Bart Bounds tends to his chickens at Elemental Farm, just off the Takhini Hot Springs Road north of Whitehorse. The Agricultural Land Grant Program allows Yukon residents to apply for farmland in the territory. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News)

For the right people with the right plan, Yukon’s agriculture branch has land

‘It definitely takes more work to farm up here’

Picture this: In the kitchen, your partner brews coffee. The smell of it pulls you out of bed as it drifts into the room. You get up and have quick breakfast: a couple of eggs courtesy of the chickens, a slice of toast, some salt-and-peppered tomatoes still warm from the greenhouse.

While you eat, you and your partner go over your to-do list for today: the young chickens are big enough now to go in with the laying hens, so somebody has to move them over into the main hen yard. Some of the squashes in the greenhouse — the zucchinis in particular — are developing a bit of leaf mould, so one of you will have to go out and spritz down the leaves with an anti-mould treatment approved for use on organic farms, in order to keep your certification and your crop.

The irrigation system needs to be rotated in the hay field. (You’re probably going to have to do that together. It’s a pretty heavy job.) There’s a length of fence that needs to be stretched because a couple of the calves have been slipping through it. Oh, and there’s the accounting that needs to be done, and the loan application for the new tractor and the woodlot in the back acreage needs survey.

Sound like a lot of work? Nobody said farming was easy — but it can be rewarding. The same can be said about the agricultural land grant process in the Yukon: Done right, by the right people with the right plan, there’s land out there waiting for you.

The Agricultural Land Grant Program allows Yukon residents to apply for farmland in the territory. Successful applicants are allotted the land on a conditional lease, usually for a period of seven years. The purpose of these grants is not for people looking for homesteads, but rather “to meet the land needs of the industry and meet agricultural production,” said Shannon Gladwin, the agricultural lands co-ordinator for the government’s agriculture branch.

There are two types of these grants, said Gladwin. The more complex of the two, called spot grants, allows people to select “farmable” land in the Yukon, usually more than 100 kilometres outside of a local municipality. These plots can be between six and 65 hectares (15 to 160 acres) and must meet certain eligibility requirements, such as soil capability, geography and climate type, she said.

Spot land grants are designed to be used for “mixed farming,” Gladwin said, with a focus on crops. The grants include a clause in the lease that says 53 per cent of the land “must be cleared, broke (sic) and seeded with a crop suitable for human or animal consumption.”

One of the biggest barriers to land suitability in these application processes is soil quality, said Gladwin.

Agriculture Canada identifies seven different soil classes with 13 different limitations. In most of Canada, arable land is considered to be Class 3 or lower. In order for a plot of spot land to be eligible for the grant, 80 per cent of the applied-for plot must have soil Class 5 or better, she said, which can sometimes be challenging.

“Most farming in Canada is done on Class 3 or better land,” said Gladwin. “But because we have very little available soil (in the Yukon) we use Class 4 or Class 5 soil.”

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada defines Class 5 soil type as having, “very severe limitations that restrict their capability in producing perennial forage crops, and improvement practices are feasible.”

“It definitely does take more work to farm here,” Gladwin added.

If the agriculture branch finds the proposed site is eligible for a spot land grant, the applicant submits a farm development plan. This is essentially a business plan for a farm, listing what crops or animals you intend to grow or raise, expected costs, and projected revenues. The plan is reviewed for viability, and, if approved at this stage, the application goes to review with the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board. It is then reviewed like any other YESAB application, examining potential wildlife conflicts, First Nations and heritage land rights and potential environmental impacts. The YESAB application is open to public commentary.

“This is an important step in the process, as it ensures all other potential land use groups are considered,” said Gladwin.

If the application clears YESAB, then the proposed parcel is surveyed and assessed. The applicant then signs a seven-year agreement. Instead of paying for the land directly, farmers pay through sweat equity, or what the agriculture branch calls “one for one” equity. This means that farmers must make pre-agreed-upon improvements which equal the dollar value of a property. This includes work like putting in power lines and access roads, clearing land, and developing soil potential.

“For every one dollar (or work) you put in, it goes towards the value of the land,” said Gladwin. “Developing land can be pretty costly.”

The property undergoes twice-yearly inspections, “to make sure things are progressing,” said Gladwin. At the end of the seven-year lease or whenever the agreed upon development goals are met — whichever comes first — the title of the land can be signed over to the farmer, who is now its legal owner.

Alternatively, there are also planned land grants, which are a similar process, but usually occupy areas within driving distance (under 100 kilometres) of municipalities, including land in communities like Ibex Valley, Mount Lorne and Takhini Hotsprings Road. Spot land grants are not permitted in these areas, which “are usually lands that have potential for high demand,” said Gladwin.

These planned grants pre-identify and survey areas suitable farming within these areas, and then put them up for application. Applications in this case compete with each other. Unlike a spot grant, these applications require would-be farmers to pay the cost of development up front.

“We’re finding with this planned land that we are getting a lot of committed producers … some really committed farmers,” she said. “If you want to be close to Whitehorse, planned grants are probably the best options for you.”

Russell Oborne is a farmer who successfully applied for planned agricultural land in the Haines Junction area. He and his family raise cattle and horses and grow crops such as oats and hay.

Oborne said the process was intensive, but that the agriculture branch helped walk him through the application process.

“I think they make the process so comprehensive because they really want you to understand what you’re doing, what you’re getting into…. They want to know you’re serious, that you’re just not out to get land, but to farm.”

Contact Lori Garrison at lori.garrison@yukon-news.com

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