Sister Island, a 42-acre property located just a couple of kilometers down river from Dawson City, has a long tradition of growing. Given to the Sisters of St. Ann in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, the nuns used the island to grow vegetables famous for their quality, and raised cows, chickens and pigs to feed a hospital and orphanage in Dawson.
Sister Island has a long-standing reputation for growing great veggies. Photo by Lou Tyacke.
The island was purchased a few years ago by Lou Tyacke and Gary Masters, and the couple are keeping the island’s growing tradition very much alive. Visitors are also able to come and stay on the island.
Lou and Gary are originally from the U.K., and while the sub-arctic climate and short growing season they deal with is about as un-English as you can get, they are trying some new cultivars and livestock not typical to the Klondike. Among the fowl they are raising are some species more common to the British Isles than the Yukon. This year they are raising quail, pheasant, and heritage chicks as well.
Lou and Gary are trying some exotic species more familiar to the U.K. like quail, pheasant, and heritage chicks. Photo by Lou Tyacke.
There are also Tamworth pigs, a well-known species in the U.K. The animals seem well-adapted to their home, and when they are not chasing the farmers’ quad, love to take mud baths.
Lou and Gary have been growing turnips to help feed the pigs, but they are growing so well, the farmers are thinking they’ll be keeping some of the vegetables for themselves.
Louise Piché, one of Dawson’s great home gardeners, continues to defy expectations about what can be grown at 64 degrees north. Recently, she managed to grow an artichoke — perhaps the first ever raised in the Klondike.
If you’re inspired and want to try following in Louise’s footsteps, the cultivar is the Green Globe Artichoke, and the seeds came from Best Cool Seeds, the online store for the Denali Seed Company, a Michigan-based firm that specializes in cold-weather gardening.
Domestic haskap berries are ripe in gardens and the wild strawberries are now ripe in the fields.
The sweet taste of a fresh, in season, strawberry is divine. In the North, wild strawberries are very small – but their taste is the sweetest of all – making them worth the effort of picking.
Haskaps, Lonicera caerulea, are a blue honeysuckle. Native to Russia, they withstand frost and the minus forty cold winters of the North quite well. They are currently flourishing in gardens around Dawson City.
Also native to Japan, ‘haskap’ is an ancient Japanese name which translates to ‘berry of long life and good vision.’ Haskaps are packed with Vitamin C and contain more anti-oxidants than any other berry.
The haskap berry is grape sized. They are perfectly ripe when they are dark blue in colour with an obvious dimple in the bottom of the berry. The taste of a haskap is a combination of sweet blueberry with tart cranberry.
At Tundarose Garden in Dawson City, a bird found a well-protected area for nesting in the interior of the a thick row of haskap bushes. Not wanting to disturb, Suzanne and Mary Ann snuck a very quick peek at the eggs and were surprised to find two had just hatched. They backed off quickly so that mama could attend to her young in peace.
My experience last Fall taught me that hulling grain is no easy feat. In fact sometimes, as is the case for oats and buckwheat, it is virtually impossible for a home gardener. Therefore I was thrilled that Salt Spring Seeds carries hulless varieties of grain. After consulting owner Dan Jason, I decided to try Faust Barley (hulless) and Streaker Hulless Oats.
And look how well they are doing!
Gardening has never come easily to me. I struggle to grow brassicas while the local farmers produce them in abundance.
This year I decided to try my luck growing edibles that are not so easily found at our local Farmers Market. My raised beds are hosting oats, barley, amaranth, Tom Thumb popping corn and onions. The onions are not looking so good but, so far, the rest seem to be growing well.
With the idiosyncrasies of our short growing season, grains have often been difficult to grow in the North. Perhaps as a result of climate change, perhaps due to hardier cultivars, it seems that in the past few years growing grain is becoming more feasible.
So it is a good time test out the possibilities of back yard grain growing in the Yukon!
Fingers crossed that local barley and local breakfast oats will be on the menu in our house next year.
Rice Root bulb with nodding onions on skunk cabbage leaf.
“Our people look after what we take, we don’t take too much, we leave something, we don’t go back to that same place, and we go gather elsewhere. All the harvesting is done to take what you need and not take everything. You need to leave something for other people and leave something so that the plant can continue to live. You’ve got to take care of those things.”
~ Chief Floyd Joseph, Squamish First Nation
I have grown up with the belief that plants are our relatives. Connected to this belief are plant harvesting and cultivation practices that are rooted in respect and reciprocity. For each plant food or medicine there were, and are, sustainable practices employed to ensure the long-term health and productivity of plants in particular harvesting areas.
When settlers arrived in Canada there was a misconception that the landscapes they encountered were untouched and unused. In reality, the landscapes were intensively managed and cultivated to maximize productivity of foods with the understanding that future generations would also carry out these practices and rely on these foods.
There are many well-known examples now of ecosystems that were shaped by millennia of cultural practices and Indigenous knowledge aimed at building sustainable and bountiful food sources. These practices centered on the understanding that harvesting has impacts and in order to balance out these impacts there must be reciprocity. Reciprocity is the practice of giving back for mutual benefit. A plant-harvesting example of this would be replanting a section of root when you are harvesting roots for food to ensure the plant you are harvesting from returns and thrives. There is often a spiritual aspect to this type of reciprocity as well, in the form of a prayer or offering to the plant.
Sustainability has been built into indigenous plant management practices since time before memory. People were taught to manage root vegetables through replanting and cultivation. They knew that harvesting too many leaf buds from a tree or shrub would stunt new growth. They knew that to harvest entire flowers meant that pollinators and animals would lose a food source and fruit would not develop.
Two examples of Indigenous plant cultivation are camas meadows and estuary root gardens.
Camas is a traditional root food that was grown in family managed gardens. Camas gardens were found in open meadows that were maintained through fire management. Burning the meadow would bring nutrients into the soil, remove grasses and provide open habitat for camas to thrive.
Estuary Root Gardens were also family managed gardens in estuaries. Management of these gardens included weeding, tilling, replanting and rotating harvest to ensure the productivity and sustainability of the gardens.
The relatively new popularization of wild foraging is leading to overharvesting and can be seen as another form of ‘taking’ from the land. I share in the excitement of harvesting but I ask you to please educate yourself and consider the impact you may have. Ask yourself: “Is this a plant I should be harvesting?” “Who else might be relying on these plant foods?” “Where am I harvesting? Is this a culturally or ecologically sensitive area?” “What is my intention with harvesting? How much do I take and what do I give back?” “How do I harvest and give back in a way that will sustain these plant foods for generations to come?”
If you don’t know the answers to these questions I urge you to seek out training or contact your local Indigenous community to ensure that you are practicing in a respectful way. Purchasing plants from a native plant nursery or transplanting into a garden setting are two great ways to have less of an impact on the wild plant populations.
Here are some great books if you are interested in further learning.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants
by Robin Kimmerer
Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask
by Mary Siisip Geniusz
As We Have Always Done Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance
by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.
Finding nutrient-rich soil in the far North can be tricky, but as Old Crow demonstrates, it’s not impossible.
Old Crow, home to the Vuntut Gwitchin, is the most northerly community in the Yukon, located 128 km (80 miles) north of the Arctic Circle.
A fly-in community of approximately 300 people, Old Crow rests at the confluence of Crow River and the Porcupine River. Vuntut Gwitchin means “People of the Lakes”, named after the many lakes at Crow Flats, the second largest wetland in North America, and the main hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering area for the Vuntut Gwitchin.
With no road access, grocery store prices in Old Crow are very high.
Old Crow has seen detrimental effects from climate change over the past decades. The permafrost is melting. Water levels and subsequently salmon stocks are declining. Lakes are drying up.
In adapting to climate change, more folks in Old Crow are growing vegetable gardens.
One couple, in the 1990’s, planted their vegetable garden about two miles upriver from Old Crow on the banks of the Porcupine River, about 50 feet back from the edge of the riverbank, in front of a drained out lake. The soil must have been nutrient rich as the garden produced an abundant crop of carrots and giant cabbages that Old Crow resident, Mary Jane Moses, still remembers well.
Take 26 minutes to watch “Our Changing Homelands, Our Changing Lives” to hear from Vuntut Gwitchin about climate change and food security in Old Crow
To learn more about Old Crow and the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation check out www.oldcrow.ca
And don’t forget to check out the Old Crow Recipe Page for delicious caribou, muskrat, rabbit, duck, ptarmigan and whitefish egg recipes!
The buds on the birch trees are just starting to turn green, which means it’s coming to the end of birch sap season. For the past few weeks you could spot a birch tree being tapped in many Dawson City backyards.
Most of us have been tapping a tree in order to drink the cold, refreshing and nutrient rich birch water – loaded with thiamine (one of the Vitamin B’s) and manganese, as well as some Vitamin C, iron, riboflavin, zinc, calcium and potassium. Birch water tastes like a super fresh and delicious glass of crystal clear water with only a rare hint of sweet if you look for it.
When the sap is running, the tree is actually pulling the sap from its roots all the way up to the top of the tree to feed its leaf buds which is an amazing anti-gravitational feat in itself.
Birch water goes bad within a couple of days, even in the fridge, so it needs to be consumed fresh. Alternatively, you can freeze it (even in ice cube trays) and save some frozen birch water to consume later in the year. The tapping of one tree will produce a lot of birch water, so be careful not to tap more than you can consume.
Very few of us will boil down the sap we collect to make birch syrup. We leave that to Sylvia Frisch and Berwyn Larson and their crew who are currently very busy, working around the clock, collecting sap from about 1500 trees and preparing Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup to supply us all with the sweet stuff for the upcoming year.
My birch syrup supply is down to the last cupful. We are consuming about 1 litre of birch syrup per week! So I decided to boil down some sap and see if I could supplement our supply until the end of syrup season when we can get our next 12 L bucket from Sylvia and Berwyn’s birch camp.
Birch syrup and maple syrup, although both sweet, are quite different in both taste and components. Birch syrup contains fructose, the sugar in fruit, and it does not crystallize like maple syrup does. Maple syrup contains sucrose, the sugar in table sugar. One of the major differences between the two is the sugar content of the sap. It takes twice as much birch sap to make a litre of birch syrup, compared to making maple syrup. In fact the ration of birch sap to syrup is an astounding 80:1!
What does that look like in real life? I took my two largest pots and boiled down 14 litres of birch water. All that sap produced a scant ¾ cup of syrup!
A big thank you to the birch trees for sharing some your sap and to Sylvia Frisch and Berwyn Larson and crew for all the hard work that goes into turning it into syrup!
If you haven’t yet tasted birch syrup, you really must. It is delicious! When using birch syrup in recipes, I find I don’t miss the absence of other spices such as cinnamon or allspice. Check out the many recipes using birch syrup on our Recipe Page.
As the leaf buds start to turn green, the sap will take on a bitter taste, marking the end of the tapping season for another year.
It is ‘break up’ time in Dawson City. Break up as in the river, not as in divorce!
The ice is breaking up, the rivers are not crossable and my milk supply is on the other side of the Klondike River.
In anticipation, I froze 12 gallons of milk in advance. Throughout the winter, they easily remained frozen on our verandah. However, Spring has now arrived and the great outdoor deep freeze is no more. Twelve gallons of milk would take up too much room in the freezer so I have been trying to keep them frozen in an ever-shrinking snow bank – the last of the winter snow around our house.
Unlike my children, Sadie, the family dog, desperately wishes she had been included in the local diet this year.
We found out the hard way that she was lactose intolerant, after letting her lap up some whey — a by product of yogurt and cheese making. Sadie loved it, but was quickly cut off when her intestines revolted. She steals whatever bit of local food she can get her paws on. Rock hard sourdough bread, that my family can’t chew, is better than dog biscuits according to Sadie. If you accidentally drop a carrot on the floor, you had better be quick to pick it up before Sadie devours it.
Recently Sadie struck it rich when she realized she could chew the caps of the milk jugs in the snow bank!
In bygone days, when folks weren’t relying on freshly stocked grocery store shelves, the months of March, April and May were known as ‘The Hungry Gap”. The time of year when much of the winter’s store of food had run out and the potential of a new crop still awaited planting season.
We ate the last of our lettuce in September. Our last squash was consumed in February. We are close to finishing off the last of the carrots. And now we have no more onions.
In this new reality, where our consumption is almost entirely based on what we have stored away for the winter, I would have thought that consuming the last taste of onion would cause me anxiety. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t seem to matter as much as I had thought it would.
Perhaps it is because we are far from hungry. My worry last summer about not having enough seems to have resulted in over stocking. I think I have put away enough tomatoes for two years!
Perhaps it is because of our new reality of eating with the season.
Perhaps it stems from the challenge of cooking well with what we have instead of pining away for what we don’t have.
So we have run out of onions. But I still have garlic. I have one jar of dried chives. And I still have lots of dried herbs.
No more onions, no big deal.
Come July, the first taste of a fresh onion will be all the more delicious!
Alan and Cathy Stannard of Mandalay Farm have been raising free-range chickens for the last nine years on their acreage off the Burma Road near Whitehorse. For eight of those years theirs was a small, family-run business with a flock of about 100 birds. They sold the eggs through neighbourhood buying groups, who knew the Stannards well enough that they invited them to community brunches. Today, the egg business is still family-run but you wouldn’t call it small.
Under the brand name Little Red Hen Eggs, the Stannard’s brown free-range eggs are sold in four supermarkets and one variety store in Whitehorse, plus a grocery store in Haines Junction. Their other commercial customers include Air North, two local coffee shops and two large downtown hotels.
In 2017 the Stannards upped their egg ante considerably — they built a large barn, brought in 2,000 chicks and invested in a commercial grader that can grade 7,000 eggs in an hour. In the spring of 2017 Al Stannard told the Yukon News, “Our goal is to provide a brown, free-range egg for the Yukon.”
There’s no shortage of eggs in the Yukon — consumers across the territory have some access to eggs sold over the farm gate to buying clubs or through private arrangements. And local, graded eggs are available for sale at Farmer Roberts grocery store in Whitehorse. But the difference here is one of scale. Since the Partridge Creek Farm stopped egg production in the mid-2000s there has not been a large-scale egg producer in the Yukon; there’s never been a large-scale free-range brown egg producer.
There is a market, or several. Jonah Tredger, executive chef at the Westmark Whitehorse, has been a customer since late January. He currently buys 8 to 10 cases of 15 dozen eggs a week, and that’s in the slow season. Wykes Independent Grocer purchases 500 dozen a week; the owner reports they’re the best-selling brown egg in the store. Consumers want to buy local free-range eggs, and they’re willing to pay extra for them.
That the birds are free-range is key to the Stannard’s success, and to their own job satisfaction. “We love those birds,” says Al Stannard. “We want [them] to have a good life.” It’s hard to imagine 2,000 birds being able to range freely. But the Stannards make it work.
Inside the barn, “the girls” have a 10 by 90-foot patch of gravel, six inches deep, for scratching and digging, two essential chicken needs. “They like to dig foxholes, and lie in there and dust themselves,” says Stannard. “It’s like walking through a field full of gopher holes.”
In winter, as long is the temperature is -10C or above, the birds go outside into a fenced-in enclosure to catch some rays. They’re given feed that has not been genetically modified. “We do our utmost at all times to make sure our feed is GMO-free,” says Stannard. This is for customer satisfaction as much as bird health.
By all accounts, customers are satisfied. They send thank you cards to the Stannards. One long-time Whitehorse resident wrote, “I’ve been waiting for 60 years for something like this to come along.”
Chef Tredger of the Westmark is satisfied too. His goal had always been to serve local food at the hotel, and a recent change in hotel ownership made that possible. So he went out in search of consistent sources of local product. He met the Stannards at Meet Your Maker, an event connecting farmers and buyers co-hosted by TIA Yukon and the Yukon Agricultural Association in Whitehorse last January. “My biggest concern was trying to keep up volume,” he says. “It’s really reassuring to know, and exciting to know, that they can.”
