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Yukonomist: Yukon farming’s next century

When Robert Campbell set up his trading post at Fort Selkirk in 1848, one of the first things he did was plant barley. The harvest was meager, but critical in preventing starvation at the post over the winter. According to Ken Coates, sometimes an entire year would pass without receiving supplies from Outside.

When Robert Campbell set up his trading post at Fort Selkirk in 1848, one of the first things he did was plant barley. The harvest was meager, but critical in preventing starvation at the post over the winter. According to Ken Coates, sometimes an entire year would pass without receiving supplies from Outside.

If you are ever having a bad day, I suggest you read a page of Campbell’s diary. You’ll realize how fortunate you are, not least because your dinner isn’t barley gruel with chunks of rotten fish.

Yukon agriculture has come a long way in the subsequent 175 years. Today, Yukon kitchen tables are packed with delicious, high-quality Yukon foods: potatoes, farmed elk, hatchery Arctic char, haskap berries, bread, beer and more. You can even sign up for weekly deliveries of vegetables grown under artificial light in high-tech vertical farms. Local grocers such as Wykes Independent give prominent shelf space to local food.

This is much different from when I grew up in Whitehorse. While renovating, we found a newspaper hidden in the wall from 1980. The grocery flyer was long on Alberta beef and tins of evaporated milk, and short on fresh local products.

However, the momentum from Yukon agriculture is not yet showing up in the economic statistics. As a share of the Yukon economy, agriculture has slipped from 0.31 percent in 2003 to 0.09 percent in 2021. The sector has been outpaced by transfer-payment fueled growth in government jobs and a recovering mining sector.

The 2021 agriculture census reported that there were 88 farms in the Yukon, with a total of $112 million invested. However, most farms are relatively small and, as a sector, Yukon agriculture lost money in 2021.

Despite these challenges, Yukon agriculture has a growing opportunity. The Yukon’s population will probably surpass 50,000 people this decade. At 2.5 persons per household, that will mean 20,000 households buying groceries. In 2019, prior to pandemic-induced inflation, the typical Canadian household spent around $7,500 per year on groceries. That works out to a Yukon grocery market of $150 million per year (in 2019 dollars).

Plus, there is the potential of selling to local restaurants. In 2019, the average Canadian household spent another $2,775 on restaurant meals, snacks and beverages.

The big question is how to capture this opportunity. People have predicted big growth for Yukon agriculture before. During the gold rush, stampeders marveled at the long days and the size of cabbages and potatoes in Dawson. In the 1960s, the Carr Report on the Yukon economy planned for large complexes of commercial greenhouses.

So what about this time?

Today, there is a cultural trend among consumers to eat more local food. Many people fret about food insecurity, should we suffer a major dislocation to our highway supply lines. Budget-conscious consumers and anti-poverty advocates note how long transportation distances add to food costs (and carbon emissions).

As Canada moves towards net zero, a big question mark hangs over long distance trucking and shipping. If you took a customer from a gold-rush-era general store in Dawson and beamed them down into Wykes, they would be astonished at how cheaply and quickly everything from apples to mangoes could get to the Yukon.

As diesel is replaced by biofuels, hydrogen or electricity, will transport costs rise dramatically? Or will robots drive the trucks, and refill cheaply on hydrogen made by other robots? The mind boggles at the range of possibilities.

The future of Yukon agriculture could be bright. But growers will need to navigate three big trends: labour costs, climate change and technology.

If you look at a chart of Yukon wages compared to the unemployment rate over the last 20 years, you’ll see that unemployment has steadily fallen to today’s very low levels. Meanwhile, wages have risen. Which is great for Yukon families. However, for growers, it means that the days of cheap farm labour are behind them. And probably for good.

Meanwhile, scientists expect the impacts of climate change to become ever more noticeable over the coming decades. There are scary heat maps suggesting big trouble for some of the world’s biggest agriculture areas, such as the North Indian plain. Here in the Yukon, the Canadian Climate Atlas shows a moderate warming scenario for the Lake Laberge agricultural region. Comparing 1976-2005 with the expected average over the next 25 years, the scenario includes annual precipitation rising from 309mm to 335mm and frost-free days from 80 to 99.

Given how sensitive crops are to local weather, this means big changes ahead for Yukon farmers.

Finally, there is technology. Investors and government agencies around the world are investing tens of billions of dollars in so-called ag-tech. This ranges from precision farming, where sophisticated GPS trackers tell the farm equipment where to put the seeds, fertilizer and pesticides, to capturing renewable natural gas from manure to new genetically modified plants and animals.

Some of these innovations promise to dramatically improve yields and reduce labour required.

Farming is already a complex, sophisticated business. Navigating these trends will make it even more so. Growers will also need to invest bigger amounts of capital in sophisticated labour-saving equipment and farm-management devices and software.

We shouldn’t forget the pressure that growers are under. Society expects safe, quality food, delivered while respecting increasingly stiff new carbon and environmental standards, at rock-bottom prices.

Government agencies and forward-looking private food companies are working with farmers to support their success in the oncoming agribusiness environment.

However, ultimately the most important thing is you, the food consumer. I would encourage you to seek out local providers and build them into your weekly grocery routine.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He won the 2022 Canadian Community Newspaper Award for Outstanding Columnist.