Food security has long been an issue in Canada’s north, and Labrador is no exception. One way to help address the issue is to produce more food locally, shortening the supply chain and lowering associated costs.
Arctic and sub-arctic climates have unique challenges when it comes to agriculture, one of which is the very short growing season and the impact that has on crop production.
A study is underway in Happy Valley-Goose Bay (as well as the Yukon) to look at ways to lengthen the growing season and increase crop yield using technologies never before used in the north.
A group of 10 researchers from Agriculture and Agrifoods Canada (AAFC), in conjunction with local governments and other partners, are testing the impact bioplastics and what are described as essentially miniature greenhouses have in colder climates.
AAFC Cold Climate Eco-physiologist Dr. Julia Wheeler is one of those researchers and she told SaltWire they’re looking at management strategies for increasing the productions and yield of vegetable crops, including potatoes, carrots, green beans and rutabaga.
“The general goal of the project is looking at increasing the local availability in the region of locally produced vegetables and how the different managements strategies impact soil over time,” she said.
In Labrador, the team is working with Desmond Sellers of Nature’s Best Farm and the Pye Centre for Northern Boreal Food Systems in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and Wheeler says they have been invaluable in the study.
They will be installing reusable, half-metre high plastic tunnels over vegetable rows to warm the air temperature, with the aim of lengthening the growing season.
Biodegradable bioplastics mulch is also being tested in the region, When seeds are being planted, the mulch is laid over the soil like plastic wrap. The idea is to heat up the area, allowing the seeds to germinate faster.
“The great thing about these mulches is they’re meant to break down in the soil and become a part of the soil, they’re meant to be fully compostable,” Wheeler said. “This has never been evaluated very well in northern growing conditions.”
Researchers are interested in how the mulch breaks down over time and affects soil quality, especially since bioplastics are a newer and evolving technology.
AAFC pathologist Dr. Linda Jewell is also working on the study, monitoring how the technologies impact emerging disease threats to vegetables during the growing season or post-harvest when diseases and bruising can cause spoilage in storage.
Jewell said the warm and moist conditions the technologies create for the plants are also ideal for certain types of pests, fungi and other plant pathogens.
“We’re very curious to understand when we’re using these technologies are we increasing the yield and also increasing the quantity of (what) goes in the trash if the fungi or something has gotten to it before it could be harvested,” she said.
Wheeler said each region that is part of the project has its own priorities when it comes to a sustainable food system.
“There’s no silver bullet solution for food sovereignty and food accessibility of fresh food in the north,” she said. “There’s some commonalities between communities, but there’s also a need to take a very community-focused approach and really work on co-developing the research priorities between the communities.”
Evan Careen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram