Yukon farmers seek magic seeds

Matt Ball, the Yukon’s chief agrologist, is being followed by his entourage. The gaggle trailing him is careful not to leave the dry soil pathways between rows of peas and brome grass.

Matt Ball, the Yukon’s chief agrologist, is being followed by his entourage.

The gaggle trailing him is careful not to leave the dry soil pathways between rows of peas and brome grass.

They stop and crowd around when Ball has a new plant to show them, the dust settling down. Ball explains why, along a row of raspberries, for example, some bushes have grown one metre high while others remain diminutive.

“From what we can tell, the best thing for raspberries here would be a u-pick operation,” said Ball, adding that the kiska variety of the berry do best in the Yukon cold. He’s basing his business advice for wannabe farmers on years of research done in this small field near the confluence of the Yukon and Takhini rivers.

On this bright midweek afternoon, the doors of the Gunnar Nilsson and Mickey Lammers Research Forest are open to the public. Experienced members of the Yukon Agricultural Association are present, but there’s also some

newbies, jotting down Ball’s advice on notepads.

“The way I look at it is, we’re taking the risk out of farming — not all the risk, but some of it — by providing an idea of what yields you can expect in certain crops,” said Ball, who becomes visibly excited at the mention of plants that lure nitrogen-producing bacteria toward their roots by emitting a hormone into the soil.

“Isn’t that neat?” he said.

It’s pretty cool.

Farmers love what they do. They can’t seem to get enough of a plant’s minute likes and dislikes, the climatic variations between adjacent valleys, and the endless search for the perfect conditions that will make a crop grow.

“Farmers do research every day when they’re out on the farm,” said Ball. “They’re looking into trying things a little differently. They might be trying a new variety, they might try a little more fertilizer, just tweaking things,

playing with them.”

Ball’s mission is to provide more than just day-to-day observations. His job at the Yukon’s agriculture branch is to create statistically valid data that can be published in peer-reviewed journals, he said.

That data is what promises to bring more farmers to the Yukon, and to make more farmers out of Yukoners.

It’s not a new idea.

Agriculture Canada began experimenting with northern-climate farming in 1917, at the Swede Creek Experimental Station near Dawson City.

That project slowed down and experimental growing didn’t start again until the 1950s, when a research farm at Mile 119 on the Alaska Highway, north of Haines Junction on the way to Destruction Bay, opened.

“You’ll still see a massive field with yellow flowers in it and that’s an alfalfa that was developed in the North, in Fort Vermilion, I believe,” said Ball. “To this day, it’s still growing around the area.”

Research at Haines Junction continued until the mid-1960s. The current experimental farm north of Whitehorse began in 1988.

“We also have a site near Pelly (Crossing),” said Ball.

The biggest challenge to growing in the Yukon is the much-dreaded frost. The number of consecutive frost-free days is a typical measure of how agriculture-worthy a region is.

“We get frosts any month of the year,” said Ball.

A frost won’t kill a crop, but it can gradually reduce its productivity.

Every time leaf cells burst from freezing and those leaves die, that plant has to grow shoots all over again.

If frosts keep on coming, the crop will be splotchy and become a money loser.

Crops in the Yukon River Valley to the east, and crops in the Takhini River Valley to the west, will grow differently because of frost-free days.

“The Yukon River Valley has a nice flow so it doesn’t have that accumulation of frost,” said Bradley Burton, a research technician with Yukon agriculture.

“The Takhini River Valley has cold coming down it, so its frost hits pretty hard,” said Burton.

Farms along the Yukon River usually get 100 frost-free days a year, while the Takhini farms get around 60.

After the frost and dry climate, the Yukon’s soil is the next big hurdle.

Filled with volcanic ash, the soil clogs up when it’s moist and turns to powder when it’s dry.

The research being done at the farm these days focuses on wheat, raspberries, peas, and two types of flax seed that could be used in biodiesel engines.

It has yet to be decided which flax has the most potential to grow in the territory. It’s a tight race between the Polish and Argentine varieties.

“The Argentine flax is doing better because it’s a shorter season crop,” said Ball.

But the Polish flax, or Brassica rapa, is catching up because it’s used to northern regions and it usually brings higher yields.

The research farm is limited in seed varieties, because of a genetically modified food ban that’s required for some of its funding.

The committee that doles out the flax funding, the Advancing Canadian Agriculture and Agrifood Canada committee, forced the genetically modified food ban for all funding recipients.

“That limits your options in the rapa world,” said Clare Langlois, research director at the BC Grain Producers Association.

Langlois does his research on 1.6 million hectares of farmland in Dawson Creek, which is, climatically speaking, as close as it gets to the Yukon.

BC grain farmers pay a small grain elevator fee and that money funds Langlois’ research.

He maintains a close relationship with the work that Ball does, and they shared advice and tips constantly throughout the walkabout.

“You don’t plan to fail, but you do plan to explore,” said Langlois, referring to experimental farming.

Being a research farmer can be a tiresome job, relentlessly seeking information from farmers across the country, and then seeing if the same seed will have the same success on your own parcel of land.

Prairie tillers might scoff at a farmer trying to make it north of 60.

“But if that farmer hits the jackpot,” said Langlois. “Darn right he’ll be laughing.”

Contact James Munson at