Working to restore our local food systems

Working to restore our local food systems
Northern Farm Training Institute students create silage, or animal feed.Photo courtesy of NFTI.

Everyone is thinking about hunting this time of year; as Northerners we have a special relationship with wild animals. We help protect their environment and harvest what we need with respect. In our modern context and with our higher population, though, we also know that a local food system in the North could be complemented by raising domestic animals in order to take the pressure off of our wild herds. Now the question is, how do we do it?

“Where can I buy some chicken feed to ship up?”

This was one of the first phone calls I got when I started at the Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI). Well, I didn’t know the answer then, and since learning more, I kind of have a kaleidoscope of answers instead of one simple one. We need to shift our question. We need to build a system in the North that does not require constant outside inputs, one that honours our own abundance and creativity.

Before industrial agriculture, the tradition of raising domestic animals was an integrated part of the waste/energy cycle and an expression of what was in the local environment. If we are willing to take the time and do the work, we (and our animals) can be fed from the land around us.

The first place we should look is at our own waste. NFTI has been collecting “distressed food” from the Super A Grocery Store in Hay River since the end of August. We collect old produce that no one will buy, remove the packaging and sort it into things for our animals or the compost pile. So far our pigs, sheep, goats and roosters have been extremely happy with the 150-200 lbs of food waste we collect every day!

Some of our previous students in Fort Good Hope mentioned that they are fortunate to receive old produce from their Northern Store that their chickens love.

Another thing we have an abundance of is fish scraps. Chickens are omnivores and absolutely love fish! You’re thinking – they will taste fishy if you feed them fish, right? No, we’ve experimented with that; feed them fresh cooked fish scraps and you will not have any problems.

The next option is to gather wild foods for your animals. Rabbits are a natural part of the NWT ecosystem and many “weeds” that grow here are perfect for your domestic rabbits – they love plantain, lambsquarter, dandelions, willows, etc.

In the late summer, you can collect an abundance and pack it into airtight bags and let the bags ferment – this is a called “silage,” helping store food for the winter and making it more digestible for your animals.

Lastly – grow your own! “Fodder” is the term used for food given to animals. There are some really neat indoor fodder systems that you can use, even in the winter and without soil, to basically sprout grains and almost double the nutritional value of feed. In time, we hope NFTI will be able to produce grains (like barley) that could be available for feeding northern animals, and could be sprouted for fodder.

Another way to feed the omnivores on your farm is to grow worms. All of our students get a starter bin of “red wrigglers,” which are very easy to keep and are prolific composting worms. I’ve been trying to convince young entrepreneurs that they could grow up to be worm farmers – 1 lb of red wrigglers cost me $75 from just outside Alberta to ship up! Since then, I have grown enough worms to start about 100 other worm bins (small business idea, anyone?). Anyways, the point is that chickens love worms and you can grow your own, all year ‘round.

The last thing I’ll mention is a case of turning lemons into lemonade. Our president and lead instructor, Jackie Milne, had a box of caribou bones mailed to her from her cousin for a biochar demonstration. Of course, it was in the summer and so when she went to pick it up from the post office, it was not a pleasant package. When she brought it home she found it was full of swarming flies. Well, wouldn’t you know, she put the whole box in the chicken coop, opened it up and the chickens had a field day – those bones were cleaned right up in no time and the chickens had a wonderful, nutritious meal! Insect harvest is a legitimate way of feeding our birds (you can even purchase black fly larvae kits).

I have heard many times from people that it is not feasible to keep animals in the North because feed is too expensive to ship in. If we truly want to restore the local food system, we need to do a bit of research, planning and use our creativity to find ways to see the abundance in our local communities that will make raising domestic animals a sustainable reality.

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