Have you noticed lately how many Yukon products are on the shelves of your local grocery store?
This is good news for economic diversification. When I was a kid, unless someone had put down their mitts and forgotten them after checking their grocery list, everything on the shelves had just rattled its way up the Alaska Highway in a truck.
On a recent visit to Wyke’s, Your Independent Grocer things were different. I spotted Yukon potatoes, carrots, eggs, coffee, beef jerky, pies, bagels, spices, birch syrup, maple butter, bottled water and gingerbread-spice kettle corn. I probably missed even more.
And the Yukon News reported last week that treats from the Yukon Chocolate Company will also soon be available.
I was impressed not only by the diversity of the products, but also by how much Yukon value-add was in most of them. Taking an Outside product, slapping a Yukon brand name on it, and selling it as “local” is easy but not very helpful in terms of Yukon economic activity.
One of the champions of local content is Yukon Grain Farms. If you buy one of their five-pound bags of potatoes, everything except the bag is from the Yukon. Ditto for their carrots and beets.
What is especially impressive about this company is that they appear to be fully competitive with Outside potatoes. In fact, they seemed to have taken over the entire potato section of the store with the exception of minor specialty types.
It looks like Little Red Hen Eggs are also doing well. While they haven’t chased Outside eggs from the store yet, they occupied a solid share of the egg racks and were competitively priced versus some of the products from other places.
There are also Yukon spices from Twisted Gourmet. I will assume the Twisted Curry’s turmeric and cumin isn’t from Mayo, but Old Log Cabin Blend includes Yukon wild sage and the Cranberry Poultry Blend has real Yukon cranberries. There’s also a spice blend with Yukon wild morel mushrooms.
The coffee category had the most local entries, which makes sense given our location at the northern end of the Cascadian coffee zone. There were four contenders from the Yukon watershed: Firebean, Midnight Sun, Bean North and Atlin Mountain Coffee.
Starbucks, a coffee company from Seattle, was selling its beans a few bucks a bag more cheaply than, for example, Firebean. But Starbucks isn’t roasted personally by a Yukoner using a bicycle powered roaster over Yukon birch flame.
There were also two kinds of Yukon jerky: Naturally Northern Meats and Off the Hook Meat Works.
Coffee and jerky are both critical factors in most of my camping trips, so it is great to see local producers. Neither are completely local products, of course. The coffee is grown somewhere far to the south of Atlin, and some of the meat may be from Alberta. But a lot of local labour goes into turning the raw materials into a tasty final product, and the profits stay in the Yukon.
Some of the Yukon products are dramatically more expensive than their competitors. Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup is $20 for a 250 millilitre bottle, significantly more expensive per pancake than the brown sugar goo you can buy by the 50-gallon drum from other brands.
However, Yukon birch syrup is special. Uncle Berwyn has to boil twice as much sap to get a litre of syrup as the maple syrup producers. And you have to admire how they take the trouble to offer you the chance to try both early-season syrup and mid-season syrup.
There was one local product I didn’t see at Wykes: beer. Thanks to our antediluvian beer and wine laws, you’ll have to go to the liquor store or direct to the brewery to get Yukon Brewing, Winterlong, Deep Dark Wood Brewing or eventually, Woodcutter’s Blanket product.
The Yukon entrepreneurs behind the the products above are doing an impressive job. The products stand out on the shelf, with good product design and marketing pizazz. Some of them are focused on cost-effective staples, while others are tapping into markets for high-margin treats and gifts.
And kudos to local retailers for offering outlets for local products.
As I was at the store, my note-taking was disturbed several times by shoppers elbowing past me to get Yukon coffee or jerky. Given the buzz around many of these products, I expect we’ll see even more Yukon products on the shelves in future years.
Of course, that will only happen if we keep buying them. With Christmas coming up, you might want to do your bit. Who wouldn’t want one of the tasty treats I mention above in their stocking at the cabin, rather than a frozen mandarin orange?
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.