The Sami people of northern Scandinavia have a lot to teach Yukoners about herding caribou, but none of it is useful.
Changes to the Yukon Wildlife Act a decade ago make it illegal to farm caribou. They are listed as wild animals and only with the consent of First Nations could they be turned into a food supply beyond wild harvesting.
“If our First Nations decided to go that route at some time, there’s an awful lot of information available,” said Tony Hill, the head of the Yukon’s agriculture’s branch and organizer of a territorial team sent to the 7th Circumpolar Agricultural Conference in Alta, Norway, earlier this month.
While tradition is a boon to food security in Scandinavia, it becomes an impediment here, where herding was never originally practised.
“Traditional agriculture is not so traditional here,” said Hill.
“It’s just something that hasn’t been part of their culture so they don’t think of agriculture in the same sense as we think of agriculture,” he said.
“They think of it more in a sense of traditional harvest and using native herds and that kind of thing.
“Where the difference in Europe is, is they are a lot more organized in how they use resources.”
As the reindeer stalemate exemplifies, the Alta conference sparked excitement about the future of Arctic agriculture, but sparked few ideas on how to make it a reality.
With no silver bullets emerging from the conference, the future of local food looks a lot like its past: harvested in the wild, small-scale and secondary to imported food.
When asked for a specific example of something learned at the conference that could one day be grown up here, Hill mentioned a lesson in what not to grow.
“They’ve done a lot of work over there on cloud berries,” said Hill, speaking on the phone after returning from the trip.
“As a result of the work that they’ve done, we know we shouldn’t be looking at cloud berries because, after seven years of research, it doesn’t look all that promising.”
“We benefit from that rather than finding out something on our own.”
Hill, who accompanied nine other Yukoners in Norway, then turned away from specifics and touted northern agriculture’s potential.
“There’s a lot of interest in building northern agriculture for food security purposes and to create local economy,” he said. “There’s good economic and environmental reasons for having a local economy rather than importing it.”
The conference, which had around 125 attendees, focused a lot on the impacts of climate change and a growing global population – projected to increase by half in the next 40 years, said Hill.
“People are starting to look north for where this source of food is going to come from,” he said.
But can the North deliver?
Not yet. Much of the research done in the past century failed to overcome the usual suspects in failed northern farming schemes: year-round frost, harsh winters and tough soil.
The conference was meant to go the extra mile. With experts from nearly a dozen circumpolar nations in attendance, the hope was some transnational networking might occur.
Russia is doing research on perennial cereal crops for livestock feed using fewer resources. This looks promising for Yukon farmers, who work mostly near Lake Laberge and in the Takhini Valley.
“They’re always looking for lower feed alternatives,” said Hill.
The most popular local feed is hay, which is hard to grow and expensive to buy.
“We have more horses than we do cattle and the market for hay is driven by the horses more than the cattle,” he said.
But whether cheap livestock feed can spark local meat production is another question.
The networking with the most promise won’t remake northern agriculture, simply develop the small-scale and wild-harvested model that already works.
Bev Gray, owner of Aurora Borealis, was the Yukon’s only herbalist on the Norway trip.
She befriend Laila Spik, the Sami ambassador for Sweden, who also attended the conference.
Spik gave a presentation on traditional plant uses by the Sami, who are indigenous people from northern Scandinavia. During a bus tour along the fjords near Alta, Gray grew nauseous and Spik gave her some angelica.
“She always has it in her pocket,” said Gray.
Gray had heard of it, but it’s not used much here, she said.
Spik also gave her a traditional recipe for pine bark bread.
“It’s more like a cracker,” said Gray.
The Yukon herbalist also taught Spik a thing or two.
She pointed out a mugwort, or Artemisia vulgaris, which has medicinal purposes.
“It was a plant that (Spik) had heard of, but wasn’t completely familiar with,” said Gray.
They also talked about crowberry, which was recently found to have antifungal properties in a University of British Columbia study, she said.
The only plant Gray mentioned with large-scale potential is rhodiala, which already grows wild here.
“It’s one of the only plants that’s helps us adapts to stress,” she said.
Rhodiala studies conducted by the Norwegian Institute for Agriculture and Environmental Research showed the robust plant has promise as a northern crop.
“It grows very well,” said Gray. “And wild harvesting would make it extinct – that’s what happened in Russia.”
When it comes to meat, there is both promise and frustration.
The Sami have traditionally herded reindeer or caribou for centuries, as well as goats and cattle for the last couple hundred years.
There was a mid-conference tour that took attendees to a dairy, said Hill.
“We need a dairy in the Yukon,” said Gray excitedly. “There were a lot of incredible cheeses and yogurts. I would love to see the Yukon have a dairy.”
The Yukon does allow bison, elk and muskox to be farmed. But First Nations disinterest in caribou farming effectively puts an end to that species making market.
There was no First Nation representation on the trip. A message left with Joe Tetlichi, who chairs the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, was not returned before press time.
Jeannie Burke, who sits on the board of the Arctic Health Network, also went to Norway.
But she was not given a mandate to do research for the network, she said. She’s a volunteer on the board.
There were lots of informal talks between the Yukon’s farming envoys, Ralph Mease and Rick Tone of the Yukon Agricultural Association, and farmers from other countries, said Hill.
“For the people you take over there, it’s really what they make of it when they’re there,” he said.
Contact James Munson at