Growing communities across the Arctic are bringing affordable fruit and vegetables to the northern table
Growing communities across the Arctic are bringing affordable fruit and veg to the northern table
When you are expected to pay north of 10 bucks for a handful of tomatoes, you are going to want to think seriously about growing your own. But when you live north of the 60th parallel, growing vegetables is no simple proposition. It is, however, becoming more popular. There has been a new willingness to “grow your own” in the last few years. A farming school is spreading the word — and the skills required. And more and more community-access greenhouses are sprouting up. Together, these growing concerns are helping to address serious issues for those living in the North: food security, proper nutrition and affordability.
For millennia, humans have harvested much from the lands north of 60, not only hunting and fishing but gathering a healthy diet of berries, shoots, greens, roots and bark. There is evidence too that sea kelp and lake grasses were part of the prehistoric diet. Being nomadic, early peoples had no call or capacity for agriculture. As Europeans arrived to settle, gardens did too. In 1787, the great explorer Alexander Mackenzie mentions seeing “as fine a kitchen garden as I ever saw in Canada,” at the trading post of explorer Peter Pond near Lake Athabasca. By 1930, the Mackenzie District was reporting local harvests of oats and barley to cauliflower, lettuce and more. Hardy gardeners eked out a harvest. As access to the North opened up, more processed and packaged food was shipped from the south, to feed a growing population. By 1970, when the federal Dominion Experimental Agricultural Station at Fort Simpson was shut down, hopes for northern agriculture died on the vine.
It was more than 40 years later, in 2013, that the Northern Farm Training Institute opened in Hay River, N.W.T. Established by local Métis, led by northern farming legend Jackie Milne, it offers agriculture and animal husbandry training on its 100-hectare campus. Livestock include goats, cattle, yaks and chickens, and crops encompass everything from beets, kale and cabbage to raspberries, saskatoon berries and haskap berries. Five years in, more than a hundred graduates from 30 communities have returned home with “growing enthusiasm.”
For many more northern locations, farming is not an option, except “indoors.” Greenhouses have become a popular solution. In Inuvik, a city of 3,300 on the Mackenzie Delta, 100 km from the Arctic Ocean, the local greenhouse program is entering its 20th season. Run by the community as a cooperative, in season they have a farmers’ market and recently introduced an affordable fresh veggie box weekly delivery program. Nearly 3,000 kilometres to the east, Iqaluit’s Community Greenhouse Society is in its 17th year providing fresh produce to locals at a fraction of what imported food costs. Above the treeline at the south end of Baffin Island, Nunavut’s capital city has a population about 7,800. Last year, the society initiated a hydroponics program in the schools, combining hands-in-the-dirt education with a year-round supply of fresh vegetables. They celebrated Thanksgiving with a homegrown harvest.
But it is not just the larger cities. In 2013, Naujaat (pop: 1,082), on the shores of Hudson Bay in Nunavut, a not-for-profit called Growing North built a greenhouse designed to withstand the harsh climate. The harvest last year included 250 heads of lettuce, 350 kale plants and the fruit from 16 tomato plants. That was using only half the available space. They held their first farmers’ market as well, selling produce at half the cost in the local store.