“What I really like about being able to use [Little Red Hen Eggs] is there’s a high demand.” Any egg on the breakfast menu is a Little Red Hen Egg, and that has been good for business. “Every time we tell a customer [the eggs are local] they get pretty excited, and they tell their friends, and we see a lot of repeat business that way.”
“One of the best things is the money stays in the community. We’re supporting a local business and in turn they support us.”
The Stannards plan to build a second barn in 2018 and purchase another 1000 birds. “That way, we will not have a lack of eggs when the birds change out.” He’s referring to when the first set of birds wind down, or become “spent”, as they do after 18 months to two years of laying. The calcium in the egg shells comes from the chicken’s bodies, and their bones eventually become brittle and vulnerable to injury. At that stage, Stannard says, “we put them down quickly and quietly.” Stannard shares this aspect of egg production frankly, saying, “It’s part of the process, and it’s important that people know.”
He would like to see the spent birds be consumed as food, and has recently spoken with a local chef and café owner about giving cooking lessons on how to make soup and cook chicken feet, a classic dim sum item that’s now gaining traction in mainstream cuisine as chefs and consumers become more sensitive to eating the whole bird or animal.
In the meantime there are the eggs: free range, brown, and commercially available in Yukon markets and restaurants. If all goes as planned, Little Red Hen Eggs will soon be in a store near you.
It’s planting time once again. For best times to plant seedlings in the North, check out Grant Dowdell’s Seed Guide. Grant is a long time farmer in Dawson with over forty years of market gardening experience in the North. He has generously shared both his favourite cultivars and the best time to start them indoors for a Yukon growing season.
I used to think you needed a prairie to grow grains, or at least a big field. Then I met Dan Jason, farmer, gardener, author, cook, and owner of the seed company Salt Spring Seeds. His dearest wish is that we all become grain growers, whether we have a plot of land, a box in a community garden or a backyard of clayey soil in downtown Whitehorse.
Jason lives and gardens on Salt Spring Island, and he is a legend in British Columbia. For the past 30 years, he has been finding, cultivating and saving the seeds from ancient varieties of grain; grain that has grown in different parts of the world for thousands of years, providing sustenance and a way of life for numerous peoples.
Jason is passionate about the beauty of these grains, in the field and on the plate; he loves the way they look and the way they taste, their grace and their nutritional benefits. In 2017, introduced by our mutual publisher, we collaborated on writing Awesome Ancient Grains and Seeds, a garden-to-table book with growing information and recipes for grains from amaranth to rye. Now he has me convinced that not only can I cook with grains, I can grow them too. “Growing grains is a lot easier than just about anything else,” he says. “It’s like planting grass.”
Despite our short growing season and cold winters, farmers have been growing grain for animal feed and green manure in the Yukon since the Gold Rush era. But we have a history of growing grain for human consumption too. Hudson’s Bay Company trader Robert Campbell harvested a “keg” (about seven and a half gallons) of barley at Fort Selkirk in 1848. In 1901, the Pelly Farm produced wheat and sold it, ground into flour, in Dawson City. Oats, wheat and barely were successfully grown at the federal experimental sub-station at the J.R. Farr farm on Swede Creek, 10 kilometres south of Dawson, in 1917.
In the present day, Otto Muehlbach and Connie Handwerk at Kokopellie Farm near Dawson have grown and harvested rye, barley and even wheat, keeping Suzanne Crocker and her family well-supplied with grain to grind into flour for baked goods in this year of eating locally.
In 2016 Krista and Jason Roske harvested 40 kilos of triticale, a rye and wheat hybrid, at Sunnyside Farm in the Ibex Valley near Whitehorse. I worked with their grain and flour all year long. Several years ago Tom and Simone Rudge of Aurora Mountain Farm on the Takhini River Road harvested rye and ground it into bread flour; it made beautiful bread.
But this is all grain grown on a larger scale, with the expectation of a fairly substantial yield–if not enough for the commercial market, then at least enough to contribute to the grain and flour needs of a small household. It’s unlikely that backyard grain growers will feed the family more than a few meals with their crop.
Their yield will be of a different sort—fun, satisfaction, and beauty in the garden at every stage of growth. And maybe a celebration or two.
This sesaon Randy Lamb, Yukon agrologist and chair of the Downtown Urban Gardeners Society (DUGS), which runs the Whitehorse Community Garden, plans to plant a 4 x 20-foot bed with barley from local farms, a hull-less barely from Salt Spring Seeds, and Red Fife wheat. “I should have enough to make bannock or pancakes for one of our season-end potluck socials at the Whitehorse community garden this year,” he says.
He plans to thresh and mill the grain himself, make hot cakes, and serve them with raspberry jam made with honey and berries from the garden. “My goal is to present it as “100-metre hotcakes”, based on the 100-mile diet theme.” That’s a pretty great incentive to grow some grain. Dan Jason would add, remember to eat your backyard grains whole, too. Or sprout them. “You get a lot back, sprouting your grains,” he says.
Jason thinks hull-less barley is a great idea, because it’s pretty tricky for the home gardener to remove the hulls from other varieties. He suggests rye, too, for the Yukon climate. “Rye is super-hardy. It can go to -40°C easily. And it’s easy to harvest, because the hulls are really loose-fitting. You just rub them and they come apart.” Flax and buckwheat are also good possibilities for the northern backyard grain grower. They’re hardy, adaptable and produce beautiful flowers.
Those who grew up in the Whitehorse suburb of Riverdale will remember oats and wheat growing in their midst, in the front yard of the Cable family’s house. Jack Cable planted the grains as green manure. “I was brought up in market garden country, so I knew that soil needed amendment, up here. It wasn’t a grain harvesting exercise, it was a soil-amendment exercise.” Urban grain-growing was so unusual (and still is!) that the 15 x 5–foot plot in the Cable front yard became a local attraction.
Cable’s intention was to grow a lawn once the soil had been amended. In my downtown Whitehorse backyard there is no lawn, but there is grass. Long, wild, tenacious grass. My intention is to replace some of that grass with grain. Jason suggests roto-tilling a few times first to dislodge the grass. He thinks I might even be able to grow amaranth—it’s worth a try. I’m hoping that raising grain turns out to be as low-intervention as raising the wild grasses, lambsquarters and dandelions currently holding dominion in my yard.
Would it not be the coolest thing, to walk through a Yukon community and see not mown lawns, but waving seas of grain growing in all the backyards? That would be some local attraction. As Randy Lamb says, “The locavore movement has been growing for years up here. Every season I’ve been adding something extra to my local diet. Veggies and berries are easy. Fruit, eggs, and honey take a little more effort. Grain is the logical next step.”
Guild is an old word denoting an association of like-minded people engaged in a common pursuit — armorers, cobblers, or weavers, for example. In Whitehorse weavers, sewers and felters have organized themselves into a Fibres Guild, and theatre-goers attend plays at the Guild Theatre.
On a small homestead on the Annie Lake Road, there’s a different sort of guild at work, involving players of another kind. They are plants; all kinds of plants from herbs to berry bushes to fruit trees, and they work together in a “food forest” planted and maintained by Agnes Seitz and her partner Gertie.
For the past several years Seitz has been slowly building what has become known in permaculture circles as a food forest, but is actually, she says, “comparable to a really extensive home garden.” This kind of home garden has been grown in tropical climates from the Amazon to India for thousands of years; such gardens are a low-intervention way of ensuring food security. In the mid-1980s, British gardener Robert Hart began experimenting with “forest gardening” in Shropshire, England, bringing those techniques into a more temperate climate.
In the Yukon several gardeners and homesteaders are experimenting with building food forests in a much colder environment, Seitz among them. “The idea is that a young woodland is the most perfect natural system and the most prolific one,” she says. “And that’s what we’re trying to copy, a young woodland.” A young woodland occurring naturally is basically self-sustaining. While a planted food forest is not entirely self-sustaining, it can come close.
