The tiny plant that packs a punch

Duckweed isn't the most beautiful of plants. Each little plant is smaller than the size of your thumbnail - just a few tiny leaves floating on the surface of a pond.

Duckweed isn’t the most beautiful of plants.

Each little plant is smaller than the size of your thumbnail – just a few tiny leaves floating on the surface of a pond.

But duckweed has a nasty habit of spreading until it forms a thin, green film over the entire surface of a pool of water. It’s not as slimy or as smelly as algae, but it looks unpleasantly similar.

Despite its appearance, however, Alexandre Poitras hopes that the tiny, weedy plant could actually improve food security in the Yukon. He plans to grow duckweed as an organic feed source using a hydroponic system on his farm. Poitras is one of four finalists for the 2016 Yukon Innovation Prize, created by the Cold Climate Innovation program at the Yukon Research Centre and by the Department of Economic Development. This year, the selection committee reviewed 28 proposals related to food security and agriculture.

Poitras and the other finalists will each be given $10,000 to develop their ideas. The grand prize of $60,000 will be awarded on June 15.

The key to Poitras’ duckweed project, perhaps unsurprisingly, is ducks. He started Yukon Berryland Farms last year on a rental property, and recently got title to his own piece of land out by Mendenhall.

In the next few years, Poitras hopes to acquire about 100 ducks, and plans to sell the meat and eggs. And he hopes to feed them almost entirely with homegrown duckweed.

“The main feed source is grain right now, and it’s imported from the South, and it’s expensive, too,” he explained. “We can’t rely on importing grains like that forever. We need to find a way to grow our own feed for livestock.”

Poitras hopes that by cultivating duckweed, he can keep his costs down, which would allow him to sell the meat and eggs for less.

But he’s also hoping to show that duckweed is good for more than just ducks. He said it could easily be used as a feedstock for chickens, pigs and horses.

“It’s a very efficient plant, actually,” he said. “When you’ve got the proper environment, you can get it to multiply quite fast.”

He also said that duckweed has a protein content of about 25 to 40 per cent, which is much higher than many other feedstocks.

“I want to set it all up and then once I have the system sized and figured out, then I can help other farmers who wish to grow some.”

Poitras said he doesn’t know of any other feed that’s produced locally, besides hay and a little grain. And even the hay that’s harvested here isn’t enough to feed all the territory’s horses, he said.

He believes duckweed could help reduce the Yukon’s dependence on Outside feed.

“If we can even just get 20 or 25 per cent that we don’t have to import, we’re still talking about a huge amount. It’s truckloads.”

Poitras wants to dig a number of shallow ponds on his property, which he’ll line and fill with water for the duckweed.

This summer, he plans to test the system on his landlord’s property, using her ducks. That will help him decide how big the ponds need to be to sustain a given number of waterfowl.

It will also help him understand what conditions duckweed needs to thrive in the Yukon. Poitras said the plant does grow naturally here, but it doesn’t tend to cover entire ponds the way it does further south.

He guessed that the cold weather and low nutrient levels in the water might make it harder for duckweed to survive here. He plans to supplement his ponds with organic manure to give the plants a better chance.

Duck meat might seem like a fairly specialized taste in the Yukon. But Poitras believes he’s going to cash in on a largely untapped market.

“The meat is a very nice meat,” he said. “There’s lots of people who are interested in it, and there’s no big producers yet.”

He also said the duckweed diet should give his birds the unique flavour of wild meat, without the tough muscles that a wild duck would have.

But there’s another reason Poitras wants to raise ducks instead of more conventional livestock.

“They’re just very friendly,” he said. “I always think that chickens are a bit dumb.”

And he said there’s no shortage of demand for locally produced food in the Yukon. Last year, he sold all the produce he harvested to the Potluck Food Co-op, Riverside Grocery and Cafe Balzam.

But in spite of duckweed’s many virtues, Poitras isn’t recommending that people start adding it to their own grocery lists just yet.

“I tried a little piece just to see. It just doesn’t taste like much,” he said. “I’m not sure if I would make a big salad of it.”

The other finalists for the 2016 Yukon Innovation Prize are Maxime Dugre-Sasseville for a greenhouse that will extend the growing season in the North, Bob Mellett for an aquaponics system that manages the growth of plants and fish, and Sharon Katz for a Yukon plant that could be used as a non-toxic ink source.

Contact Maura Forrest at

maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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