It was still just a dream last January – snow blanketing the ominous derelict buildings, rough treed-in road, and junk about the old Northern Pork site.
Ever since 2013 and our first farm training workshops, students from all over the Northwest Territories coming to Hay River to learn about local food production from the Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI) told us that we needed a real farm campus – somewhere that they could stay and learn together, where we could really demonstrate the potential our land has for producing abundance, and experiment with new ideas. We dreamed the biggest dream we could and imagined a learning campus at this neglected site 20 kilometres south of Hay River’s town centre. This year, our dream came true; we worked incredibly hard and the NWT now has a diverse, integrated holistic farm-learning centre that will produce food, be a centre of innovation and knowledge sharing for generations.
The old Northern Pork site (now the NFTI Farm campus!) is a 260-acre lot zoned for agriculture along the Hay River. In 1991 it opened as an industrial pig barn, with 1,000 animals inside the window-less 300 m2 metal walls and steel cages; from newborns, brood sows and boars to finishing hogs. The animals lived on concrete and their manure was washed into deep pits on either side of the cages.
The pig barn shut down in 1997, officially because of the abattoir closure but there are newspaper articles, which describe that it closed its doors because the one former employee of the factory barn was seeking unpaid wages and a lot of debt had been acquired. Another article cites that it was closed after the Ministry of Municipal and Community Affairs launched legal action over manure management concerns. Whatever happened, it’s clear that the industrial factory farming system is not one that fits our northern context. Since its closure, the property was abandoned and used as an unofficial party and dumping site until 2012 when the Town of Hay River forgave the outstanding debt on the land so that it could be moved back into town inventory and leased to NFTI.
In May of 2015, we started the ambitious job of transforming this industrial waste lot into something that fit with the land and our community. The staff we hired had to take a real leap of faith, as the task seemed daunting when we started, but we did it! The derelict pig factory was dismantled, garbage and waste from around the site was disposed of, and up cropped a hoop greenhouse, three modular units (an industrial kitchen/cold storage, washroom, and high-tech experimental greenhouse), a beautiful modern fabric barn (filled with goats, sheep, pigs, chickens and cows), an exciting 42-foot geodesic dome greenhouse (paid for by Hellmann’s Real Food Movement) and a beautiful large yurt for a classroom. Power was restored to the site, a teaching garden was built by our students and the soil in the lower portion was cultivated by our heritage Berkshire pigs, ready for building a large market garden in the upcoming season.
This year, 57 students from 26 NWT communities were provided with hands-on learning from experienced northern gardeners through seven different workshops, representing over 2,500 hours in training. From January to December, we employed 15 people and our project brought in over $2M, the majority ($1.4 million) spent in the community and $98,000 in other parts of the NWT. This year was truly a unique year where we turned an opportunity into something special and we hope it’s a big step towards transforming our food system into one where we can all produce the nutritious food that fuels us, while creating renewable jobs and working together with nature to improve our land for wildlife and the climate. Cheers to a productive 2016!
Kim Rapati is the operations manager of the Northern Farm Training Institute in Hay River, a Savoury Institute designated organization.