Planting in guilds is a cornerstone in the building of a food forest. “You plant in such a way that throughout the season [the plants] support each other,” says Seitz. “There are nitrogen fixers in there, there are attractants that bring in the bees for pollination, there are plants that bring up minerals from the soil. You bring all these players together in a system that makes it so much easier on us.”
When she was starting out, “because we don’t have soil here,” Seitz brought in a truckload of compost from the City of Whitehorse dump. Five or six years later, now that the system is up and running, Seitz’s interventions are low-tech and low-key. She fertilizes with wood ash and human urine. “Humans are one more part of the habitat we are building there,” she says. “An apple tree needs about five pees a year to get all the nitrogen it needs.”
Seitz also uses “green manure,” turning plants into fertilizer using a technique called “chop and drop.” After harvesting, “you just cut the plants and let them fall, and they feed the micro-organisms and that’s how you build the soil.”
Seitz also grows a huge annual garden of organic vegetables, which she says requires lots of controls and lots of work. Square foot for square foot, the annual garden uses nearly twice the mount of fertilizer of the perennial food forest.
She estimates there are about 80 species of herbaceous plants in her 4,000 square-foot food forest, most of them edible, like sorrel, burdock, mint, lovage, a wide variety of chives and onions, and Old World plants like sweet cicely and Good King Henry. Mixed amongst these plants are nettles, fireweed, lambs quarters and dandelions. “Wild foods, what we call weeds, are an essential part of the system,” she says.
The next layer up is composed of berry bushes such as Saskatoons, gooseberries, red, white and black currants, haskaps and raspberries. Among the next layer, the fruit trees, are hawthorns, sour cherries, pin cherries, several species of apple, Siberian pear, Manchurian plum, Manchurian apricot, Siberian pine (there may be pine nuts in 12 or 15 years) and even hazelnuts.
The more exotic species are still “kind of a research project,” says Seitz. Though the hazelnuts are not yet fruiting, they have lasted three years. “It’s going to be interesting to see how they did with this really cold winter.”
Seitz has not planted low-bush cranberries, a favourite Yukon berry, because she can easily walk into the surrounding boreal forest to find them. “They’re right around the corner.”
But for just about every other kind of herb, plant, berry or tree fruit, she says, all she has to do is walk into her backyard food forest and “kind of like just – forage.”
It is the middle of winter and in my hand I hold a crunchy, juicy, sweet, locally-grown apple. Yes, that’s right, locally grown – in Dawson City, Yukon – 64 degrees north. Further north than Iqualuit, Yellowknife and Whitehorse.
It is all thanks to the ingenuity of John Lenart at Klondike Valley Nursery, Canada’s northernmost nursery. John has spent the last thirty years studying and grafting apple trees in order to cultivate varieties that can withstand the climate of the north. The nursery now has 65 cultivars and some of those varieties are ‘winter apples’ – meaning that they keep well in cold storage throughout the winter.
2017 was a tough season on the apple trees due to a late frost in the middle ofJune. But Klondike Valley Nursery has generously been sharing some of their personal apple supply with me for this year of eating local. And I can tell you that a crunchy locally-grown apple in the middle of winter is a treat beyond all measure!
Corn is notoriously difficult to grow in the North. Even with nearly 24 hours of sunlight in June and July, our growing season is just not hot enough for long enough. Last summer, Dawson had only 66 consecutive frost-free growing days.
When I was thinking about eating local to Dawson for one year, my mind went immediately to what I would miss. Popcorn was right up there! I know it is not an essential food item. But a large bowl of popcorn smothered in melted butter and nutritional yeast has, for years, been one of my favourite snacks and one of my comfort foods. Call me a ‘popcorn geek’ – since high school, I have carted my hot air popcorn maker around the country – to various universities and job sites. In fact, I still have it. And Friday Night Family Movie Night has always been accompanied by several large bowls of popcorn.
Grant Dowdell, who has been farming on an island up river from Dawson City for over 30 years, has the best luck growing corn in this area – in part due to his farming skills and in part thanks to the unique microclimate on his island. Grant has tried many varieties over the years and Earlivee (71 days to maturity) is the only one that has ever been successful.
That is until last year.
Last year, I asked Grant to grow Tom Thumb popping corn for me. With the shortest maturity date of any corn I know – only 60 days – Grant agreed.
I let the cobs dry for a month and then crossed my fingers and tried to pop them.
The kernels cracked, but didn’t actually pop. Having never popped popcorn that didn’t come from a store, I wasn’t sure if they were too dry or not dry enough. Distraction intervened and I let them hang for another month before I had a chance to think about them again.
This time they did pop! And they popped really well, with very few kernels leftover. The popcorn is small, but very tasty. So good the kids say it doesn’t even need butter! My winter is saved. Bring on Friday night movie night!
I definitely did not have a green thumb prior to starting this project. Never ask me to take care of your house plant. I’m not sure my thumb is yet brilliant green, but it is several shades closer than it used to be.
So this year I am excited to pull out the seed catalogues and decide what to order for the upcoming growing season. In the North, tomato seeds are started indoors the end of February and most everything else gets started indoors in March and April.
As you get ready to dog-ear pages in your seed catalogues, check out the seeds that have proven themselves to grow well for other Northerners on the First We Eat Seeds page. And if you have some favourites that grow well in your part of the North, let us know (there’s a contribution form on the page) and we will share it .
Here are my seed ordering tips for 2018:
Fothergill’s Perpetual Spinach. Spinach is notoriously difficult to grow in Dawson. Sure we have a short season. But our short summers are really hot! And regular spinach just bolts up here. Both New Zealand Spinach and Fothergill’s Perpetual Spinach grow well in Dawson and do not bolt. I tried them both last year, but preferred the texture of Fothergills.
My favourite tomato last year was Black Prince.
And while you’re at it, consider growing some GMO-free sugar beets. They grew well in several locations in Dawson last year. They are a delicious white beet to eat and the pot liquor you cook them in can be boiled down to make a sweet syrup!
Salt Spring Seeds, based on Vancouver Island, only carries organic, non-GMO seeds and is your one-stop shop for Fothergills Perpetual Spinach, Black Prince tomatoes, and non-GMO sugar beet seeds!
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” – John Muir
New York chef, Dan Barber, likes to tell how he experienced an epiphany a decade ago watching his chefs constantly dipping into the flour bin located outside his office. He realized that he knew nothing — where it came from, or how it was grown — about this ubiquitous, and somewhat tasteless ingredient, which was pretty much in everything the restaurant prepared. He set out to find a healthy, holistic flour alternative, but what started simply as a search for organic, locally-sourced grains, led to a broader understanding of sustainable agricultural methods. He realized there were many secondary crops being planted by the farmer to nurture and protect the soil and yield, but not necessarily contributing to the farm’s bottom line. That’s when Barber realized he needed to integrate his culinary methods and list of ingredients to include all those being used by the grower.
Barber has long been a champion of the local, organic food movement. But his interest goes beyond just serving this type of fare in his pioneering farm-to-table Blue Hill restaurant. Now, with a new book, The Third Plate: Field Notes for the Future of Food, Barber is striving to change not only the way food is grown, but the consumption habits of Americans as well.
Barber’s relates how his pursuit of intense flavor repeatedly forced him to look beyond individual ingredients at a region’s broader story. In The Third Plate he draws on the wisdom and experience of chefs, farmers, and seed breeders around the world, and proposes a new definition for ethical and delicious eating. He charts a bright path forward for eaters and chefs alike, daring everyone to imagine a future cuisine that is as sustainable as it is delicious.
In Barber’s view, modern industrial food systems are actually disconnected from the whole because of their large-scale specialization and centralization of food products. For organic farm-to-table agriculture to be truly sustainable, the whole process, including those preparing and consuming the food, need to be treated as parts of an interconnected, holistic fabric.
