Farming on the fringe

Steve Mackenzie-Grieve grows good grain. Almost too good. After 10 years of nurturing the territory's silty soil, the Yukon Grain Farm proprietor wants short grains. Tall, robust grain takes too much time to mature, and growing seasons are short in the Yukon.

Steve Mackenzie-Grieve grows good grain.

Almost too good.

After 10 years of nurturing the territory’s silty soil, the Yukon Grain Farm proprietor wants short grains.

Tall, robust grain takes too much time to mature, and growing seasons are short in the Yukon.

“You can combine when it’s frozen, but it’s no fun,” said Mackenzie-Grieve.

“You only get one cut up here, where you can get two or three or four depending on other areas of Canada,” said Wayne Grove of the El Dorado Game Ranch, a local hay producer.

“Switzerland: they’re already doing their first cut,” he said.

Only 150 farms—which includes dog breeders—dot the territory, producing a small, but steady trickle of locally produced food.

With some of the world’s greatest agricultural land only a few latitude points to the south, tilling the edge of permafrost would seem foolhardy.

In the South, rich soil and longer growing seasons mean more efficient farms.

But high transport costs give Yukon producers the breathing room they need to succeed.

“If farmers look at the difference between imported hay and their costs of production here, it can be quite lucrative,” said Tony Hill, director of the Yukon agriculture branch.

An Alberta farm could produce hay at $60 to $70 a ton. By the time it’s trucked to the Yukon, the cost has ballooned to more than $250 a ton.

“Field crops—things like potatoes, rutabagas, hay, barley and oats, things like that—we can be very competitive, and profitable,” he said.

Local vegetable production only meets “two to three per cent” of Yukon vegetable consumption, said Hill

“It might be a bit higher with livestock products, maybe seven or eight per cent,” he said.

Cool temperatures make the Yukon a mecca for low-temperature crops such as cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and oats.

Yukon growers could be supplying 100 per cent of the territory’s “cool crop” needs—and at a level of quality only dreamed about by southern producers.

“With the quality of carrots you could grow up here, people would be eating five times more carrots,” said Mackenzie-Grieve.

For at least six months of the year, local producers could provide 100 per cent of Yukon carrot needs.

While seasons are short, the daylight pays dividends.

Grove produces less per acre than a southern hay producer, but his yields are far higher.

Temperature-fickle crops, such as tomatoes and asparagus, will probably remain the domain of southern agriculture.

Despite these advantages, Yukon food production falls far short of its potential.

“There’s some hay production, but as far as I can see, that’s it,” said Mackenzie-Grieve.

In recent years, many Yukon farmers have given up the plow.

From 2001 to 2006, 22 Yukon farms shut down, reducing the territory’s total agricultural land by 14.7 per cent.

“I think there’s room for dairy, I think there’s room for poultry, I think there’s room for pork, beef,” said Grove.

“There’s a wide-open poultry market and nobody’s stepped up to the plate,” said Mackenzie-Grieve.

There were only 6,301 chickens in the Yukon in 2006.

The same isolation that gives Yukon farmers the upper hand is also their most painful Achilles’ Heel.

Here, simple fertilizer—practically free for southern farmers—costs thousands of dollars, said Grove.

In agriculture-rich southern Ontario, BC or Alberta, aspiring farmers simply tap a well-established food-supply chain.

Growers are only one cog in a massive wheel that includes packers, wholesalers and distributors.

“If you’re down South, you don’t have to know anything, you don’t even need to own a piece of equipment,” said Mackenzie-Grieve, who also owns a farm outside Lethbridge, Alberta.

When farming the “borderline,” as he calls it, farmers are on their own.

“Up here, most of the time when you learn, it’s the hard way,” said Mackenzie-Grieve.

All of the Yukon Grain Farm’s equipment has been painstakingly hauled up from southern vendors.

Since a small operation allows him to use equipment considered obsolete in southern markets, much of it came at a relative bargain.

“That’s the benefit to farming in the Yukon,” said Mackenzie-Grieve.

Often, transport costs outweigh the cost of the original machine.

“Breakdowns can be an issue, you can’t walk across the street and go to the dealer and get the part, you have to wait,” said Grove.

But it does less work, so Yukon-based equipment lasts longer.

The Yukon’s arid climate makes irrigation an absolute necessity.

In the South, many farmers can simply hook up to a municipal water grid. Yukon farmers must dig wells or tap nearby water sources. The Yukon Grain Farm draws water from the nearby Yukon River.

Yukon’s arable land is structured into a “dog’s breakfast” of oddly-shaped parcels, making irrigation a logistical nightmare, said Mackenzie-Grieve.

The rare rains are usually not welcome.

“Harvest starts, and that’s usually when the rains roll around—so you got to deal with that,” said Grove.

The call of the “Yukon Grown” label is a powerful force. The territory’s farmers count on a loyal customer base.

“I’m always taken aback when I bump into people that are buying our stuff; they’re really supportive,” said Mackenzie-Grieve.

“Farming here is considerably more rewarding, because when you do produce stuff, people notice it,” he said.

There’s strong demand here.

“But the Catch 22 is you don’t have the infrastructure,” said Grove.

Government hopes to promote local growers with infrastructure investments.

Recently, officials received a $5-million federal agriculture grant.

But its investments have had mixed results.

In 2006, the government sank $170,000 into a mobile slaughterhouse to spur local meat production.

The unit has rarely been used.

“As soon as it arrived here, then we started to realize where some of the other missing links were,” said Hill.

Before local meat production ever comes close to cornering a projected 10 per cent of the market, a system of slaughterhouses, transportation and distribution must be established.

“We’re in a process right now of looking at all the assumptions that were made before and trying to figure out how to fill those gaps,” he said.

It may take more than money to spur local food production on the frontier.

“In the ‘80s they dumped a lot of money into the (Yukon Agriculture Association) and it all went nowhere,” said Mackenzie-Grieve.

“If you’ve got to give money to people to get them to start their businesses, they’re going to fail,” he said.

The green benefits of local agriculture may be hard to ignore.

The El Dorado Game Ranch consumes slightly more than one truckload worth of fertilizer and diesel fuel, but produces 300 to 500 tons worth of product.

It’s probably a factor of 10 or 20 times less fuel for the same amount of food, said Grove.

Plus, with Yukon winters acting as a natural insecticide, local farmers only use a fraction of the chemicals needed on a southern farm.

Nevertheless, turning acres of wilderness into farmland still carries a potent environmental stigma.

For eaters, tilling northern soils may ultimately come down to a matter of taste.

“Less freight, less pounding, less abuse,” said Mackenzie-Grieve, hand-sealing a pristine five-pound bag of Yukon grown potatoes.

Contact Tristin Hopper at

tristinh@yukon-news.com