Green thumbs abound in Northwest Territories

Green thumbs abound in Northwest Territories
Jessica Cox waters her plot at Fort Smith’s community garden.Photo: Chris Talbot.

Budding farmers across the Northwest Territories are greening their thumbs as they look to local gardening initiatives for greater self-sufficiency and reduced grocery costs.

Gardening initiatives have blossomed in just about every NWT community, driven by local interest and the support of Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI).

Through the Growing Forward Program with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and its own Small Scale Foods Program, ITI has provided necessary tools and equipment for people to develop community gardens.

Local food production has come a long way in the last six years since the Small Scale Foods Program was launched, said John Colford, manager of traditional economy, agriculture and fisheries at ITI.

“There is a visible presence in every community with a community garden or community initiatives that we’ve provided support for,” Colford told The Journal.

Although the North is challenged by its colder climate and shorter gardening season, those hurdles are overcome by ingenuity and longer days, Colford said. Innovation also plays a huge role in gardening in the NWT.

Taking outdoor crops indoors

For 12 years, Inuvik gardeners have reaped the rewards of a community greenhouse that has 140 rental plots. This year, more than 80 members are planting crops in the Inuvik Community Greenhouse.

Sheena Adams, the greenhouse coordinator who joined the staff last year, estimated each plot produces $900 of fresh organic food each year.

“We’re about farming, of course, but we’re also about bringing the community together. It’s a great chance for people to meet other people,” Adams told The Journal. “People have to tend to their plots every day, so it gets them out of the house, reduces isolation and creates socialization, physical activity, recreation and healthy foods.”

Locally-grown produce improves nutrition for residents, and Adams noted that children who grow their own food are more interested in eating that food. It is difficult to grow crops outdoors in Inuvik because of the cold, dry climate. The greenhouse provides options that would not otherwise be available.

Open from April 1 to the end of September (or the end of October, if there is an unusually long growing season), the greenhouse – formerly Grollier Hall Arena – is an important part of the community, Adams said. It is the only one of its kind in the North.

“It promotes a healthy lifestyle and it does help with food security,” Adams said.

New frontiers in new crops

Yellowknife’s Kam Lake Gardens will soon feature a berry orchard that sprung up because of an Ecology North report on berry farming written by Dwayne Wohlgemuth.

Although funding is not yet entirely in place, Wohlgemuth expects to break ground as early as this month with a variety of berries, including sour cherries, haskaps, black currants, raspberries and saskatoons.

Wohlgemuth has advocated for more commercial berry production in the NWT, as well as for more backyard planting. He said several people have planted berry bushes in their yards this spring. He has larger plans, though.

“I’m hoping the city will begin planting berry bushes as landscaping bushes, and I will be talking to them about it,” he told The Journal.

Community garden growth spurts

Agricultural initiatives were mostly limited to Hay River and Fort Smith in 2006, but communities across the NWT have caught the gardening bug. Shannon Ripley, an environmental scientist at Ecology North, has worked with people across the territory to develop local food production.

They have embraced gardening, whether they’re planting in community gardens or in their backyards, to offset grocery costs, make healthier food and lifestyle choices, and engage in the social aspects of farming.

“We’re living in communities where there’s a really strong tradition of self-sufficiency and of traditional harvesting – fishing, hunting, gathering – and lots of people who in their past generations and even now are providing most of their own foods for themselves,” Ripley said.

Many community gardens in the NWT have grown considerably in size in the last few years, Colford said.

The Fort Smith Community Garden in Mission Park has 30 plots available for budding and experienced gardeners, whereas Hay River Community Gardens has plans to grow beyond its current 40 plots.

Over the last 30 to 40 years, Northerners have become reliant on imported produce, Colford said. As oil prices continue trending upward, so too do food prices, but cost savings are only one aspect of the success of community gardening projects, he said.

“It’s far more than gardening. There’s so much more to it than simple gardening. People are providing for themselves. This is self-reliance. It’s building community spirit,” Colford said.

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