Barber has now opened a second restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a working farm and celebrated educational center in the Hudson Valley region of New York, where he both practices and preaches his philosophy. And the world is taking notice. He has received several accolades and awards for both his cuisine and his crusading efforts. In 2009, he was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world.
In an article in The Atlantic magazine, Barber describes how one of his inspirations is John Muir, (a naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, and early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the United States), who wrote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
On the last day of 2017, I’m looking back on a year of cooking with local foods and reflecting on the highlights. I was lucky enough to spend much of 2017 cooking and baking with a locally grown grain: triticale from Krista and Jason Roske’s Sunnyside Farm, located in the Ibex Valley close to Whitehorse. The Roskes acquired some seed from Yukon Grain Farm in the fall of 2015 and planted it on a portion of their land, intending to plow the plants back under to enrich the soil. But 2016 was such a good growing year that the plant actually matured, a rarity for grain in the Whitehorse area.
From that planting the Roskes harvested about 40 kilos of grain, by hand, and sold small quantities of whole grains, bread flour and pastry flour to customers in and around Whitehorse. I learned about their grain and flour from Jennifer Hall, executive director of the Yukon Agricultural Association, and a great champion of local farmers and their products.
The Roskes delivered one kilo each of grain, bread flour and cake and pastry flour to my house in early 2017. I was in the midst of developing recipes for a cookbook celebrating ancient grains, written in partnership with Dan Jason, a passionate organic farmer and owner of Salt Spring Seeds, and experimenting with all kinds of grains. (Awesome Ancient Grains and Seeds will be released by Douglas and McIntyre in early 2018. Stay tuned for Whitehorse and Dawson launch details!)
The Roskes’s bread flour made a beautiful sourdough pumpernickel-style bread, and the pastry flour produced gorgeous muffins, excellent quick bread, delicious beet gnocchi and most recently, lovely birch syrup shortbread cookies for Christmas.
That triticale got around in 2017. Chef Chris Whittaker of Forage and Timber Restaurants in Vancouver made tiny mushroom tartlets with the pastry flour at a Travel Yukon dinner last February, and in June, chef Carson Schiffkorn and I served whole triticale grain with a morel mushroom-miso butter to guests at Air North and Edible Canada’s Across the Top of Canada dinner at Marsh Lake. I served the very last of the whole grain, with more miso butter, for a media dinner hosted by Travel Yukon on November 26. Everybody loved the story of the accidental success of this beautiful, locally grown grain.
Triticale is not an ancient grain, but a hybrid of wheat and rye first developed in the late 1800s in Scotland and Germany, combining the grain quality of wheat with the hardiness of rye. In 1954 the University of Manitoba experimented with the viability of spring triticale as a commercial crop, and in 1974 the University of Guelph did the same with winter triticale. Winter triticale varieties are particularly good for short-season areas like the Yukon.
For the Roskes, hand-harvesting triticale grain “quickly lost its charm,” reported Krista. However, the success of growing triticale has whetted their appetites for more grain experiments, and Krista said they’re planting spring wheat in 2018. “Fingers crossed we will have wheat for flour by next September. I’ll definitely let you know if it works out!” Last time we spoke, the Roskes were contemplating buying more machinery — perhaps a small combine and a small grain cleaner. “It’s farm evolution,” said Krista.
I’m sad to say goodbye to the last of the whole triticale grains, but very happy that I will be returning from Christmas holidays in Ontario to a few cups more of triticale flour in my pantry at home. Birch syrup shortbreads anyone?
Local eco-chef and self-proclaimed foodie Benjamin l. Vidmar, has a dream. He wants to make the remote northern Norwegian community of Longyearbyen, Svalbard more sustainable, and to produce locally-grown food. Svalbard is an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, located about midway between continental Norway and the North Pole. The latitude of the islands range from 74° to 81° North, making them some of the most northerly inhabited places on Earth.
Like many communities north of the arctic circle, there is no viable soil in Svalbard. How does one grow local food if there is no local soil?
In 2015 Chef Vidmar started a company called Polar Permaculture Solutions, whose goal is to apply permaculture principles and ecological design to create a circular economy in Longyearbyen, and “to connect people back to their food.”
Working at the time as head chef at the Svalbar Pub, he noticed how all the food was being flown or shipped to the island. However, in the past food had been grown on Svalbard, and Vidmar wanted to return to that tradition — but with some modern enhancements and without having to ship in soil.
Vidmar started with hydroponic systems using commercial fertilizer, but felt he could do better. Why ship fertilizer up to the island, he reasoned, when there is so much food waste available to compost and produce biogas? Food waste in his town is dumped into the sea, and he took up the challenge to grow locally-grown food making use of available resources on the island.
Polar Permaculture researched what others were doing around the Arctic, and opted to go with composting worms, specifically red worms, which excel at producing a natural fertlizer from food waste. He got permission from the government to bring worms up to the island, which took a year and a half, but “was worth the wait.”
Vidmar’s company is now growing microgreens for the hotels and restaurants on the island. Fine dining chefs use microgreens to enhance the attractiveness and taste of their dishes with their delicate textures and distinctive flavors. During the growing process, worm castings are produced, and this natural fertilizer that can be used to grown more food.
In addition to composting with worms, Polar Permaculture has started hatching quails from eggs and is now delivering fresh locally produced quail eggs to local restaurants and hotels. Their next step will be to get a bio-digestor setup and to produce biogas with it. The worms are mostly vegetarian, but with a digestor, the operation will be able to utilize manure from the birds, as well as food waste that would normally be dumped into the sea. This will also allow them to produce heat for their greenhouse, as well as produce electricity that can run generators to power the lights. A natural fertilizer also comes out of the digestor, which will then be used to grow more food for the town.
What started as one chef’s personal journey has become a local permaculture operation that is reshaping the nature of the local food economy, and providing an inspiration for other Northern communities interested in food sustainability.
By the year 2050, the world’s population is expected to be 10 billion people. How will we be able to feed 10 billion people?
Valentin Thurn’s documentary “10 Billion: What’s on Your Plate?” takes the viewer across the world to examine possible solutions to this question – from insects to artificial meat, from industrial farms to micro-farms. If you eat food, this documentary is a ‘must see.’ And, although the feature length version is difficult to view from Canada, until Jan 21, 2018 you can watch the 53-minute version for free online thanks to TVO. Ontario’s educational TV network.
I love birch syrup and am grateful to Sylvia Frisch and Berwyn Larson who are raising their two daughters in the bush and producing birch syrup commercially. During the past 4 ½ months of eating only local foods, we have consumed 24 litres of birch syrup. I have discovered that the flavour of birch syrup alone can substitute for the ‘far east’ spices of cinnamon and all-spice. I have even been known to down a shot of birch syrup, straight up, during those moments when, in a previous life, I would have grabbed a piece of chocolate – to get me through a moment of emotional or physical despair.
I also love David McBurney’s local honey – it is pure, delicate, and divine. And it is treated like a delicacy in the family. It also makes the perfect sweetener to enhance other delicate flavours that would be overpowered by the robust flavour of birch syrup.
But there are times, especially in baking, when chemistry is required and a liquid sugar option just doesn’t do the trick. Now that I have local flour, and Christmas is coming, baking is on my mind. So what to do when crystalized sugar is required?
Birch syrup, unlike maple syrup, does not crystalize. I learned this last April while visiting Birch Camp. So, with birch sugar no longer an option, I ordered GMO-free sugar beet seeds. I have never had any luck growing regular beets, so I recruited others to grow the sugar beets for me – the great gardeners Paulette Michaud and Becky Sadlier. Unbeknownst to me, long-time Dawson farmer, Grant Dowdell, also had my year of eating local on his mind and ordered non-GMO sugar beet seeds to see if they would grow in the north. The sugar beets grew marvelously for all, confirming that they are indeed a reasonable crop for the North. They like warm days and cool nights – perfect for a Dawson City summer. I ended up with 350 pounds worth to experiment with!
