Being a history hunter seems to have qualified me as an expert in just about everything, even when I don’t deserve the title, so when a News reporter recently called me on the telephone to ask me some questions, I didn’t realize how easily my transitory thoughts could be immortalized in the written word.
Tristin Hopper called me unexpectedly and told me he was doing a piece, I remember, on agriculture. He read to me over the telephone some remarks made by the minister about the agriculture industry and asked me what I thought.
This question put my puffed-up historical ego into overdrive. I was being asked a question, and by virtue of that fact, I deluded myself into thinking that I was an expert.
I also deluded myself into believing that I was providing background information for an article that the reporter was preparing.
In my defence, I do believe that I qualified my remarks by stating that I wasn’t really an expert on the subject, but then my jaw really warmed up to the subject.
The crux of the matter pivoted around the quote which was read to me: “… one hundred years ago, most of the Yukon’s food supply was either grown here, or hunted, or fished,” the minister apparently said. “The territory’s population was as high as it is now, and managed to take care of its own needs through locally grown food.”
“Wool sheets,” I said.
And then my jaw got working faster than my brain. Naturally, I didn’t think that anything I said, my knowledge having already been qualified, would be quoted directly in the News.
Technically speaking, when the minister said the population 100 years ago was as great as the current number, he was thinking of the gold rush, which was 110 years ago. By 1909, the population had fallen off dramatically, and continued to decline until the Second World War.
To state that most of the Yukon’s food supply back then was grown, hunted, or fished here, needs to be qualified. Remember that we tend to idealize the “good old days.”
“They don’t make things like they used to, back in the good old days!” I sometimes hear.
They certainly don’t. When I was young, automobiles were massive, inefficient, deadly hunks of steel. The industry was fighting improvements like seat belts every step of the way. The introduction of the seat belt was more than the customers would tolerate the experts said, and the industry would suffer if these devices were introduced.
I also spent a lot of my time with the hood up, bent over the engine trying to figure out how to keep the wheels rolling.
Before I go on, I must qualify my remarks by pointing out that the First Nations mastered the art of self-sufficiency, and it is they alone who can claim to have provided all their food needs wholly from what was picked, fished or hunted near home.
Europeans seldom achieved self-sufficiency, unless they were smart and took a wife who was raised here, and wise to the ways of the land.
Europeans insisted in bringing most of their food supplies with them from Outside, and then augmented that with food items harvested locally. So focused were they on the hunt for gold that they frequently failed to eat properly. Scurvy, one of the scourges of improper nutrition, frequently visited the miners’ cabins in the early days.
Flour, beans and bacon were three of the miners’ most popular imports back then.
In the days before the gold rush, the only gardens were nurtured by the traders, or those who remained in the tiny communities such as Fort Selkirk, Stewart, Ogilvie, or Forty Mile. One of them even trained a moose to pull a plow.
One well-known exception to the cultivation of food was Sam Patch, a miner who grew a small field of potatoes on the shores of the Fortymile River. When William Ogilvie surveyed the international boundary, it cut right through the potato patch.
A man named Fritz Kloke established a small fishery to supply the hungry miners of Forty Mile, and meat was acquired by hunting, or purchased from local native hunters, but the demand for beef has always been met, in large part, by importing.
The first cattle were herded into the Yukon in 1896, before the discovery of the Klondike, and once the stampede got under way, thousands of head of cattle and sheep were imported annually to meet the demand.
At the height of the gold rush, there were already a dozen garden operations, and gardening became well established in later years. W.S. Paddock of Dawson City, for instance, had a going concern by 1909, when he could boast of 930 square metres under glass in six large greenhouses, as well as 28 hectares of land under cultivation.
By 1909, over 1,000 hectares of land had been purchased for agricultural purposes along the Yukon valley, in the islands in the Yukon River, on the banks near the mouth of the Pelly River, and at Fort Selkirk. The growing season was short, but the extended hours of sunlight, combined with fertile valley-bottom soil and warm weather, produced abundant crops in a short time.
Enormous heads of lettuce were trumpeted, and 1.6 kilogram potatoes were reported.
Four kilos of potatoes are documented as having yielded 125 times that amount when harvested, and the production of over 90 metric tons per hectare of the tubers is known.
Historically, a wide variety of vegetables, grains and forage crops have been grown in the Yukon.
In 1917, a government experimental farm was established near Swede Creek, just upstream from Dawson City. Ten years later, they could report wheat production of four metric tonnes per hectare of wheat, nine tonnes of oats, and 4.5 tonnes of barley.
Various forage crops were producing satisfactorily, with the exception of buckwheat, though extreme winter conditions could kill off much of the crop the following year.
Despite the bounteous yields under ideal conditions, the prospect of early frosts, permafrost-laden soil, and isolation all limited the potential for growth of the agricultural industry.
The sources I referred to stated that the Yukon agricultural industry has been limited to supplying the local market only, and it has never been sufficient to meet even that demand.
Having conducted background research to compile the facts that I have presented above, I have also learned that there is much more to be digested before I can speak with authority about Yukon agriculture. Eyes and ears open and mouth shut is the order of the day for me on this topic.
And the next time I am asked for an expert opinion, I’ll think before I speak.
Michael Gates is a local historian
and sometimes adventurer
based in Whitehorse.