Harvest swoon: The lean years of Yukon farming

Between 1901 and 1911 the Yukon’s population fell from 27,000 to 8,500, but as the population shrank, the demand for local produce increased and farmers could make a profit. As the local food supply increased new technologies developed.

Between 1901 and 1911 the Yukon’s population fell from 27,000 to 8,500, but as the population shrank, the demand for local produce increased and farmers could make a profit. As the local food supply increased new technologies developed.

In 1901 farmers on Mosher Island built a storehouse over frost-free cellars to house between 25 and 30 tons of root and other vegetables over the winter. In 1908, another farmer ventilated his root cellar to keep the temperature at 3C. That winter, turnips, carrots and parsnips sold in Dawson for 10 cents a pound and onions for 12 cents a pound.

In 1915 there were 48 homesteads on 4,500 acres, nearly all of it under cultivation. Dawson was still the largest Yukon market, and most farms were located within 65 kilometres of the city. But there were farms and market gardens scattered throughout the territory, from Burwash Landing to Carcross to north towards Dawson.

In 1916 the North-West Mounted Police reported that the Yukon was importing fewer vegetables, “as the growing of them in the north is past experimental with the possible exception of potatoes.” Farmers had sold an estimated 500 tons of potatoes, celery and cabbages were larger and more flavourful than those from outside, and it was possible to buy “any native-grown vegetable at any time of year.” In 1919 the extensive menu at the Arcade Café in Dawson featured items such as Chicken El Dorado with Klondike Celery, Moosesteak a la Chieftan with potatoes Tim O’Brien, and Peel River caribou chops and Yukon green peas. Local food had made its way not only to local households, but to local restaurants too.

By the 1920s increased mechanization and a shrinking population resulted in less demand for forage and feed crops in the Yukon, and several farms were abandoned during this period. However, vegetable farmers continued to thrive near Dawson. Carcross area farmers produced beef and vegetables for the community. And in 1928, hay and vegetable production near Mayo was well established.

Backyard gardens in many communities continued to provide families with seasonal fresh produce and harvest fairs were held in Mayo, Dawson and Whitehorse. Paddle wheeler menus in the 1930s and 40s featured local meat and vegetables: a menu on the SS Klondike in 1942 offered Dawson City tomatoes, Yukon radishes, Marsh Lake whitefish, boiled brisket of Pelly River beef, stuffed haunch of Carmacks veal, and roast loin of Stewart River moose.

The Yukon’s population continued to shrink, and by 1941, the number of farms had decreased to 26 and the area under cultivation shrank to 511 acres. But in 1942, the building of the Alaska Highway heralded the beginning of a new era of road transport and cheaper shipping costs. The paddle wheelers continued to travel the rivers, providing farms along the river valleys with access to cheap transport, until the North Klondike Highway from Whitehorse to Dawson was completed in the early 1950s.

In 1954, Dick and Hugh Bradley purchased and continued operating the historic farm on Pelly River. However, others were not as fortunate. With shrinking markets, loss of river transport, and improved transport for cheaper goods up the Alaska and North Klondike Highways, many farmers found there was little incentive to stay in business. In the 1960s, farming activity in the Yukon dropped off considerably, and by 1971 there were only 12 farms in the Yukon, the area under cultivation grew to 2,271 acres.

Despite its promise of a speedy and efficient link to the south, the Alaska Highway was slow to improve and the supply of seasonal fresh produce continued to be spotty. Mark Wykes, who grew up in Whitehorse and today runs the local Your Independent Grocer franchise, recalls eating a lot of canned vegetables in his youth. He jokes that the local food scene at that time was “powdered milk.” He says, “Meat and so on were taken care of but from a highly perishable vegetable standpoint, we suffered up here.”

Wykes’s family, like many in those years, grew a backyard garden. In the absence of fresh produce coming up the highway, householders turned to growing it themselves.

In the meantime, the farming sector struggled. In 1975 the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs put a moratorium on release of land for agricultural purposes in the Yukon (and NWT) citing the lack of a territorial agriculture policy, the need for research into suitability of the land, and the First Nations land claims processes that was then getting underway.

However, despite the uncertainty, several farmers whose names are still well-known today started up their operations in the 60s, 70s and 80s — the Drurys, the Dowdells, the Buergees, and several others. In 1974, the Yukon Agriculture and Livestock Association — now the Yukon Agricultural Association — began to speak for the local farming sector. In 1982, a territorial Agricultural Development Council was created through legislation, and shortly afterwards land around Yukon communities was made available for agriculture applications.

In 1991 there were 137 farms in the Yukon, distributed along the river valleys, where soil and climate are most friendly to agriculture and water is readily accessible, in five regions: Dawson-Mayo, Kluane, Pelly-Faro-Carmacks, Watson Lake and Whitehorse. Seventy per cent of the farms were within 100 km of Whitehorse — a shift from the previous century, when the majority of farms were clustered near Dawson. Farmers need to be close to the market, and to off-farm job opportunities, since most farmers don’t make a living from farming.

In 2011, the last year for which census data is available, there were 130 farms in the Yukon (down from 148 in 2006), but the picture has changed. The dominant crop is still hay, but there has been steady growth in vegetable, fruit and berry production. Fresh produce is the fastest growing sector in Yukon agriculture for both small and large scale operations. As well as growing grain, Yukon Grain Farm sells a significant amount of locally-grown potatoes, carrots, beets and cabbage to major Yukon retailers. Smaller farms and acreages also support big yields. Haskap berries are now becoming the largest domestic berry crop and experimentation continues to expand the diversity of what can be grown here.

We’re eating it up. Local markets are hungry for fresh produce, and over the past two decades, consumers, communities, farmers, retailers and government have evolved creative ways to not only grow food, but to get it to us, including farmer’s markets, community gardens, and traditional and alternative retail models.

We’ll look at how producers and vendors are working together to grapple with that centuries-old challenge, providing a secure supply of fresh, homegrown food.

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.