Sugar beets contain approximately 20% sucrose, the same sugar found in sugar cane. One quarter of the world’s refined sugar comes from sugar beets. In Canada, Taber, Alberta is the industrial hot spot for growing and processing sugar beets into sugar. On a commercial scale, lime (calcium oxide) and carbon dioxide are added to form calcium carbonate which solidifies and pulls out any impurities – thus resulting in familiar white sugar. No such additions for a local home-made sugar, so the resulting sugar is brown with a richer taste.
There is a paucity of information out there on just how to make sugar from sugar beets at home, so I gave up on research and moved to trial and error. After all, with 350 pounds of sugar beets, there was room for experimentation and failure. And failure there has been! Although no failure has yet to see itself in the compost. The family seems more than willing to devour the failures – be they sugar beet toffee, sugar beet gum, sugar beet tea. Even burnt beet sugar has found a use. (Thank goodness because there has been a lot of burnt beet sugar!)
In the process, I have also discovered the wonder of the sugar beet – a root vegetable that was previously unknown to me. Sugar beets are often touted as a food for livestock or a green manure crop so I was expecting the taste of the sugar beet itself to be unpalatable. But it is just the opposite! Cooked up, it is a delicious, sweet, white beet. The sugar beet leaves are also edible. And amazingly, even after the sugar is extracted, the sugar beet pulp remains sweet and delicious. I’m afraid the local Dawson livestock will be getting less sugar beet pulp than previously anticipated this year.
One thing is for certain – processing sugar beets into sugar requires time and patience. Here are my step-by-step instructions on how to make syrup (easy) and sugar (difficult) from sugar beets.
Sugar was first extracted from sugar beets in the mid 18th century. In the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic wars when French ports were cut off from the rest of the world, Napoleon encouraged wide-scale sugar beet production and processing. France remains one of the world leaders in sugar beet production and most of Europe’s sugar comes from sugar beets, rather than sugar cane.
Consider adding non-GMO sugar beet seeds to your next seed order. In Canada, they can be found from Salt Spring Seeds and from T&T seeds. Sugar beets grow well in the north and are a delicious root vegetable in their own right. But don’t throw out the water you cook them in, as this water is sweet and can easily be used to make beet syrup and beet syrup candy. And, if you are brave, sugar! If you live in an area populated by deer, be warned that sugar beet tops are a great attractant for deer. Word is now out to the Yukon moose so perhaps next year Dawson’s sugar beet rows will require fencing!
Despite its sub-arctic climate, the Yukon is blessed with several apiaries. With care, bee hives can survive the harsh winters, even as far north as Dawson City. This is the profile of one of the Yukon’s honey producers.
Bee Whyld is a small apiary in Watson Lake, Yukon, specializing in producing Fireweed Honey. Owned and operated by Courtney and Joel Wilkinson, Bee Whyld was officially founded in June of 2016, although it had been in the works for a few years prior.
Courtney originally had a job as a salesperson for an Alberta honey company, and was working towards keeping her own bees. On a visit to the Yukon to visit her then-boyfriend Joel, she noticed the fields of fireweed common in the territory. Courtney knew from her experience selling honey that Fireweed is not only one of the rarest honeys, and also one of the best for flavour and medicine, and this sparked the idea to bring bees up to the Yukon and make Fireweed Honey.
Beekeeping in the North is quite challenging, especially overwintering and maintaining the health of the hives, but through trial and error Courtney and Joel have learned what it takes to successfully produce honey in the Yukon.
Their honey bees gather all of the nectar that they turn into honey from the Boreal Yukon forests, with fields of flowers that are untouched by pesticides, and not genetically modified. Their honey is also both unpasteurized and raw, meaning they don’t heat it at all. This ensures all the natural antibiotics, pollen, and Royal Jelly are still intact within the honey, making it a good choice for medicinal uses (such us helping to heal wounds, helping to fight off infections, helping to reduce allergies, and alleviating sore throats).
Bee Whyld’s Yukon Fireweed Honey has been called “the Champagne of honey.” It is a rare honey prized around the world for its medicinal qualities, and its light sweet taste.
Shortly after posting my tale on Oct 23, I received a call from Kokopellie Farm. More snow was in the forecast so Otto decided it was now or never for harvesting the rye and the Red Fife wheat. And so the story continues:
After some serious labour with ropes, the wet snow was removed from most of the grain heads in the field. Unfortunately some of the grain was laying flat under the snow. Fortunately some could be resurrected via pitch fork and muscle power. Unfortunately some patches were already frozen to the grown and not harvestable. Fortunately there was still a good section standing. Unfortunately the wet stalks of the rye kept getting jammed in the combine requiring manual removal. Fortunately Otto was able to do this without injury. Unfortunately the engine of the combine broke down. Fortunately Otto was able to fix it. Unfortunately the combine engine kept breaking down. Fortunately Otto never gives up and was able to get it going again each time and finish harvesting the rye. Unfortunately it was getting close to dark, more snow was in the forecast and the wheat had not yet been harvested. Fortunately, Otto discovered the final issue with the engine, repaired it and was able to harvest the wheat before darkness fell! Yeah!!!
Many, many thanks to the tenacity, mechanical genius, ingenuity and hard work of Otto and Conny who were able to harvest the rye and wheat against all odds! Now it dries (under shelter) and can eventually be ground into flour.
The last of the crops has now been harvested. There is sourdough bread in my future. Let it snow!
I am often asked which food I miss the most. I had expected it would be chocolate or caffeine (very strong black tea was my comfort drink). Surprisingly it is neither. What I miss most is grains: cookies, pies, bread, bagels, rice, pasta – these items that were once staples in our household are no more. The potato is trying its best to fill the gap, but after 85 days without, grains are definitely missed.
It is not easy to grow grains in the far north, as our growing season is so short. But it has been done.
I feel like Northern grain is a character in one of those ‘Good News, Bad News’ stories:
The good news is that in 2016, Otto at Kokopellie Farm had a successful crop of rye and barley that he was able to grind into flour. The bad news is that I used up all I had last winter experimenting with wheat-free and salt-free sourdough bread recipes.
Fortunately Otto planted rye and barley again this year and it grew well. Unfortunately, in August, a moose ate the barley. Fortunately the moose didn’t eat the rye (because it was protected by a fence). And the GREAT NEWS is that, unbeknownst to me, Otto had also planted Red Fife wheat and it grew well (and was protected by the fence)!
Unfortunately, the combine required to harvest the grain was stuck 550 km away in Whitehorse, waiting for a bridge on the North Klondike Highway to be repaired. Fortunately the bridge repairs finished just in time for harvest season mid September. Unfortunately, while hauling the combine to Dawson, the trailer had several flat tires which caused another week’s delay. Fortunately, the combine did eventually make it to Dawson.
Unfortunately by the time the combine arrived in Dawson, it began raining and you can’t harvest grain when it is wet. Fortunately there was a brief break in the weather in early October. Unfortunately, there was no time to put the combine together because the root vegetables had to be harvested before the ground froze. Fortunately grains can withstand frost. Unfortunately, after all the vegetables were harvested it began to snow. Fortunately dry snow can easily be knocked off the grain. Unfortunately this snow was heavy and wet. Fortunately the combine is now fully assembled and ready to go. Unfortunately it is already October 23 and the wet, heavy snow remains on the grains.
Otto, a very pragmatic and optimistic farmer, still feels there is hope. The wheat and rye are still standing. Some cold, clear weather might dry up the snow and make it possible to remove the snow from the grain so it can be combined, but time is running out. I am not sure how this good-news, bad-news story is going to end. My moose anxiety resolved with a successful hunt. Now I have grain anxiety.
Recently Suzanne and family harvested the plants, hoping for a favourite family treat to accompany their movie watching. Unfortunately, first attempts at popping have been unsuccessful. Suzanne’s not sure if the kernels are not dry enough — or perhaps they’re too dry. She will keep experimenting, but any suggestions are very welcome. If anyone has grown and successfully popped their own popcorn, let us know.
It’s been 65 days since Suzanne started eating locally, which means it’s also been that long since she’s had any grains! But there’s a glimmer of hope on that front, thanks to some buckwheat that was grown in Dawson this year by Stephanie Williams and Mike Penrose. They planted it as a cover crop for their yard and it grew quite well in our northern climate.
