Yukon-grown items used to be a rarity on store shelves.
That has changed in the last decade, according to Bobbie Milnes, the director of the Yukon government’s agriculture branch. He says retail penetration has been a key shift in the agricultural sector in the territory in recent years.
“Ten years ago, it would have been pretty unusual to see a Yukon-grown agricultural product in a retail store, with some exceptions,” Milnes told the News in a phone interview on Feb. 22.
“You almost take it for granted that Yukon producers are in retail, and that’s especially true in the summer months. We have flour from Yukon, you see carrots and potatoes and beets in person. It’s year-round. Those are huge strides in terms of establishing a kind of resilient agricultural sector,” Milnes said.
For example, Yukon Gardens supplies greenhouse-grown produce for sale on shelves in Whitehorse stores.
Lorne Metropolit is the owner and operator of Yukon Gardens. In 1985, he started a show garden to demonstrate what can be grown in the northern climate, and now his second-generation family business has grown to become the Yukon’s largest family-run greenhouse and garden centre operation, according to a government press release.
In the release on Feb. 22, Metropolit is being recognized by the Government of Yukon as winner of the 2022 Yukon Agriculture Award.
“Lorne’s dedication to growing produce in the north has helped expand the Yukon’s agricultural sector and highlight what can be grown in our climate. His resilience, innovation and hard work has ensured that Yukon Gardens’ greenhouses continue to put healthy, nutritious food on the tables of Yukoners and is an example of the territory’s ability for self-sufficient food production,” John Streicker, minister of energy, mines and resources, said in the release.
On its website, Yukon Gardens grows trees and shrubs, annuals and perennials, and produce such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.
“When you have an operation like this, it takes many hands to be a successful food producer,” Metropolit said in a Feb. 24 phone interview.
“I’m tickled pink and I won’t really let it go to my head.”
His daughter and his team of up to two dozen employees — depending on the time of year — still struggle to keep up with the high demand for local food products. Their tomatoes were seeded in growing chambers at the end of December, and their greenhouses were frozen over to keep the “bad bugs” down. Metropolit said they do not use pesticides, and bees will pollinate the tomatoes.
“Horticulture is developing and, using a pun, it is growing, but we’re still hampered by cold and dark, and that’s going to be a difficult way to get around things,” Metropolit said.
In a statement, Yukon Party Leader Currie Dixon also congratulated Metropolit for receiving this year’s honour.
“Yukoners know Lorne and the Metropolit family as longtime contributors to agriculture in the territory, and most people usually start their growing season with a visit to Yukon Gardens,” Dixon said.
“With food security a top-of-mind issue with many Yukoners, Yukon Gardens and Lorne’s northern-specific agriculture knowledge plays a valuable role to help provide quality vegetables grown close to home for local grocery stores.”
The award winner was announced in the days following the Yukon government’s North of 60 agricultural conference, which was held virtually this year in lieu of the typical in-person tradeshow and banquet. Milnes said the conference marks an opportunity to take a deep dive into the sector to inform the territory’s next multi-year development plan.
The plan is a five-year guiding document that will be used to negotiate funding with the federal government. Milnes said the current funding program, known as the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, is a $3-billion envelope that expires March 2023.
It is expected the new plan will be completed by the end of November.
“The updated multi-year development plan will be an accessible, engaging, and inspirational document that both captures the state of the agriculture and food production industry in Yukon today and provides a well-researched, realistic vision for future development,” reads a PowerPoint slide about the plan.
Last November, provinces and territories negotiated the Guelph agreement to set out the priorities and focus areas for the next agricultural policy framework. The Yukon’s plan will be rooted in this agreement, Milnes said.
The 2016 census of agriculture counted 142 farms in the Yukon. Statistics Canada will be releasing the 2021 count later this year.
On its website, the Yukon Agricultural Association says Yukoners have become more aware of food security issues and this heightened awareness translates into supporting local food production and consumption. Producers can sell their products to local retailers, food co-operatives, restaurants and caterers, at farmers markets and through community-supported agriculture programs and government programs.
“It’s a really exciting time for agriculture. Obviously, it’s an anxious time for food security, with [COVID-19] and challenges around supply lines, but we’re really excited about our sector here, and we believe it’s growing and we want to make sure it continues to grow,” Milnes said.
Contact Dana Hatherly at email@example.com