Backyard Grain-Growing in the Yukon: The Logical Next Step

by Miche Genest

Faust Barley, a hull-less variety.

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.

Whole grains. Clockwise from left: emmer, hull-less barley, buckwheat, oats, rye.

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.

Flax in beautiful flower.

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.”

 

 

 

 

Suzanne’s Blog: Northern Popcorn?

Bowl of popped Tom Thumb popcorn. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

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.

Corn growing in the field on Grant’s Island. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

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.

Tom Thumb popcorn proved to be both Northern hearty and moose hearty.  Moose pulled out all the stalks early in the summer but Grant and Karen stuck them back in the ground and they continued to grow!

An ear of Tom Thumb corn. You can see why they call it “Tom Thumb.” Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

I let the cobs dry for a month and then crossed my fingers and tried to pop them.

Failure.

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.

Ears of popping corn hung up to dry. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

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!

Tom Thumb popping corn seeds, which date back pre 1899, can be ordered from HeritageHarvestSeed.com

> Download GrantDowdell and Karen Digby’s seed guide

Suzanne’s Blog: Saskatoon Berry Beet Cake

Grain has become a precious commodity during Suzanne’s year of eating locally. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

Precious, precious grains of wheat and rye.  This is how I think of them now.  Every food has become more precious to me since starting this project of eating only food that can be hunted, foraged, fished, grown, or raised in Dawson City, Yukon.

Just prior to the ‘freeze-up’, that time of year in October and November when the Yukon River is too full of ice to boat across, but not yet frozen enough to cross by foot or by snowmobile, Otto at Kokopellie Farm handed me a 25 kg bag of wheat grain and a 25 kg bag of rye grain.   The wheat grain has been disappearing all too quickly thanks to sourdough bread and Christmas baking experimentation.  So I now am turning my attention to rye flour and saving the wheat for special occasions.

I carefully consider how much flour a recipe calls for.  Two cups or less and I’m in.  More than 2 cups and it’s usually out.  There hasn’t been much sourdough bread recently in our household for just that reason.   I also carefully consider if rye flour could be substituted for wheat flour and in many cases it can.

Thus far in my experimentation it seems that rye flour makes dough stickier.  But it easily works in many recipes including this delicious Saskatoon Berry Beet Cake, by Miche Genest.  It makes a great 9×9-inch ‘spice cake’ or muffins.  The grated beets make the cake moist and add a charming pink colour to the batter.  The birch syrup adds sweetness as well as a cinnamon/allspice flavour.   Although any berry would do, Saskatoon berries and birch syrup just taste like they were made for each other!

Do you have a recipe that uses rye flour (but not more than 2 cups!) – let us know.

> Check out Miche Genest’s Recipe for Beet and Saskatoon Berry Muffins or Cake

Suzanne’s Blog: Flour Power and the Ol’ Grind

Gerard and Tess grinding fl;our by hand. Photo by Miche Genest.

Despite a very cold November, with several weeks of -35° to -40°C, it looks like it is going to be a long freeze-up for the Yukon River again this year. I am lucky enough to have 25 kg. of wheat grains and 25 kg. of rye grains that were secured from Otto at Kokopellie Farm just before the ferry was pulled.   But Otto’s wonderful grinder is on the other side of the Yukon River.  So, for now, I am left to my own devices.

I tried to grind the grain with a combination of blender and flour sifter.  It took many, many passes.  It was possible to eke out a small amount of flour, but certainly not very efficient.

Although Dawson is small (about 1,500 people), it is the kind of community where you can put out a request for an obscure item, such as flour grinder, on the local Crier Buyer Facebook page and expect to get a response.

I was not disappointed.

Within a day, I was very grateful to receive a call from Louise Piché.  She had a hand crank flour grinder, not yet tried, that she had picked up somewhere or other and I was welcome to borrow it.   A flour grinder is a wonderful thing!   A couple of passes through the grinder along with a bit of an upper body workout and voilà – flour! Flour!!  Flour means the possibility of bread and baking!

We have flour!

Subsequently, I received another call – this time from Becky Sadlier who has an electric flour mill that we could borrow.  However Becky lives on the other side of the Klondike River, now filled with slush.  But Yukoners are never too daunted by the weather.  Loren Sadlier was making one last canoe trip across the Klondike, through the slush, and the grinder could go with him.  I had thought the hand grinder was a gift from the heavens.  The electric grinder was able to make an even finer flour!

There are still a few obstacles to overcome, such as the lack of yeast, baking soda, baking powder and crystalized sugar.  But where there is a will, there is a way. Let the baking experiments begin!  (And let me remember my lesson in grain moderation! )

Miche Genest sent me this wonderful breakfast option, Breakfast Caflouti, which only requires ½ cup of flour and no leavening agent.  It was a tremendous hit in our family – and a very welcome change from our usual fried eggs and mashed potato cakes.

A close look at the hand flour grinder and its handiwork. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

Short Fall Ends With Snowfall

There is a local saying about the weather in Dawson City: “Nine months of winter and three months of tough sledding.”

It’s only a slight exaggeration. One thing for sure is that the shoulder seasons — Spring and Fall — are extremely short in the far north. This is yet one more challenging aspect of  growing in the North.

We posted previously about the efforts by Otto at Kokopellie Farm to harvest his crop of locally-grown rye and barley so Suzanne could have some grain in her 100%-local diet. Otto did finally manage to harvest his rye and wheat on Oct 23rd. Turns out it was just in time. This is what Dawson looked like, one week later!

Photos by Suzanne Crocker.

Suzanne’s Blog: The Good News, Bad News Grain Story Conclusion

The combine at work harvesting fields of rye at Kokopellie Farms. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

I didn’t realize that the Good News, Bad News story of grain would end so quickly.

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!

Success! Harvested rye grain in the hopper. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

Suzanne’s Blog: Good News, Bad News – Grain Drain

Red Fife wheat plant topped with snow. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

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.

There’s still a sheaf of hope that Kokopellie Farm’ field of snow-covered wheat can be hearvested. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

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.