It took moving to the Land of the Midnight Sun for Toronto native Amy Lam to learn how to garden, and the irony is not lost on her.
“I laugh because it takes moving up to the North (for me) to start gardening, which seems like the most counterintuitive place to learn how to grow,” she said.
With such a wide variety of fresh produce available and so many places to buy it, there is less incentive in the city to grow your own food, an incentive that grows with the cost of food the farther north of 60 you travel.
“It’s about survival,” she said. “The access to fresh food up here is abysmal and the cost of food is atrocious. So if we can bring that food security to communities, it’s so important.”
The issue surfaced again last Thursday when the GNWT announced that while agriculture is “celebrating a resurgence” in the territory, high food costs were a motivating factor in the creation of a new strategy document to advance and guide growth in the NWT’s agriculture sector.
“While many (of the 200 surveyed) participants recognized that local food initiatives must strive to become self-sustaining, they also expressed the need for improved access to soil, power and heat, infrastructure, land and financial resources,” a GNWT release said.
Food costs in the NWT are a major contributor to the high cost of living in most communities and the NWT Economic Opportunities Strategy (EOS) included five recommended actions to increase economic opportunities for the agriculture sector in the NWT. “Foremost” among them was the creation of a definitive strategy and policy instruments to guide government investment, support business opportunities and anticipated economic growth.
“With the installation of greenhouses in communities on the Beaufort Sea, we now have a food production sector stretching the length and breadth of our territory,” Minister David Ramsay said. “The fundamental ingredients in the development of an agricultural or food production industry are the desire, willingness and capacity to grow food. This is clearly evident in the NWT.”
Lam moved to Yellowknife about three years ago, where there appears to be plenty of willingness to create local, nutritious food, albeit on a smaller scale. She has been taking part in a microcosm of that GNWT vision for the entire territory as one of more than 200 communal and backyard land-share gardeners. They are by no means impacting the agriculture industry but growers like Lam, who took part in a series of experiential learning workshops for “aspiring and active gardeners” at the Northern Farm Training Institute in Hay River over the past three summers, are creating food in enough quantities to affect their own food security.
According to NFTI executive director Kim Rapati, Lam earned her “Northern Farmer” certificate by completing all six of the school’s introductory workshops: Spring Into Planting Your Seed; Design and Plant Your Sustainable Garden; Food Forests North of 60; Garden Maintenance & Marketing; Food Harvest, Preservation and Storage; and Intro to Small and Large Animal Husbandry.
Each workshop has 15 students; a total of 50 students passed through NFTI in 2015, 91 since its inception in 2013.
“It’s really nice up here to know that we have the ability to do that as well,” she said. “It’s a short growing season but the amount of sunlight we get is fantastic, so things grow a lot faster and you’re not dealing with a lot of the pests we have down south. So you wouldn’t believe it, but it’s a quite ideal growing environment.”
After the first of the four workshops, the students went back to their home communities with “hundreds” of seedlings between them and the knowledge to get the most out of every single one. Lam said the mentorship she received during what was her second growing season was obvious in her harvest of root vegetables like carrots, beets and potatoes, kale and char, “tons of lettuce,” tomatoes, celery and even kohlrabi, and the instructions start right in the soil.
“They gave us really practical knowledge about building the soil,” Lam said. “It’s important because we’re on bedrock so those are very useful skills for up here.”
As the growing season progresses, the workshops follow suit, covering seed preparation in the spring, then planting, maintenance and harvesting.
“It was really nice to have that mentorship throughout the growing season as I was starting to learn how to grow my own food. I have enough to process as well. I’ve been doing a lot of canning, freezing and dehydrating.”
Lam grew all of her produce in community and backyard landshare gardens in Yellowknife. There are six individual sites managed by the Yellowknife Community Gardening Collective, which rents plots between 20 and 22 square-metres in size for $25 for the year. There are about 200 members.
“In Yellowknife it’s fantastic to be able to (grow) but at the end of the day we do have access to stores and can get all of our supplies,” she said. “I think what’s so great about the program is it does hit all the small communities that are vulnerable for food security and (is) able to provide them with the skills and tools as well. The program gives you everything you need.”