Suzanne has harvested the buckwheat groats. Now, if she can just figure out how to thresh them by hand she will try cooking it. (If anyone has experience with hand threshing, suggestions are welcome. Just contact us.)
Despite the name, buckwheat is not related to wheat, as it is not a grass. (It’s actually related to sorrel and rhubarb). It is one of the so-called ancient grains, having been first cultivated around 6,000 BCE.
Porridge made from buckwheat groats, known as kasha, is often considered the definitive Eastern European peasant dish. The dish was brought to North America by Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish immigrants who also mixed it with pasta or used it as a filling for cabbage rolls, knishes, and blintzes.
For Suzanne, this means it is ‘now or never’ for many of the veggies grown this summer. Suzanne is trying to gather enough for her family for the year and to store them all away.
On Grant’s Island on the Yukon River, the harvest for Suzanne’s family included 148 pounds of onions and 226 pounds of pie pumpkins, along with 10 large seed pumpkins.
Fortunately for Suzanne, she will continue to be able to buy root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, turnip, beets and kohlrabi throughout the winter thanks to the amazing root cellar at Kokopelli Farm.
Saturday, Sept 16th will be the last Dawson Farmers’ Market for Lucy for the year. However, Kokopelli Farm will continue to sell for a few more Saturdays in town and to sell root veggies from the farm gate in Sunnydale all fall and winter. Lucy Vogt will continue to sell veggies at the gate at Henderson Corner into October.
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Teaching and Working Farm will be having their final public market on Wednesday 20 September at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre.
If you are interested in which onions and pumpkins grow and store well in the North: the onions that Grant grows are Expression onions, which store extremely well if they are well dried before storage. Grant’s pie pumpkins are of the Jack Sprat variety, and they store well in a cool room till May.
Corn is a southern crop that has traditionally been quite difficult to grow in the North. But this year, many of those who attempted to grow corn in Dawson City have been successful. After a rocky start with late frost in June, the heat in Dawson in July and early August was beneficial for those who have been growing corn.
Some growers, like Sebastian Jones, Megan Waterman and Grant Dowdell, have had luck growing corn outdoors. Others, like Louise Piché, have done well growing it in their greenhouses.
Corn growing outside Sebastian Jones’s cabin. Photos by Suzanne Crocker.
As reported earlier, Grant Dowdell is growing a crop of popping corn for Suzanne’s family on Grant’s Island, and we’re pleased to report it is doing beautifully, despite some unwanted attention from a midnight marauding moose. Grant also has good success growing sweet corn outdoors.
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Teaching and Working Farm are also experimenting with growing corn. It’s good news to know that with some special care and cooperation from Mother Nature corn can indeed be grown in Dawson!
Sister Island is a private 42-acre island just downriver from Dawson City, and has a longstanding agricultural tradition. Given to the Sisters of St. Ann in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, the nuns used the Island to grow vegetables famous for their quality, and raised cows, chickens and pigs to feed a hospital and orphanage in Dawson. Suzanne visited there recently to meet the current owners, Lou Tyacke and Gary Masters, who are now farming there.
Suzanne was thrilled to discover that Lou was growing fennel as it is hard to come by in Dawson this year.
Lou is also successfully growing some other unique produce, not usually found in the North. This includes Jerusalem artichokes (a type of sunflower), which is grown for its edible root/tuber), and is growing very well in the Sister island greenhouse. She is also raising a variety of colourful carrots, as well as “black” tomatoes, which are actually vine tomatoes of the indigo rose variety.
Jerusalem artichokes growing in the Sister Island greenhouse (left) and some colourful carrots. Photos by Suzanne Crocker.
For Suzanne, the timing of the visit to Sister Island was especially fortuitous, as she arrived the day before she started her 100-per-cent-local eating. She was treated to one of Lou’s amazing cupcakes — a floral art form in itself — and a cup of tea. … which turned out to be her last cup of orange pekoe tea (and cupcake) for a year.
In a previous post we wrote how Suzanne and family were looking forward to some popcorn in their local-only diet, with the help of growers Karen Digby and Grant Dowdell. Having had success with sweet corn in the past, they planted a field of Tom Thumb popping corn especially for Suzanne.
The plants survived the mid-June frosts that savaged so many other local crops, but now there’s another, much larger, hazard afoot. It turns out a trio of moose have been hanging out at Grant’s Island. Of all the vegetables growing in the fields, the moose seem to have a particular appetite for Suzanne’s Tom Thumb popcorn plants, even more so that Grant’s sweet corn.
The family dog does his best to dissuade the marauding ungulates, but finds it harder to run off moose than bears. A scarecrow is now on the job and we will just have to see if it can keep the moose at bay and protect Suzanne’s precious popcorn. Grant’s Island is one of the rare microclimates in the Dawson area capable of growing corn outside, so Suzanne’s popcorn experiment is “all in one basket.”
The Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI) in Hay River is turning an abandoned, industrial pig farm into a teaching campus, with the help of a contribution from the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNor).
Since 2013, NFTI has trained more than 150 people from 30 communities, and 13 of those people have gone on to start their own farm businesses. With the 260-acre farm campus, NFTI will demonstrate and teach how to feed 200 people. “Our most isolated communities are 200 people are or less, so we wanted to show, in a realistic way, what does it take to feed community of that size,” said Kim Rapati of NFTI.
The farm will develop the sustainable systems needed to provide a complete diet for 200 people, including greenhouses, permanent food forests and orchards, hardy northern grains and pastures, meat and dairy farming, food storage and marketing.
The focus is on “regenerative agriculture”, or agriculture that supports a healthy and abundant ecosystem, that will also help northern people protect wild herds and wild harvesting.
Rapati said that the failure of the pig farm, established in 1990 and abandoned in 1995, demonstrates that industrial, confinement agriculture does not work in a northern context, “for our people and our markets.” The NFTI farm campus is representative of a new model of agriculture taking hold in Canada–small-scaled, highly productive farming systems. “It is now possible for small, bio-intensive market gardens to earn between $25,000 and $150,000 in Canada,” Rapati said.
An innovative project led by the Inuvik Community Greenhouse Society is helping small, isolated Arctic communities, where access to fresh produce is scare, set up their own greenhouses and start raising fresh food. In June, community greenhouse coordinators from Aklavik, Fort MacPherson, Paulatuk, Sach’s Harbour, Tsiigehtchic, Tuktoyaktukc and Uluhakaktok attended a week-long internship program in Inuvik.
The program covered everything from soil preparation through weeding, trellising, pruning, and soil care to harvesting and worm composting. The interns worked in the greenhouse and in outdoor gardens around the community, even receiving instruction in raising chickens.
At the end of the course, each coordinator delivered a 30-minute workshop to prepare them for giving workshops in their own communities. The coordinator from Aklavik focused on engaging young people in the greenhouse, since it has been shown that when youth participate in community greenhouses, vandalism decreases significantly.
Emily Mann, coordinator of the Inuvik Community Greenhouse, said that being gathered in once place allowed community coordinators to learn from each other and to establish a network for troubleshooting and sharing knowledge—the coordinators have since set up a Facebook page.
The interns are now busy in their own communities, reaching out, teaching workshops and bringing local people in to garden together. In Aklavik recently, local children made hanging flower baskets for the Elder’s home. Every Elder received one. As Mann said, flowers are important for pollination, but they help to build community too.
For those in the Dawson City area seeking fresh, local produce, this is the best time of year. Local producers are starting to harvest their crops and there are two separate markets available where the freshly-grown vegetables and herbs are available for purchase.
Every Saturday until mid-September the Dawson Farmers Market, located by the river on Front Street, is in full swing. You’ll not only find produce from several local growers, but there are also trees and plants for gardeners, and crafts as well. Fresh vegetables and herbs are already available in abundance, and as the season progresses there’ll be berries, apples, and preserves as well.
