Yukoners are turning to farming to boost self-sufficiency and build the market for local food, a trend local agriculture experts say is being reinforced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We've seen a huge spike in people who want to garden and have backyard chickens, meat and rabbits,” said Sonny Gray, president of the Yukon Agriculture Association.
The effects of the pandemic on Yukon's food supply have been minimal, but Gray believes a spike in the price of chicken and blip in the imported pork supply were enough to give people pause.
“We only have a certain number of roads. When they get washed out or (there's) a forest fire or fuel spill, they get shut down,” he said, adding grocery stores rely on frequent deliveries from the south.
Yukon's agriculture director, Matt Ball, said the territory of 36,000 people is a small market, but demand for local food outstrips supply and the pandemic prompted people to think about food security.
“We hardly saw a disruption in our supply out here of national products. But nonetheless, that reinforced the message that we should really be looking locally,” he said in an interview.
Strengthening food security in Yukon is a multi-layered task, said Gray, from developing backyard gardens to larger commercial operations with enough local processing and inspection capacity.
The large grocery chains in Yukon have well-established supply agreements and inspection protocols that make it difficult for smaller producers to get their products onto those shelves, he said.
Yukon's first territorially inspected poultry processing facility opened this summer and Gray said an additional red meat abattoir spurred him to scale up his own pork operation in recent years.
“It was just one piece of infrastructure that was introduced to suddenly change the game,” Gray said.
Just outside Whitehorse, Bart Bounds said it was unusually challenging to get seeds for his certified organic vegetable farm as more people tried gardening this spring.
Bounds said he would like to see local seed banks, breeding programs for livestock and a certified organic grain producer in the territory. While food may be produced locally, he said, many common seeds, animal feeds, fertilizers and pesticides are imported.
Gray is also the CEO of North Star Agriculture, a company that helps Yukoners build and manage their own farms, from feasibility studies to implementing new technologies.
For example, he said, North Star has worked on a vertical hydroponic farm operation that's heated with geothermal energy, which means vegetables can be grown year round.
Energy supply can make or break an agriculture endeavour in the territory, where the growing season is limited and subject to increasingly erratic weather patterns, Gray noted.
North Star is also working with the Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nation to develop a 130-hectare farm about an hour outside Dawson City and 80 kilometres from the nation located in Mayo.
Elected chief Simon Mervyn said the nation has around 600 members, about 100 of whom live near the farm, and they supported the purchase with a community resolution last year.
The effects of climate change on food that comes from both Yukon and abroad were top of mind, said Mervyn, noting warmer temperatures are driving moose and other game farther north.
Their property already has an abattoir, stables, cultivated fields, wells and a greenhouse, and Mervyn's said his goal is to share and collaborate with other First Nations in the territory.
“We're hoping that together we can really create an industry that would be self-sustaining and maybe marketable as years go by.”
At the same time, Mervyn said the farm is an opportunity to blend food security and sustainability with land-based healing and education for community members.
“It's going to take a lot of planning. It's going to take good infrastructure. But, you know, it's just indicative of what we have to do together, collectively, as Indian people in Yukon.”
As Yukon's local food business develops, Gray said there's potential to start exporting food products to Alaska or southern Canada, as trucks often leave the territory empty.