Urban farming a viable option for Yellowknife

Urban farming a viable option for Yellowknife
Miners’ wives at Con Mines, just south of Yellowknife, started and maintained gardens in the 1950s that produced enough food to supply a farmers’ market in the city.Photo courtesy of Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.

The local food trend sweeping North America touched down in Yellowknife this month with the culmination of a comprehensive report on the possibilities of urban farming within city limits.

The report’s author, Master’s research student at Royal Roads University Amy Lizotte, said  her project was influenced by multiple gardening and small-scale food production initiatives already present in the territory and Yellowknife, which she wanted to take one step further.

“It’s a global and a local issue,” she said. “Everyone across the planet is becoming more aware of how we’re disconnected from our food, that this international food system is not the answer forever.”

The report, SPIN Farming – a sustainable business solution for local food in Yellowknife?, focuses on the relatively new practice of SPIN (Small Plot Intensive) agriculture. Pioneered by a couple in Saskatoon, the method has become successful in other parts of Canada and around the world. Instead of buying into the expensive commercial agriculture model, producers have found they can make more money if they leave their farm outside the city, move into urban areas and negotiate with people to use their backyard spaces to grow food on a small commercial scale.

“The business model is fairly precise,” said Lizotte. “They’ve figured out you can make about $100,000 off one acre in one year in Yellowknife.”

The idea is to keep capital costs low and efficiency high by keeping plots small enough to be maintained through manual labour. The savings come from there being no heavy equipment, no capital costs and no substantial land costs.

According to her report, with an unheated greenhouse, a gardener or SPIN farmer could begin planting in late April and harvest well into September.

“You just have to watch the weather and make sure you cover up your crops when there’s a big frost,” she said. “It seems like our seasons aren’t as harsh. There’s a lady in Hay River with an unheated greenhouse expecting to grow into November.”

Lizotte conducted interviews with fellow Yellowknifers, along with the Territorial Farmers’ Association, Ecology North, the Yellowknife Community Garden Collective and Northland Community Garden Society, and concluded that not only is there space within the city that could be re-zoned for agriculture, but residents would support the project.

“There’s tons of space in the city that could be farmed and it’s not,” she said. “We want to start producing food the way we used to before the road came into Yellowknife. It was really bad quality for a long time and the market gardens were very much a part of life in the city. It wasn’t really drivable until the late 1970s, and that’s when market gardens died out.”

Now the rising price of fuel and the uncertainty of foreign markets make shipping fresh produce to the North an expensive gamble. In her report, Lizotte shows that flooding in Yukon in the past year cut off supply chains and left supermarkets in Whitehorse empty of produce.

Unreliability of the supply chain is not the only problem, however, with Lizotte noting the boom and bust nature of Yellowknife’s economy makes it more vulnerable to price increases than other communities.

“We had the gold mines, then they died out, people talked about this place being a ghost town and then the diamonds came. Now they’re in their closing stage and we’re waiting for the next boom. We need to know that there are solutions for youth so that they have reasons to stay here.”

Although Lizotte does not expect the cost of locally produced fresh fruit and vegetables to be lower than what is currently available, she said the difference in quality is something that can’t be bought. It also means the money people spend on food will stay in the community.

SPIN farming is a viable economic activity in Yellowknife, she said, with the cost of starting an operation on one-sixth of an acre pegged at $15,000.

“I was interested in demonstrating that, if it’s economical in Yellowknife, it would be even more so in communities where they have more land, bigger trees and better soil,” said Lizotte. “I hope that if we can show that it can be done in the capital, communities across the Territories might try it as well.”

Lizotte and the groups supporting her research have decided their short term goal is to open a farmers’ market in Yellowknife next summer, with longer term projects ranging from increasing the accessibility of land within the city for urban agriculture to eventually expanding outside city limits.

“We may want to approach Aboriginal governments outside the city for space, but at this point there is so much land available in Yellowknife that it’s not a priority.”

Lizotte and many others believe the current system is broken and are taking steps to fix it.

“This is not how our grandchildren’s children will be able to eat,” she said.

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