Sustainable farming’s local shepherd

Brian Lendrum recognizes Pink by running his hands up her horns, until his fingers find the broken tip. The nanny goat's got nice colouring with black stripes framing her tan face.

LAKE LABERGE

Brian Lendrum recognizes Pink by running his hands up her horns, until his fingers find the broken tip.

The nanny goat’s got nice colouring with black stripes framing her tan face.

But Lendrum’s never seen it.

The Lake Laberge goat farmer’s blind.

“It’s up to you, of course,” he says politely.

“But, I think, talking about sustainable farming is far more interesting than the fact I’m blind.”

After morning milking, as he chases the goats out to graze, it’s apparent blindness doesn’t impact his farming. Although there were times, as he wandered after his goats in their 100-hectare grazing area, when finding the trail home proved a little tricky.

Lendrum used to work for Indian and Northern Affairs as an administrator, now he wears dirty blue coveralls that smell a bit like his billy goat, Muncho – a handsome, furry character who pees on his beard to impress the nannys.

Lendrum got two goats in the late ‘80s, after he fell in love with a rocky piece of property on Lake Laberge and quit his government job.

Today, he has 17 nanny goats, two billys and slaughters upwards of 20 kids every summer. He makes goat cheese, sells the milk, the meat, has 60 turkeys to slaughter at Thanksgiving, and harvests two massive market gardens.

But Lendrum’s still not certain the farm is making enough to support him, his wife (who works part-time), and their helper.

“People say the family farm can’t survive in this age of low food prices, high input costs, and low return to farmers,” he says.

“But we’re not quite willing to accept that yet.

“Although we still have other sources of income, we’re hoping to show it can be done, because there are lots of young farmers who would love to live off their farms.”

“People have been really damaged by agriculture here,” says Melisa Zapisocky, hired to study Yukon farming for BC’s Canadian Centre for Community Renewal.

“It’s a broken system.”

Zapisocky, who spent all of Tuesday with Lendrum, has been touring farms across the territory for a couple of months to “understand the face of sustainable agriculture in the Yukon.”

It’s not sustainable, she says.

We’re about to go look at the broccoli, when Lendrum realizes Mazzy is missing.

She’s a pound pooch, mostly Great Pyrenees, and tends to follow his two newest helpers out with the goats.

Since 2005, Lendrum’s lost five goats a year to grizzlies, coyotes and, once, an eagle. But after his two new Great Pyrenees started living with the herd last year, he hasn’t lost any, and it saves him the three to six hours a day he used to spend with the herd.

“I’m learning to trust them,” he says.

The dogs aren’t pets, but Mazzy is, and she distracts the boys.

We’re coming out of a humid greenhouse overflowing with basil, tomatoes and beans when Mazzy shows up with one of them, both tails wagging.

Lendrum ties up the culprit and ignores the big fuzzy dog; after a few minutes he trots off again to look for the herd.

Back in the squat, log goat barn, Lendrum’s hands find the stainless steel pot full of warm milk. On his way to the house to pasteurize the day’s riches, he stops to show off an immaculate white building with thermal windows and well-sealed doors.

It’s going to be the new milking shed, and was paid for by the government’s agriculture fund.

There’s been a big change here in the last 10 years, says Lendrum.

When he first started selling at the Whitehorse farmer’s market in the ‘90s, it was “not well attended.”

These days, his spicy chevre and kohlrabi are gone within the first hour.

“The community is really behind the idea of local produce now,” he says.

“And I really feel this kind of small intensive farming is what is suitable here.”

The Yukon agriculture branch used to only show interest in huge hay fields and extensive pastures, he adds.

“But now they’re taking these smaller farms more seriously.”

While some local restaurants, including the Birdhouse Eatery and Gifts, the Chocolate Claim and Georgio’s are buying local produce – and there’s one farmer with so many potatoes he’s selling to Superstore – nobody is growing enough food to supply Yukon grocery stores on a regular basis, let alone big institutions like Whitehorse hospital, Yukon college or the jail, says Zapisocky.

“If they want to grow for retail institutions, then they need to compete on volume so prices can go down, because right now you can buy potatoes for 50 cents at the grocery store or, locally, at the market for $5 a pound.”

A small Yukon farm, like Rivendell, could feed 100 people for the whole summer, she says. “All you need is 300 farms that size, and that would feed the whole territory.”

And local produce is so much better for you, she adds. “As soon as you pick a plant its nutrients start to erode. By the time fresh produce makes its way up here from southern suppliers it has less nutrients than frozen veggies.”

The best soil for farming is near Mayo and Dawson, says Zapisocky.

Lendrum’s scenic piece of land is an old lake bed – hard-packed clay. He spent five years building a compost pile on the swath of land that eventually became his garden, and many of his vegetables are growing in raised beds only a few feet deep, on top of clay.

Last week, he took 78 heads of broccoli to market; they all sold.

“Sometimes I get grandiose ideas about getting bigger,” he said.

But the work is already “relentless.”

In a spotless kitchen dedicated to the purpose, Lendrum begins the pasteurizing process, after taking off the blue coveralls and washing up.

Everyday, the milk is heated to 78 degrees, using hot water. To make cheese, it has to get even hotter. It’s a time-consuming process and uses a lot of power, and water.

Then, there are the gardens.

The broccoli all came into season at once this year, and unable to keep on top of it, a lot went to seed.

The goats get the refuse, including the bases of cabbages and the stalks of lettuce that shot up before he could get it to market.

In turn, the goats’ turds fertilize the garden.

There’s a nice synergy there, he says.

Lendrum’s farm pays for itself, and then some. But he’s not sure it’d even be enough to keep them in coffee if it came down to it.

“Part of the problem is confidence,” says Zapisocky.

“Farmers need to understand the consistency of their products,” she says.

“Otherwise you get a restaurant ordering greens twice a week for six weeks and if they don’t come through, well, that would be a very uncomfortable relationship.”

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was a distributor in Whitehorse who was buying 1,000 pounds of cabbage from Dawson and thousands of pounds of produce from Rivendell. But as the big-box stores came to town, that distributor disappeared, she says.

And those box stores don’t do their own warehousing, says Zapisocky.

Now, “farmers have to get their own land, their own roads, their own power, water, develop their soil, plant, grow, pick, wash and get their produce to market, as well as figure out their own distribution channels.

“There’s no foundation for them here.”

From his cheese-making room in the basement, Lendrum hears bells.

“The goats are back,” he says.

They’ve only been foraging for an hour, which doesn’t help Lendrum’s grain bill.

The goats should be largely self-sufficient all summer, foraging for the fireweed and rose petals that fill their meat and milk with nutrients.

But if there’s something out there, like a grizzly, and they have a reason to stick close to home, he’ll give them feed.

On the other hand, he doesn’t want to encourage them to stick around “if they’re just being jerks.”

There are several things that make a good goat, he says, mentioning his old battle axe Helga. She doesn’t give much milk anymore, maybe only half a litre each time, but Lendrum would have a tough time slaughtering her.

A good goat needs to do more than just produce milk, he says.

“They need to be disease resistant, good foragers and be able to keep track of their babies.”

Helga’s an excellent forager, he says.

If he can afford it, Lendrum would like to keep her around for a peaceful retirement.

“Plus she has such lovely ears,” he says.

This is something his hands can appreciate.

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com

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