Extreme Farming in the Yukon
September 12, 2011
Editor’s note: Today’s feature was written by CUESA employee Sandra Norberg (pictured below), who’s been a helpful, friendly presence at our Saturday information booth ever since the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market moved to its current location. Sandra visited a farm in the Yukon Territory this summer, and here she shares her observations about what it’s like to grow food in this remote northerly locale.
In my seven years working at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market information booth, I have gotten to know a lot of farmers and toured numerous farms in the region. But my familiarity with farming in California did not prepare me for life on a farm in Canada’s Yukon Territory.
When my niece invited my sister and me to spend a week with her at the Wheaton River Garden, located an hour south of Whitehorse (Yukon’s capital), we gladly accepted. It was August, and my niece had just completed an internship at the farm. The visit turned out to be an incredible experience.
The owner of the farm, Shiela Alexandrovich, has been farming on the Wheaton River for 31 years; she raised and homeschooled her two children there. She runs the farm with the help of her partner, Poul Lutsen, who is involved with the animals, and one intern.
And when I say animals, I’m talking about two llamas, nine sheep (including two Friesen ewes that supply milk for the farm) plus their 11 lambs, 45 rabbits, three geese, five horses (including a filly that was born while we were there), and a very special pig by the name of Jack. There are also several dogs and two cats (one of which likes to ride on the horses to keep her feet out of the cold snow). All of the animals are essential to the farm and roam freely over the property. Emerging from our cabin at night it wasn’t unusual to come face to face with a llama or a horse.
As you might expect, farming in the Yukon is far more seasonal than its California counterpart, with an outdoor growing period from about mid-May to mid-September (longer when the plants are covered). Shiela and Poul start their seedlings inside their solarium (a sunroom attached to the house) in March. From May 15 to September 15 the Fireweed Community Farmers Market Society hosts a weekly market in Whitehorse, and Wheaton River Garden sells a variety of greens, root crops, and cruciferous vegetables there, mostly in the form of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes they provide to 10 to 13 individuals who pay a monthly fee.
The farm is not certified organic. To become certified, it would have cost $400 per year plus paperwork, and when Shiela asked her customers if it mattered to them they said no, since they knew her growing practices. This type of relationship, built on familiarity and trust, is common in the small community of Whitehorse, where the market is busy with neighbors who know one another.
The wild, remote landscape of the Yukon and its dry, subarctic climate present some of the same resource challenges familiar to farms in our region, as well as additional limitations. Like in California, water is often the biggest concern, and precipitation in the Whitehorse area averages only 10.5 inches per year. Fortunately, Wheaton River Garden is located on the Wheaton River, so when there is not enough rainfall the gardens are irrigated using fire hoses that draw water from the river. There is also a well for potable water. Many Yukon farms are “off the grid;” Wheaton River Garden relies on solar power all year with a back-up generator.
The extreme climate also has its benefits for agriculture: I found it very interesting that that because of the long, cold winters, there are very few pests—only rodents, which can be controlled by cats. (The year Shiela lost her cat she lost all of her root vegetables.) A few of the farms have problems with elk. But no insects. Before this visit, a nearly pest-free environment would have been hard for me to imagine; at the Ferry Plaza, farmers often express concern about pathogens and insects. I was glad to see that the Yukon farmers at least have something in their favor.
They also have the advantage of a short but intensive growing season. In the summer the days are long and the plants grow rapidly (Poul says lettuce is ready to harvest within 4 to 6 weeks). In late August the sun didn’t set until 10:30 pm, and we worked longer and later as well, not stopping for dinner until 9 pm. Conversely, in the heart of the winter, there may only be a few hours of daylight.
Since the growing season is so short farmers must have other means of support, and one or more family members often work outside the farm. Shiela has numerous other sources of revenue: she slaughters and sells her rabbits, makes willow baskets and furniture as well as jewelry, does felting with wool from her sheep and llamas, and teaches felting workshops. Grants pay for school groups to visit the farm in the fall and spring. Poul is an expert in natural horse care and provides consultation to other farmers.
I was very impressed that nothing gets wasted in this community. Produce that the farm doesn’t sell gets stored or eaten; all food scraps go to the animals or the compost pile. Wheaton River Garden also picks up surplus produce from merchants in Whitehorse and brings it home to feed the animals. Farmers in the area share freezer space (mostly for hunted game), and a good deal of bartering is done. Everyone takes advantage of foraging wild foods from the nearby woods, which are filled with blueberries, crowberries, cranberries, fungi, and various greens and herbs.
My visit to Wheaton River Garden was unforgettable. If you are interested in a farm experience and don’t have a niece to invite you, contact WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). Many of the famers I met near Whitehorse used “woofers,” as do farmers all over the world.