Mary and Rolland Girouard are old hands at farming in the Yukon.
They acquired their little piece of paradise in 1983, and were one of the firsts to develop the now-abundant Takhini River Valley for agriculture.
This year they were named Farmers of the Year at the annual North of 60 Agricultural Banquet in Whitehorse.
They call it Rivendell Farm, and the Tolkien reference is no accident.
Rolland had been looking for a piece of land to farm since he was a teenager, and when he saw this one, he knew it was special.
“I looked and it and I went, ‘Wow, the river is pinched together here, it flows around the valley, there’s a cliff on this side and it pinches together and flows out again,’” he says.
“And if you read The Hobbit, it’s the exact description. Exactly as the hobbit said.
“I just, ‘Wow.’ And it’s been my Rivendell ever since.”
Mary had voted for “Strawberry Fields,” an ode to the late wild strawberry crop that carpeted the land on the September day she first saw it.
The name of the farm is settled, but Mary and Rolland’s battle of wills continues.
Sitting around their farmhouse kitchen table, they are a caricature of a couple that has spent decades living and working side by side – talking over each other, finishing each other’s sentences, sometimes saying the same thing at precisely the same time and other times diverging on their own separate tangents.
Their farm has survived various incarnations.
At first the intention was to have horses and grow hay.
Later they had a herd of elk, 55 head strong.
Those plans were sidetracked by severe allergies that Rolland developed.
“My doctor said, you have to sell your elk and stop farming because your wife is going to come home and find you dead of anaphylactic shock with your head in a bale of hay,” he says.
So they did stop. But only for a time.
Rolland’s allergy issues have since been resolved, but they didn’t go back to keeping livestock.
Today their operation is part organic market garden, part tourism operation and part educational experience.
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They grow 60 varieties of vegetables and fruit, and two or three or four types of many of those.
They call it “Yukon’s organic experience,” and it’s all about growing food for people, and teaching them how to do it for themselves.
Since 2008 the couple has operated a pick-your-own club, a farm membership that not only allows families to be involved in their own food production, but teaches them a little along the way.
The Girouards have learned from experience that a little knowledge goes a long way when it comes to harvesting the garden.
Before the pick-your-own club, untrained pickers did a lot of damage.
The most famous example, Mary and Rolland will tell you, was the Broccoli Lady, “who shall not be named.”
“She went into the garden, she came back and said,” Rolland says, before Mary interrupts, speaking over him.
“She had baskets, big baskets of broccoli,” says Mary.
Rolland jumps back in. “She said, ‘I don’t have to go home and cut any of them up. They’re all just the right size.’”
He motions to indicate that all of the little broccoli pants had each only grown to a little floret poking out of the soil.
“Which means they were two weeks before harvest,” adds Mary.
“She cut my entire crop, 500 plants,” says Rolland.
“Two weeks before they were due to harvest,” Mary repeats, for emphasis.
“Heads of broccoli this big,” says Rolland, again indicating little, golf ball sized plants.
“Where did my crop go? Do I get mad at this lady?” asks Rolland.
“She was perfectly sweet,” Mary interjects.
“She was a nice, sweet lady!” Rolland agrees. “She didn’t know any better,” he says.
“It happened so fast. Within half an hour, it was all done. And there went an entire year of growing. We got some nice side shoots. But everybody else that came to the garden, ‘Where’s the broccoli?’”
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So today, helping with the harvest comes with a little more supervision and training.
But you don’t have to be in the club to visit the farm and learn a few things.
For an entrance fee you can bring the family out and spend the day wandering the gardens, nibbling on whatever’s ripe, walking the raspberry bush labyrinth, or playing with a variety of lawn games, including a chess set.
The sugar peas are always a big hit, when they’re reading for picking, says Rolland.
“I say, ‘Sample the wares, don’t turn green.’ Because everyone will overeat.”
The kids are often happy just to run around and play in the mud, Mary says.
“We’re really popular with the four-to-seven year olds.
“It’s like Disneyland for them, and all they’re doing is playing in the puddles and looking at the plants and nibbling on the peas.
“There’s nothing extravagant about what we’re doing,” says Rolland. “Kids just get to use their imagination. It’s an imagination station.”
And they love to see the food come out of the ground.
“You should see their faces when you pull up a potato plant for the first time, and all these potatoes spill out.”
“The swarm!” adds Mary.
“And when you pull a carrot out of the ground, and they’ve never seen where a carrot comes from,” says Rolland. “It’s just, ‘Wow.’”
Kids will eat their vegetables if they taste good, Rolland and Mary say.
One mom told them that after a trip to the farm, she took the kids through the McDonald’s drive-though and was munching on veggies while the kids ate their french fries in the back seat.
“Mom’s sitting in the front, she’s eating a purple bean,” says Rolland. “They say, ‘What are you eating, Mum?’ ‘Beans. Wanna try?’ Give the kids beans, they never went back to their french fries!”
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The biggest barrier to people growing their own food in the Yukon is only believing that it’s possible, says Rolland.
“We grow a tremendous variety of food here. We can feed ourselves here. Always have been able to. People just don’t have the belief.”
A few years back, a local paper ran an editorial that asserted the only thing that grows in the Yukon is mould in the bathrooms, he said.
But it’s just not true.
There are close to 200 operating farms in the territory, according to the agriculture branch’s latest statistics.
A 2011 livestock survey counted 3,601 chickens, 615 horses, 213 cows, 90 goats and 60 pigs.
Farmers are also raising llamas, bison, elk, rabbits, turkeys and other poultry.
Over the summer the weekly famers’ market attracts dozens of vendors and hundreds of Yukoners looking to get closer to the food they eat.
And in the fall even the conventional grocery stores are flooded with plump, sweet Yukon vegetables, especially potatoes, carrots, beets and cabbage.
Mary and Rolland don’t keep their Yukon farming secrets close to their chests, because they want you to grow food, too.
All of their varieties are marked with custom signs, with tips on how to grow that plant in the North.
Rolland will tell you where to buy the seeds and how to care for them.
“Because I want you to grow it,’ he says. “You don’t necessarily have to buy from me, but if you’re growing that I’ve been successful, as far as my philosophy goes.
“I’d like be a millionaire, but I chose this lifestyle, being a farmer and growing food for people.”
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at