Why Canadian farmers should harvest lessons from the North

·4 min read

Sonny Gray thinks the crop of farms popping up across Northern Canada might end up teaching the rest of us lessons vital to the future of the country’s food system.

“(Canada) takes for granted that California and Mexico are very nearby, and they’ll always be there,” said the co-founder and CEO of North Star Agriculture. The Yukon-based startup helps northern farmers, First Nations, and community groups establish farms and food processing hubs to meet local food needs.

“We focus on exports like canola oil or soy. We’re not really focusing on the fact we’ve got 'X' amount of people who we should be trying to feed.”

But in Northern Canada, farming has a different goal: Keeping people fed. Most food eaten in the three territories and northern parts of the provinces is imported. With few or no roads into the region, stores are often a truck- or planeload away from running out of stock, Gray said.

The situation has driven surging interest in farms across Northern Canada, from Whitehorse to Wabush. Most are small and aim to serve local markets. Yukon alone saw the number of farms in the territory increase roughly 10 per cent between 2011 and 2016, in contrast to a decline in the number of farms nationwide. Vegetable production in the territory surged by about 50 per cent in the same period, according to Statistics Canada.

And Yukon farmers are bucking national trends: The average age of the territory’s farmers is 53, compared to 55 nationally, and over a third are women. Several First Nations have also developed farms on their traditional territories, including the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, in 2015.

Earlier this year, the Na-Cho Nyäk Dun First Nation won the $485,000 Arctic Inspiration Prize to build an Indigenous food sovereignty hub. The project will add to a farm started by the nation in 2020.

But farming in the North does have unique challenges, said Gray. Everything from facilities to equipment can be hard to come by, so farmers need to be more creative and resourceful.

For instance, farmers in Southern Canada have fairly easy access to mechanics if a piece of equipment breaks. Northern farmers don’t have that kind of help at hand and might need to wait weeks before the part arrives, potentially delaying time-sensitive tasks, such as harvest and haying.

“We’re forced to do everything, and that’s a very different business. Farming is already a business, but that’s taking it to another level altogether,” he said. In Yukon, that resourcefulness has led to the creation of everything from a mobile abattoir to cutting-edge developments in greenhouse technology.

Gray sees similarities between the territory and other countries where expansive, pastoral landscapes are in short supply, like Iceland or the Netherlands.

“Iceland or the Netherlands, these locations had to innovate,” he said. “Looking at their innovations … what I would really like to see in the next 20 years is for us to apply this stuff in the North and really get a handle on our food production here in the Yukon becoming more and more sustainable.”

For instance, his company is starting to develop a geothermal greenhouse project similar to ones in Iceland. In 2013, the country met about two-thirds of domestic demand for tomatoes — and 99 per cent of its demand for cucumbers — domestically, according to a 2018 study. Gray envisions creating a similar system in the territory to wean it off imports.

Farmers, governments, and community groups from across the country have noticed Yukon’s success. Gray said he regularly receives calls from people in other regions with similar food systems challenges, like Newfoundland and Labrador or northern B.C., looking to increase local food production. He expects those calls will only get more frequent.

“If a place as far in the North as we are can (produce more local food), then it’s really possible for us as a country to really focus in and start to grow our own food,” he said.

Marc Fawcett-Atkinson / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer

Marc Fawcett-Atkinson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer