New crop of growers sprouting at Hay River farm school

New crop of growers sprouting at Hay River farm school
NFTI founder and president Jackie Milne shows where the market gardens will go at the institute’s new farm campus.Photo: Kim Rapati.

With spring in the air, a new crop of students is ready to start sowing the seeds of gardening knowledge at the Northern Farm Training Institute in Hay River this week.

Starting this weekend, approximately 15 students from across the territory will become the first batch to participate in this year’s monthly courses at the agricultural school, beginning with a three-day session on seed selection.

“Spring Into Planting Your Seed” will focus on selecting seeds, scheduling and starting plants, and seedling care, giving students hands-on planting and transplanting experience out at NFTI president Jackie Milne’s own greenhouse.

Students will then return home to their communities with their own planting kit, ready to start their gardens next month when the ground warms up and the chance of frost diminishes.

Now in its third year offering courses to students from as far north as Fort Good Hope down to Fort Smith, NFTI offers training in seeding, designing and planting a garden, creating forests of fruit and nut trees North of 60, garden maintenance and marketing, food harvesting, preparation and storage, and large and small animal husbandry.

Those six key course areas will be taught over a period of three days each month throughout the summer, ending in late September.

“The idea is that the classes sort of synchronize with the season and the activity you would be doing that month, so the students come, learn that and then go home and implement that for a month, and then come back,” Milne said. “It’s organic in its process.”

Land secured for campus

After two pilot years of getting courses off the ground at Milne’s own farm near Hay River, NFTI is now on its way to having its very own campus, located at the abandoned Northern Pork hog barn just outside of town.

NFTI recently secured a five-year lease for the 260-acre lot from the municipality, with the option to renew for another five years, thanks to federal funding. Last year, the institute received a $2-million grant from the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNor), which hinged on substantial support from the town as the flow-through agency. The municipality and CanNor then worked out a deal to have the land leased as an in-kind contribution, though NFTI will be required to pay full property taxes.

While the crew is waiting for the snow to melt before launching into full-bore construction and demolition at the site – where decrepit buildings and vehicles need to be removed – they have been anything but idle over the winter.

Greasy Bacon is one of two Berkshire sows owned by NFTI, currently housed at Milne’s farm near Hay River.

Photo: Meagan Wohlberg

Greasy Bacon is one of two Berkshire sows owned by NFTI, currently housed at Milne’s farm near Hay River.

NFTI managed to secure a workshop space, where they’ve been able to build a number of modular units to take out to the new site, which include housing for students, bathrooms and kitchens.

Over the summer, the institute expects to have employed at least 20 people, from office staff to labourers and instructors. Currently, NFTI is in the market for general labourers, greenhouse and garden assistants, and a market garden director.

Right now, the site consists of a series of meadow clearings surrounded by mixed forest with a spectacular view of the Hay River valley below. Milne and her staff are already excitedly pointing out where the students’ yurts are going to go, where berry bushes will be planted, where a cafe and garden market could thrive and where students from as far as Nunavut might, in the future, fully immerse themselves in their learning.

“The beauty of having the institute is it will give us the capacity, as the students increase in their skill set, to be able to come for longer periods of time,” she said. “So if someone wants to move to specialization – say you just really love greenhouses – we could have interim positions of a month, three months, a whole year, whatever, to learn that whole process.”

Spreading skills across the North

As the first agricultural school of its kind in the North, NFTI is designed to empower students with the basic experiential knowledge required to return to their communities armed with applied skills in food production, so that down the line, communities are no longer dependent on the often unaffordable, unhealthy options at their grocery stores.

Milne, who originally began her foray into teaching by traveling throughout the territory offering gardening courses, said she realized she could create a more lasting legacy of food sovereignty in the North by establishing a permanent campus where students could learn how to produce food for themselves, their families and communities.

“With Aboriginal culture, traditionally they really believed that they were secure when everyone was secure. That’s what gives us security. Whether it’s at a family level, a community level, a state level, a country or a global level, when we really have security is when we have all of our needs met,” said Milne, a Métis woman born and raised in Hay River. “That has really touched me, and I realized that I could influence more food being produced by helping other people learn than what I could physically grow myself. I realized that was probably the fastest way to do it.”

Students are already running with the knowledge they’ve obtained from NFTI over the past few years. Milne said there is an “absolute food revolution” going on in Fort Good Hope with four more fresh faces from the community coming to join the NFTI movement this spring.
Further south in Fort Smith – “the garden capital of the North” – Kymberlee Sellwood took the plunge last fall and bought a plot outside town that she’s now actively transforming into farmland.

Sellwood took three courses in garden design, wildcrafting and grant proposals through NFTI last year and said she was blown away by the amount of economic support available for Northern farmers. It was then that she and her partner Corey Mercredi decided to go for it, reclaiming the area he had actually grown up on as a child.

Having been unoccupied for over a decade, Sellwood said the feat ahead of the duo is daunting – “basically starting in the negative” – but manageable.

“It’s completely overgrown and wild,” she said. “The soil is sandy and heavily compacted, so I’m working on building up a soil composition.”

Over the next year, Sellwood plans to plant 50 Saskatoon berry bushes and add tonnes – literally, 10 tonnes – of chicken manure to the garden. She also needs to find a sustainable source of water on the premises, and build some of the greenhouse structures to extend her growing season. After the first year of hard work is done, sheep and chickens will likely be brought on board to graze down and fertilize areas for planting.

Sellwood said her farm project is turning out to be a much tougher effort in ecological restoration, but said the support she continues to get from Milne and NFTI keeps her going even when it’s overwhelming.

“I can’t help but want to be part of this Northern farming movement,” she said. “Jackie is so passionate about what she does, so I’m easily inspired.”

Milne said the commitment she sees blossoming across the territory shows the will is there; all Northerners need is just some free time to learn the art of food production.

“It’s so encouraging to see it have such a strong effect,” she said. “It was even more than I anticipated.”

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