Constant gardeners: The early days of Yukon agriculture

Though food security is a hot topic in the Yukon today, finding a reliable source of homegrown, fresh food has been a challenge since the first newcomers came to the territory in the mid-1800s.

Miche Genest

Special to the News

Though food security is a hot topic in the Yukon today, finding a reliable source of homegrown, fresh food has been a challenge since the first newcomers came to the territory in the mid-1800s.

Over thousands of years, Yukon’s First Nations had evolved a balanced diet based on wild foods, but explorers, traders and miners from the south didn’t have that tradition or local knowledge. Scurvy and starvation were a constant threat. The colonists had to learn how to grow food. And so they became gardeners.

Over the ensuing 175 years, Yukon farmers and gardeners have become very good at growing vegetables and fruits for our tables. But in the beginning, it wasn’t easy.

Before the Gold Rush

Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader Robert Campbell was one of the first farmers in the Yukon to experiment with growing grain and vegetables. The company required trading posts to be as self-sufficient as possible and fur traders planted crops wherever they established an outpost.

Between 1840 and 1852 Campbell and his men sowed plots of barley, potatoes, vegetables and lettuce at Fort Frances, Pelly Banks and Fort Selkirk. Most of those crops failed due to poor soil, arid conditions, early frosts, insect infestations and mishaps, and the traders rarely harvested any significant quantity. Instead they relied on hunting and fishing for the bulk of their diet, augmented by the sporadic delivery of canned, salted, dried and powdered food from Hudson’s Bay Company district headquarters at Fort Simpson, which involved a long, taxing and dangerous journey via the Liard River and its tributaries.

Anxiety about having enough food was always present and an inadequate food supply was a frequent topic in Campbell’s diaries and letters. He and some of his men were harvesting wild hay in 1852 when rival Tlingit traders attacked Fort Selkirk and drove him out. The trading posts at Fort Frances and Pelly Banks had already been abandoned, and with the destruction of Fort Selkirk the first farming experiments in the Yukon ended.

The next batch of farmers in the Yukon were the traders and prospectors who moved into the middle and upper Yukon River drainages in search of gold starting in the early 1870s.

Like Campbell before them, they relied on fish, game and patchy delivery of goods and foodstuffs from a supplier, in this case the Alaska Commercial Company. Traders planted gardens at their posts for a fairly small market at first, but in 1882 the Chilkat started allowing prospectors to use the Chilkoot Trail and more miners came into the territory. Gold was found in the Stewart River in 1885 and in the Forty Mile River in 1886, and the community of Forty Mile was established at the mouth of the Fortymile River. Three years later, trader Jack McQuesten harvested 10 tons of turnips from his garden there.

Trader Arthur Harper settled at Fort Selkirk with his family in 1888 and experimented with several crops, but was foiled by early frosts, just as Campbell had been. In what may have been one of earliest adaptations in Yukon agriculture, Harper started covering his gardens with heavy cotton on clear nights when frost threatened, and successfully harvested potatoes, turnips, carrots, parsnips, cabbage, barley and oats in 1892.

In another adaptation around the same time, Sam Patch experimented with growing potatoes in a protected nook on the south side of the Fortymile River where the sun didn’t get to them until noon. There, they warmed up slowly and survived the effects of frost.

After a bout of scurvy in 1892-93, more miners in the community at Forty Mile took up gardening and by 1895 a traveller to Forty Mile was impressed at the many gardens growing there. Sam Patch was getting a good price for his turnips and potatoes at McQuesten’s post, and by 1896, McQuesten was also growing potatoes, barley, oats, turnips, lettuce, radishes, and cabbage for sale in his store.

Farms and market gardens in the Gold Rush era

In 1896, when gold was discovered in the Klondike River drainage, there was no time to farm, and the population once again relied on supplies shipped up the Yukon River.

But in 1897-98, serious experimentation began, as the population grew and aspiring farmers tried to figure out the best locations and soil. Market gardens were established around Dawson, on the banks of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers, and on various islands in the Klondike. Even so, the supply of fresh vegetables was limited and there were many cases of scurvy in Dawson in 1898.

But by the next year there were a dozen market gardens selling vegetables in Dawson City, and by 1901 there were several farms clustered in four areas — the Klondike Valley, Sunnydale Slough on the Yukon River just upriver from Dawson, West Dawson and Klondike Island. Farms were small, about four or five acres, or just the right size to be worked by two men.

The yield from these small acreages was impressive. The Fox and Daum farms, both on Klondike Island, produced between them thousands of pounds of potatoes, celery, cabbage, turnips, cauliflower and cucumbers, plus radishes, greens and lettuce.

At Sunnydale Slough John Charlais harvested 1,000 cauliflowers. One of his cabbages weighed 30 pounds and spread its leaves five feet in diameter, and he displayed it proudly in Dawson. As historian Sally Robinson tells us, Henry Daum was an experienced florist and greenhouse operator who came from Germany via New Jersey. His planting strategy will be familiar to northern gardeners — in mid-winter he planted seeds in flats in the greenhouse, moved the young plants into bins and pots, moved them again into cold frames in the spring, and once the sun was shining 20 hours a day, moved them into the fields.

In Whitehorse, a much smaller town in those years, backyard vegetable gardens were common and the North West Mounted Police were feeding themselves fresh peas, lettuce and cauliflower from their own garden outside the barracks. The winter road between Whitehorse and Dawson was constructed in 1902. Small farms along the route supplied roadhouses with hay to augment the delivery of oats, and the roadhouse operators themselves tended gardens.

Farms developed along the Yukon and Stewart rivers, where growing conditions were favourable and transportation of goods was reliable and relatively inexpensive. Several woodcutters cut wood for the paddlewheelers in winter and became farmers in the summer. The market demand remained high for fresh, home-grown produce over the next decade, and farmers worked hard to meet it.

Next week’s article continues the story of Yukon’s vegetable farmers and market gardeners into the twentieth century. This article is part of a series commissioned by the Yukon Agricultural Association and funded by Growing Forward 2, an initiative of the governments of Canada and Yukon.

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