Northern farm school graduates cultivate skills

Northern farm school graduates cultivate skills
Students in the Northern Farm Training Institute celebrate the graduation of four of their classmates: Jeffrey Fabian, Sharon Pekok, Whitney Jason, and Shelley Empey.Photo: Brian Kinzie.

For the first four freshly graduated students of the Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI) - a leading-edge, hands-on farming school based in Hay River - sharing their new trade secrets is not only an option, it’s an expectation.

“Our main goal was to run the workshops and have students come who we thought would be leaders in their community and be able to share their knowledge with their communities. That was definitely met,” said Kim Rapati, program organizer at NFTI. “A lot of them have already begun sharing what they’ve learned with people in their own communities.”

NFTI’s pilot year began this April and over the course of the summer held six workshops teaching students about aspects of sustainable gardening and food production. Each workshop had 15 students attend from regions across the NWT.

A graduation ceremony was held two weeks ago in Hay River for the first four students who have completed all six workshops in the program.

“A really exciting part was just seeing how much interest there was,” Rapati said. “All of the people who didn’t totally graduate were gung ho about making it to all of them and really want us to put them on again.”

The workshops were taught by Jackie Milne, president of the Territorial Farmers Association and lead instructor at NFTI, at farms and greenhouses around Hay River. In order to learn best farming practices, students were responsible for planting, maintaining and harvesting their own produce.

“You cannot learn this separated from actually being out and dealing with the soil, with the plants, with the weather and with the elements. You cannot be a farmer without touching a seed,” Milne explained.

Workshops included a comprehensive overview of planting from seed, including the most suitable crops for Northern growing, an introduction to animal husbandry and a garden maintenance and marketing course where students learned about the resources available to grow produce for retail.

According to Rapati, the most well received workshop was the one on food harvest and preparation.

“It’s an exciting time to be thinking about the harvest. We finally got to eat a lot of the food that we’d been growing,” she said with a laugh.

Along with teaching students hands-on skills, Rapati said the program created valuable resources specific to Northern farming.

One of their first projects was to create a vegetable photo book, aimed at improving garden literacy. The book catalogues crops that grow well in the North and includes pictures of the plant at each stage of growth.

“If you’re a new gardener, there are a lot of things to learn. (The book) really helps with people who are brand new at gardening and don’t know where to start,” Rapati said.

Copies of the vegetable book were given out to students who completed the workshop, but Rapati said with a bigger budget they would ideally produce enough to share.

The NFTI’s pilot year was funded by both the GNWT and federal government. Because the course brings in students from across the NWT, much of the funding goes towards student transportation and housing.

Rapati said she is currently working on programming for next year’s workshops, but funding has not been confirmed.

“We’re still putting stuff together. We haven’t confirmed any funding yet, but from the response we’ve got and from all of the really positive outcomes of what we did this year, I think that it should be a go for next year,” she said.

Leading-edge schooling

Milne said the NFTI as a hands-on farming school is on the cusp of a growing worldwide trend to teach sustainable farming outside of the classroom.

“Local, sustainable, ecologically sound, organic farms: this is the future of the food system,” Milne said. “That’s why the school’s so important. Let’s make sure we put in place these sustainable systems.”

Milne said she hopes to see the NFTI become an established school in the NWT that provides farm training and resources teaching the best sustainable practices.

As far as getting government funding, she said it would be hard for them to say no.

“The government’s looking for things to invest in that have real answers to multiple challenges,” she said. “When something’s really positive, who doesn’t want to be part of that?”

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