The Farmers Market runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. but you’re best advised not t wait until late in the day, as the produce is popular with Dawsonites, and some items sell out quickly.
Starting tomorrow, Wednesday 19 July, TH Working Farm will also sell their products to the public on their own Farmer’s Market, which will be held every Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre.
The staff at TH farm has been working hard all year to provide local produce for Dawsonites, which will include radishes, green onions, zucchinis, potatoes lettuce and spring mix among others, with more variety of veggies to come as the season progresses.
They also have been raising chickens and rabbits that are close to being ready for harvest, as well pigs and ducks, which will be available for purchase in the fall.
With this initiative, they are hoping to increase the variety and amount of locally grown food in the area, while teaching and training younger generations with an interest in agriculture.
Berry season has begun! Berries are one of the most common foraging foods to be found in the North, and we’ll be reporting on them as the different varieties reach maturity and get added to Suzanne’s larder. Wild strawberries are starting to emerge, but here we’ll have a look at haskap berries.
Haskaps are the first domestic berries of the season to ripen. They generally grow well throughout the north, and taste like a combination between a sweet blueberry and a tart green grape.
In addition to eating them raw, haskap berries can be made into jams or fruit leather. Or try them mixed in with vanilla ice cream. And they freeze well so they can be enjoyed throughout the winter.
In Dawson City, Yukon, Maryann Davis of Tundarose Garden sells fresh haskaps and haskap jam at the Dawson Farmers Market approximately every other Saturday while they last. Emu Creek Farm (run by Diana and Ron McCready) supply Dawson’s local restaurants with haskaps. Both are helping out Suzanne with a source of haskaps for her year of eating local. And if you would like your own haskap bushes, they can be purchased from Klondike Valley Nursery, run by John Lenart and Kim Melton.
One of the leaders in Northern food sustainability, Jackie Milne, the Founder and President of the Northern Farm Training Institute, was in Ottawa last Friday to receive the Meritorious Service Decoration from the Governor General.
With global warming affecting traditional hunting grounds, Jackie saw a need to increase access to fresh produce in Canada’s northern communities. She established the NFTI in Hay River, NWT to teach the local population about sustainable, environmentally sound farming practices that would supplement traditional diets. Since 2013, the institute has trained nearly 100 farmers from across the north, with Indigenous students making up more than half of the program’s graduates.
The Meritorious Service Decorations were established by Queen Elizabeth II to recognize the extraordinary people who make Canada proud. Their acts are often innovative, set an example or model for others to follow, or respond to a particular challenge faced by a community. The best candidates are those who inspire others through their motivation to find solutions to specific and pressing needs or provide an important service to their community or country.
Pelly River Ranch is the the oldest, continuously working farm in the Yukon territory, located 10 kilometres up the Pelly River from its confluence with the Yukon River. Dale and Sue Bradley are the second generation of Bradleys to run the Pelly River Ranch, and the Bradley family are the fifth in a series of owners dating as far back as 1901, when Edward Menard bought 20 acres on the Pelly River and brought in farmer George Grenier as his partner. The farm changed owners through the years until 1954 when Dale Bradley’s uncles Hugh and Dick Bradley bought the place from the Wilkenson family.
Like their family before them, Dale and Sue and their son Ken run a mixed farm, which means they engage in several agricultural practices. They raise chickens and beef cattle, mostly Hereford and Angus, have a big vegetable garden, and they raise hay to feed their cattle. The Bradleys sell their eggs, chickens and beef to customers in Dawson, Faro and especially Whitehorse. In addition, they supply local markets with a range of root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, rutabaga and parsnips.
Pelly River Ranch mantains a herd of about 50 cattle, which they feed with their farm grown hay as well as fresh forage, from grasses to rose leaves to young fireweed, a feed that gives the beef a wild, natural flavour that Bradley appreciates.
In the year 2000, the Yukon Agriculture Branch presented the Bradley family with the “Farmer of the Century Award” for their nearly 50 years of agricultural work at the Pelly River Ranch.
Suzanne’s preparations for her year of eating local suffered a setback this week as the lowest temperatures in 35 years descended on Dawson, bringing three days of frost . Microclimates abound in the Klondike, so depending on their location the severity of damage to gardens and farms varied, with the town only mildly affected, while outlying areas saw temperatures as low as -4.7°C.
Where frost did occur, even some plants that were covered suffered — especially brassicas (plants like cauliflower and broccoli) and beans. Many of those who suffered losses were veteran growers, who had taken precautions to try to mitigate the frost damage.
Klondike Valley Nursery in Rock Creek, where they are adapting fruit tress to the north, was especially hard hit. They lost their haskap berry crop as well as their early apples, even those that were in shelters with kerosene heaters. Only the apple trees that were in greenhouses heated with wood stoves made it through.
Lucy’s Plants and Vegetables in Henderson Corner has a sprinkler system that is thermostat controlled and turns on automatically when the temperature hits zero. The sprinkler system and the row covers saved the day. There was still some frost damage to early peas and early potatoes, but hopefully they will recover. The rhubarb was frozen hard, but there’s still time in the season for them to bring out new shoots.
Kokopellie Farms in Sunnydale irrigated their plants and put them under row cover but still suffered frost damage to some of their cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce and early potatoes. Fortunately for Suzanne’s hopes of getting some grains, their winter rye is doing well.
Growers have always been at the mercy of the weather, but occurrences like this one underscore the challenges of gardening and farming in the north. Northern growers have developed techniques for weathering frost, including irrigating well before and during the frost, covering crops, and moving what one can into heated shelters and greenhouses.
Do you have other ways of dealing with frost or some lessons to share with us? Let us know.
A vertical agriculture facility is in the planning stages with the goal of having it built in Carcross this fall. This innovative project will be the first of its kind in the Yukon.
Tami Grantham, Natural Resources Coordinator with the Carcross-Tagish First Nation, says: “What attracted us to this technology is the ability to grow greens year-round. It’s a goal and a mission for the government of Carcross-Tagish First Nation to become food-secure.”
Construction would be managed through a new corporation created as a partnership between the Carcross-Tagish First Nation and Northstar Agriculture of which the First Nation will be 51 per cent owner.
The system will recirculate water from a fish tank through a vegetable grow bed. Nutrients from the fish waste feed the plants, and the plants filter the water to keep the fish healthy. In normal aquaculture, excretions from the animals being raised can accumulate in the water, increasing toxicity. In an aquaponic system, water from an aquaculture system is fed to a hydroponic system where the by-products are broken down by bacteria into nitrates, which are utilized by the plants as nutrients, and the water is then recirculated back to the aquaculture system.
The vertical part of this type of farming will be in the form of stacked layers that could be up to 10 meters high, in order to maximize production, contained in a warehouse-style space.
Not only would this mean a possibility for fresh local produce and lower food prices in the community, but also the promise of food security, as this system allows year-round growing of vegetables in a sustainable way.
The fish raised would be Tilapia, which is common in farming systems. Vegetables grown would include kale, spinach, and perhaps even strawberries and other vine crops.
According to Environment Canada, the next three days will see the chance of frost in the Dawson City area. This is much later in the month than even the most pessimistic of local planting advice that Suzanne had to consider when planting her garden.
While this particular frost warning is a local issue — and even in Dawson, temperatures and exposure to frost will vary based on altitude, terrain. and proximity to water — it highlights a point about sub-arctic/arctic growing, and the quest for Food Security North of 60. Our colder climate brings its own set of challenges and risks.
Suzanne will be busy the next few nights trying to protect the plants in her garden by covering them with row cover and sheets. John Lenart at the Klondike Valley Nursery will be putting kerosene heaters in his greenhouses to keep the precious Dawson apple trees with sensitive blossoms warm during the next few nights. Lucy Vogt at Lucy’s Plants and Veggies will be irrigating her fields to help keep the frost away from her growing produce. Lucy has a sprinkler system attached to a thermostat. The sprinkler system automatically turns on when temperatures drop below freezing. Fingers crossed that Dawson gardens and farms will make it through the next three nights unscathed!