Waving fields of golden wheat around Whitehorse? Or juicy fruit ripe for the picking in local orchards?
This isn’t a reality yet – though Dawson-area growers sold Yukon-grown apples, corn on the cob and eggplant at the Dawson City farmers’ market this summer.
But these possibilities are being explored by the agriculture branch through its research farm at the corner of the Hotsprings Road and the North Klondike Highway.
According to agrologist Matt Ball, the farm is “on the edge” of having mature wheat this year. “We were last year, too, but we didn’t get the quality we wanted.” They’re now harvesting grain samples to test, but Ball still doesn’t think the wheat has reached the quality and yield they want. “Ideally, we’re seeking early maturing wheat so that farmers won’t have problems with killing frosts or precipitation at harvest.”
The farm is also testing raspberries and a number of different animal forages, including grass, legumes, oats, and field peas.
All of which begs the question of the limits on agriculture in the Yukon. As far as its science is concerned, says Ball, the key elements are soil and climate. “Our soils are generally low in organic matter,” he says. “That means they’re low in carbon and don’t have as much nutrient cycling as the rich black soils in the prairies.”
There are several factors in making soil. The first is what Ball calls the “critters” that live in it, such as microbes, insects, beetles, spiders, worms and fungi. “The warmer and wetter the climate, usually the more varied the micro- and macro-fauna in the soil are.”
The second factor is the time it takes for soil to develop. In the Yukon, it takes longer because of the smaller range of organisms in the soil and the lower precipitation. That precipitation, along with temperature, is the third factor, and helps determine the plant material that grows on the surface. “Grassland, for example, is one of the best environments for building really good, carbon-rich soil. A treed environment such as we have here is usually less conducive to good soil development.”
A fourth factor is the parent material underneath the soil. In the Whitehorse area, most of that material is related to the end of the last ice age, 10,000 years ago, when glacial lakes and rivers formed a lot of the soils.
“They’re generally soils that have good mineral composition – good amounts of silt, some sand, and clay,” says Ball. “But they’re usually lower in plant matter because they haven’t had tens of thousands of years of plant growth on their surface.”
Nevertheless, soil can be modified quite quickly to make it more productive for growing. “A young soil is not a bad soil because it has a lot of the micro-nutrients you need for production – minerals such as chlorine, manganese, boron, zinc, and copper. But it’s usually lower in organic matter, which means it’s lower in carbon, which means it’s lower in nitrogen.”
That means that manures, composts, fish meal, bone meals, or blood meals – ground-up animal parts – or inorganic NPK fertilizers must be added to enrich the nutrient content of local soils. “There are bacteria in soil that make nitrogen, and you have more of them in a carbon-rich environment.” Without sufficient nitrogen, plants aren’t able to grow.
But the Yukon’s young soil isn’t the only issue; there’s also the climate, with its short, dry growing season and limited heat for maturing crops. “During the spring and summer we get the heat units that we need to grow a number of different crops,” says Ball, “but we often don’t get the length of the season to mature them all.”
The Yukon, in fact, has two different growing climates. Whitehorse and the southern Yukon, which are affected by the ocean, have a cooler climate, while the central Yukon – Carmacks to Dawson – has colder winters but warmer summers, thanks to its more continental climate. In fact, it’s possible to mature wheat in the central Yukon under irrigation. If climate change brings a longer, warmer growing season, then growing good quality wheat might be possible in the Whitehorse area, too.
The aridity of the Yukon climate is also a challenge. “We get most of our rain in the fall, when usually you want to be harvesting, and very little rain in the spring, when you need quite a bit for crop germination and plant growth.” That means that successful growers in the Yukon usually have to irrigate.
Modifying the climate, like modifying the soil, can be done in a number of ways, from greenhouses to cold frames to woven floating row covers. These white cotton covers that sit over top of each row of plants “help warm that environment and function like mini, unheated greenhouses, reducing frost damage,” says Ball. “If it’s a crop that’s sensitive to having cover over it, like onions with their fragile stems, then you put a metal frame in there so that the cover doesn’t affect growth.”
Growing year-round in a greenhouse is limited not by the temperature but by the cost of lighting. “If you can solve that problem you could use a growth chamber – a walled, insulated building with lights.”
In Alaska, the Chena Hot Springs Resort outside Fairbanks is operating a greenhouse year-round, heated entirely with water from the hot springs. Last January, it maintained greenhouse temperatures of 26C with outside temperatures that dropped to -48C. It produced tomatoes, lettuce, green beans, peppers, cucumbers, and numerous greens and herbs. (See www.chenahotsprings.com/chena-fresh/.)
The 2010 North of 60 Agriculture Conference, to be held November 5 and 6, will address some of the challenges to developing agriculture in the Yukon. For more information, or to learn about the agriculture branch’s services to growers, go to www.agriculture.gov.yk.ca. You can also download a copy of its excellent quarterly newsletter, InFarmation, or be placed on its mailing list. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 867-667-5838, toll-free 1-800-661-0408.
This column is co-ordinated by the Northern Research Institute at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at www.taiga.net/yourYukon.