In its rush to settle the West, the Canadian government practically gave land away.
Basically, all a homesteader had to do was show up.
Today, the Yukon government, like its 19th-century federal counterpart, is trying to lure farmers west.
Right now, there are three agricultural lots up for grabs in the village of Haines Junction.
But times have changed.
To get this land, the applicant needs a lot more than a strong back and a will to work. They also need a viable business plan and some market research before the government will even consider them as potential buyers.
The application process isn’t easy.
This is the second time these three lots have been put up for sale.
They’re part of the second phase of the Marshall Creek agricultural subdivision.
Last year five lots were put up for sale, but only two of the applicants met the government’s muster.
“Really we’re looking for the commercial aspect to make sure that people have thought out where the markets are for their products, what sort of products they’re going to be developing,” said Tony Hill, director of the Yukon’s agricultural branch.
“What happens is their farm development plan is submitted and once it is approved and they pay their development costs, they enter into a farm development agreement. That agreement is a contract that they have to fulfill to get title.”
The potential farmer has up to seven years to get the new farm up and running.
That’s almost how long it took Joan Norberg and her husband, Allen, to get their own operation, Grizzly Valley Farm, going. Unlike the new lots in Haines Junction, their land was already cleared.
“I would say it took us five, six years,” said Norberg. “We weren’t farming commercially for the first couple.
“We were both working off the farm and just living here like a country residential property.”
While they both grew up on farms in Saskatchewan, they didn’t really plan on taking up the trade when they came to the Yukon.
It was something born of necessity, said Joan.
“We went to the grocery store one winter, it was the week after Christmas, and the shelves were bare,” she said. “There were no eggs and no milk, so I decided to get chickens and that’s kind of where it started.”
They got lucky. Their property exists in a favourable microclimate.
“We happen to be backed up against a low mountain ridge, which holds heat for us and protects us from cold winds,” she said. “There are a lot of microclimates in the Yukon and if you get a good one, it doesn’t really matter where you’re at, things will grow.”
The area around Haines Junction isn’t the best region in the territory for agriculture.
In fact, it’s probably one of the worst.
“If you look at the data from the airport, it has probably the fewest frost-free days of any community in southwest Yukon,” said Hill.
“But there’s microclimates,” he added. “It really depends on the location of the site and your farming techniques.”
One of the territory’s most successful farms was in Haines Junction.
“Rod Tait farmed potatoes on a south-facing slope right across from the airport,” said Hill. “The growing-degree days he needed to produce potatoes on a yearly basis exceeded the frost-free days by a long shot from what they were getting at the airport.”
Farmers who do make a successful application won’t be left to their own devices.
The agriculture branch has agronomists on hand to help potential farmers figure out the best uses of the land.
Getting more farmers working land in the territory is a good thing, said Joan.
“The Yukon needs more farmers, we’re not near self-sufficient enough,” she said.
Only about two per cent of the Yukon’s food is actually grown in the territory.
Most of the stuff sitting on grocery store shelves is trucked up from the south.
“The demand definitely exceeds supply,” said Hill.
While it’s difficult for the Yukon’s relatively small-scale farmers to compete with the large industrial operations of the south, it’s not impossible.
“People are looking for certain attributes up here,” said Hill. “Locally-grown, sometimes organic.
“If you can produce to fulfill those consumer attributes that people are looking for, then it’s sort of a niche market.”
And in the last few years, the demand for that kind of food has grown.
“There has been a huge upsurge of people wanting to eat local,” said Joan Norberg. “Part of that was the 100-mile diet and the different food scares that have happened. People want to eat something that is fresh and closer to home.”
Because it’s mostly farm-gate sales in the Yukon, in some ways farmers here have an advantage over those in the south.
“The difference between the south and here, though, is people seem to realize up here that there actually is a cost to growing,” she said. “In the south they’re expected to take a mere pittance and somebody else sets the price, regardless of the price that it takes to grow.”
While there is a big market for Yukon agricultural products, it’s been increasingly difficult to convince people to take up the trade, said Hill.
“The most difficult thing, I think, for farmers right now is that the economy is so good that there’s a lot of other occupations that pay a lot more than agriculture,” said Hill.
The three lots range in size from 10 to 20 hectares and range in price from $15,000 to $44,000. The application deadline is the end of March.
While the Yukon government doesn’t have any control over the sky-high commodity prices that are driving the territory’s economic boom, it is working hard to make more land available.
After the second phase of the Marshall Creek subdivision is sold off, there is a third phase still to come.
All three phases encompass an area of about 500 hectares, but there are another 1,000 hectares near Haines Junction that could potentially be used for agriculture, and even more scattered throughout the territory.
“I think there are about 10 different areas that we’re looking at right now,’ said Hill. “There’s a definite market opportunity here.”
Contact Josh Kerr at