The Tr’ondek Hwech’in have taken up the challenge of growing fresh produce in the Klondike.
The First Nation recently started its Teaching and Working Farm, with two aims: grow year-round sustainable food for the community and serve as an education and research site for northern agriculture.
Located 15 kilometres outside of Dawson City on the North Klondike Highway, farmhands recently planted the first seeds to grow potatoes, carrots, beets, onions, lettuce and edible flowers.
Dexter MacRae, the First Nation’s director of human resources, education and training, says it is difficult to access fresh produce in the Klondike for a variety of reasons: road conditions and weather present challenges in the winter, while tourism and mining brings an influx of people in the summer, leaving empty produce shelves between delivery dates.
MacRae says that the new teaching farm will improve access to fresh produce. “The fact that there will be more produce picked and sold right in the Klondike for Klondikers is absolutely the best way to obtain fresh food,” he says.
The Teaching and Working Farm is a partnership between the First Nation and Yukon College. Christopher Hawkins, the college’s vice-president of research and community engagement, agrees that the new farm will play an important role in improving food security in the Klondike.
“Even in Whitehorse, which is a little closer to where products come from in the winter time, often if you buy something today, it’s starting to rot tomorrow,” Hawkins says. “It’s no different in Dawson. So it will be a higher quality of food available to the community.”
It’s too early to say how well the farm’s crops will fare. But the plan is to sell enough produce to make the farm self-sustaining.
MacRae says they are still deciding how the products will be sold. They may end up selling the produce at local stores, at the farmer’s market or directly from the farm.
It’s also too early to say how much residents will have to pay for the food, says MacRae. While transportation costs won’t be high, the farm still needs to cover high costs of labour, electricity for greenhouses and shipping fees for supplies.
The initial crop consists largely of root vegetables that do not perish easily. However, MacRae says that the intention is for the farm to produce more perishable foods in future seasons, such as tomatoes and cucumbers. He also says that in the coming years they intend to have permanent greenhouses, build a barn and farmhouse, establish a tree and shrub nursery, engage in animal husbandry and grow fodder.
MacRae says that the “sky’s the limit” when looking down the road.
In addition to increasing the availability of fresh food in the Klondike, the Teaching and Working Farm aims to create important employment and skills development opportunities for residents.
The farm has been given the Han name, Nan kak nizhi’ tr’enohshe gha etr’ehoh’ay. This means: “On the land we learn to grow our food.”
There are five First Nation citizens working this summer as hired farmhands. And Hawkins says that Yukon College will be beginning a pilot project to train students in farming and will conduct research on the farm.
The farm presents an opportunity to test out new technology, such as the Agridome. Developed by the cold climate innovation branch of the Yukon Research Centre, it’s a dome-shaped greenhouse that’s lined with light-reflecting material to help grow crops in cold climates. Plants are grown vertically and are sprayed for nutrition instead of requiring soil.
It is envisioned that research done on the Teaching and Working Farm will benefit other northern communities that want to pursue agriculture.
MacRae says that because only about two per cent of the food consumed in the Yukon is produced here, there is room for new farmers to enter the scene without taking business away from those currently operating.
“We see ourselves working in harmony as just another farmer,” he says.
Yaelle Gang is a freelance
writer in Dawson City.