyond a few little bushes, but Ball is optimistic.

“There have been a lot of questions about this haskap, this honeyberry. What is it, how does it grow, can we harvest it and can we use commercial machinery to harvest it?

Haskaps, a combination of honeysuckle and blueberry, create a hearty crop and Ball said anecdotal evidence already suggests that it can survive Yukon conditions and generate good crop yields.

“I think in probably 10 years, you will see large-scale haskap production in the territory,” Ball said.

The farm is also testing various forms of organic fertilizer, such as blood meal, and how it affects different crops.

One section of Yukon Gold potatoes is being used to test two theories: that they can be grown bigger if given more space, and that biochar can help keep the soil fertile longer.

Kawina Robichaud explained that biochar is wood that is burned without oxygen in specialized, air-restricted containers. The result, which looks like charcoal, is crushed up and mixed into the potatoes’ soil. The farm is testing differing densities and mixtures of biochar to see how it performs.

Once nearly everything in the wood has been burned off, including oxygen, water, and saps and resins, biochar is essentially pure carbon, the keystone building block of all life on earth.

“Once you put that carbon in the ground, it acts like kind of an apartment block for bacteria, fungi, all sorts of stuff. It adds structure to the ground.

“Have you heard of Terra Preta, the black earth down in South America, in the Amazon?” Robichaude asked the tour group.

“It’s this black, black dirt that has been fertile for thousands of years. When they started looking at it more closely, they found that perhaps biochar is what could have been put in that ground and maintained over hundreds of thousands of years, and is still showing good results today.”

The best thing about biochar, said Robichaude, is that the burning process can be used to generate heat and power, so along with a fertilizer farmers could get a sustainable way to heat and light their homes, once the technology is perfected.

Farther down the farm plot, Ball and coworker Brad Barton showed off a variety of grains that are being tested. Ball saved the best for last, highlighting the quinoa that the farm is currently testing.

“We’re trying quinoa here at the request of a lot of folks in the industry. We’ve got it going, and it might make it. I haven’t looked at it in a week or so, but we’ll see what happens.

The whole effort, Ball said, is to help figure out which crops grow well in the Yukon, and which ones are marketable.

“What we’re trying to do at this research site is test out the varieties and try different management practices that will help to mature these crops. It’s ultimately about growing things.

“That’s why the berries have come on as so important for me. The potential per acre for production is quite high, so if you were to look at certain markets … you could get a good value per acre, as a net income,” he said.

He said that part of the challenge is finding ways to make the economics of local farming work. Even if you could grow a hundred acres of wheat, you’d probably only need about 10 or so to satisfy the local demand for flour.

“You have small markets here. Think about who uses flour a lot in town. It’s Alpine Bakery, but how much? It wouldn’t be that much volume. So there’s all kinds of little issues you can tease out of this,” Ball said.

Getting those issues identified and sorted out is important, Ball said, because it will help find ways for Yukoners to control their own food.

“Food security, or food sovereignty might be a better word, is all about having food available. The food is grown in an area, and you have access to it,” Ball said.

Enter Caitlin Dorward, whose research project with the Institute of Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Richmond, B.C., is studying exactly that.

“It’s a three-year program looking at what kind of food is available, what are people eating right now and what kind of resources are in the communities already, and also talking to people about what they need,” Dorward said.

Dorward is working with Norma Kassi from the Arctic Institute of Community-based Research. Together they are touring Yukon communities and talking to First Nation people about how to get involved in the Yukon farming system and begin growing their own food.

“We’re working with about seven Yukon First Nations communities that are really interested in developing a long-term food security strategy for their traditional area, but they also want to collaborate with the rest of Yukoners,” said Kassi.

“We’re now doing Carcross, and people are really keen there. People are doing their own gardens, and starting to look very seriously at declining traditional food sources, and what can we do about that,” Kassi said.

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