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!
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.
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.
In a beautiful article by Up Here Magazine, France Benoit opens the gate to her home and farm “Le Refuge“, which she has lovingly built and tended to for the past 25 years. On this property, by the shores of Madeline Lake in Yellowknife, France grows a variety of vegetables to feed herself as well as to sell in the local farmer’s market, of which she is a founding member.
One way to have celery year round from the garden is to grow celeriac root. Weird looking but quite flavorful, celeriac root is edible raw or cooked, and tastes similar to the stalks of common celery.
It grows well in the North, keeps well in cold storage all winter, and apparently can have a shelf life of approximately six to eight months if stored properly. You can serve it roasted, stewed, blanched, or mashed, or added to your favorite stews or casseroles. Peel it and chop it and use it in place of fresh celery in cooking. Excellent combined with potatoes when cooking mashed potatoes!
Take advantage of your greenhouse in April and May, before you plant your tomatoes and cucumbers, to give you an early crop of spinach or Asian greens! Riley Brennan, of Dawson City, direct seeds spinach in her greenhouse as soon as the soil thaws in April. She leaves the greenhouse unheated and the seedlings don’t require any covering. By the time she goes to plant her greenhouse proper in late May, she has a crop of baby spinach to harvest.
Next weekend, Dawsonites will have a chance to participate in two amazing workshops!
Seedy Saturdays will be held on Saturday March 25th at the Recreation Centre, and it will include presentations by Karen Digby and Grant Dowdell about northern gardening and by Scott Henderson about mushroom cultivation.
The following day on Sunday the 26th, there will be a Birch Syrup workshop in which participants will meet at the Rec Centre and then go hunting for Birch sap.
There are limited spaces on both, so make sure you sign up soon!
If there is something exotic you wish to grow in the North, ask Louise Piché of Rock Creek, Dawson City, Yukon. Louise is a well known gardener in Dawson and a frequent ribbon winner at Dawson’s annual Discovery Days Horticultural Fair. She loves experimenting with new and colorful varieties. She has successfully grown peanuts and ground cherries (aka golden berries) as well as asparagus, giant pumpkins and buckwheat.
Louise has generously shared her ‘tried and true’ cultivars that grow well in Rock Creek, which you can view on our seed page. This year she is experimenting with ginger, turmeric, artichokes and pink potatoes.
And one of the biggest obstacles they have found is that the local soil lacks nutrients. Commercial soil works fine, but it is costly and it needs to be flown in, which impacts the sustainability of the project.
Many northern Canadian communities do not have the luxury of the rich soil found in southern Yukon. This is the case for the fly-in community of Arviat, (population 2,800) – the second largest community in Nunavut.
In 2014 Arviat built a greenhouse beside the school to see if they could grow their own vegetables with local soil and local fertilizer. And they have been very successful!