Farms are probably the last thing you picture when you think of the Northwest Territories, where dense boreal forest and rocky shield dominate a large part of the territory's vast landscape.
But with food insecurity on the rise in communities across Canada's North, residents are increasingly shifting toward growing and raising their own food.
That's where Jackie Milne comes in. The jubilant founder and president of the Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI) based in Hay River, NWT, is spearheading a food sovereignty revolution that is already seeing small farms and gardens popping up in unsuspecting places across the territory.
As the first agricultural school of its kind in the North, NFTI is designed to empower students with the basic knowledge to return to their communities armed with applied skills in food production and break their dependence on the often unaffordable, unhealthy options at their grocery stores.
"With aboriginal culture, traditionally they really believed that they were secure when everyone was secure. That's what gives us security. Whether it's at a family level, a community level, a state level, a country or a global level, when we really have security is when we have all of our needs met," said Milne, a Métis woman born and raised in the North. "That has really touched me, and I realized that I could influence more food being produced by helping other people learn than what I could physically grow myself. I realized that was probably the fastest way to do it."
Now in its third year offering courses to students from as far north as Fort Good Hope (66 latitude) all the way down to Fort Smith (60 latitude), NFTI offers training in seed selection, designing and planting a garden, creating forests of fruit and nut trees North of 60, garden maintenance and marketing, food harvesting, preparation and storage, and large and small animal husbandry.
Apart from helping individuals secure the knowledge they need to feed themselves and their families, Milne said the systems being implemented are designed to feed 200 people—the typical size of the most remote, vulnerable communities in the North.
Though people further south might find it hard to believe that farms can thrive in the middle of the northern forest, Milne said the thing that poses the greatest challenge to Northern food production is doubt.
"It's a very common belief, because of winter and the short season, that we can't grow very much food. But it turns out our temperate climate in the summer is one of the most conducive to producing food because it doesn't get too hot," she said.
Long days of sunlight help to make up for shorter summers, while Northern gardens tend to lack the plant-eating pests of the south, Milne added. Long winters also give gardeners time to pull back and plan, like a deep inhale before the exhale of spring and summer.
At the same time, affordable, local, and organic food is in high demand across the North.
"The beauty of it is food is very expensive here, and there's a lot of room for entrepreneurs, for people to start little businesses, little specialty things if they're not too confident. We don't have any competition. The grocery stores will buy, restaurants will buy, people will buy, so it's a wide open market; you just need to focus on producing the product," Milne said.
"There's probably more things in our favour to get started than are a disadvantage at this time."
Creating a farm campus
Inside the dilapidated hog barn—a dark metal structure whose roof now sags dangerously close to the cramped quarters that once held hundreds of tightly packed pigs—a leftover fan hangs from a beam.
The faded logo reads "Profit-Maker."
Milne scoffs at the irony. The failed Northern Pork factory meat operation never actually made money, she explained, and wouldn't have stayed open for as many years as it did without hefty subsidies from government.
Now it just so happens that the abandoned site—a 260-acre lot outside of Hay River—serendipitously opened itself up for lease just as Milne's dream of a permanent school facility began to grow roots with a massive influx of funding last year.
The municipal government gave NFTI the go-ahead to use the area earlier this month, after the farm school was given $2 million by the federal government last summer during Prime Minister Stephen Harper's annual Northern tour. In its pilot years, the project also received support from the territorial government's own Growing Forward funding initiative, which supports community agriculture in the NWT.
In the spirit of regeneration, Milne now plans to replace the derelict symbol of unsustainable farming with NFTI's new farm campus, complete with greenhouses, livestock grazing areas, outdoor gardens, and hardy orchards, along with classrooms and housing for staff and students.
Right now, the site consists of a series of meadow clearings surrounded by mixed forest with a spectacular view of the Hay River valley below. Though the collapsing structures and rusted-out junk vehicles that litter the area need to be removed or salvaged for parts, Milne and her staff are already excitedly pointing out where the students' yurts are going to go, where berry bushes will be planted, where a cafe and garden market could thrive and where students from as far as Nunavut can, in the future, fully immerse themselves in experiential learning.
"The beauty of having the institute is it will give us the capacity, as the students increase in their skill set, to allow them to be able to come for longer periods of time," Milne said. "So if someone wants to move to specialization—say you just really love greenhouses—we could have interim positions of a month, three months, a whole year, whatever, to learn that whole process."
Forest farm animals
Tromping through mud at the old hog barn lot, Milne openly imagines pigs roaming the area as the naturally forest-dwelling creatures they are, helping to restore and fertilize the soil, just as the institute's two existing sows have done back at her own farm, the current home base for NFTI. There, two bulky, black Berkshires—named Sophie and, perhaps more aptly, Greasy Bacon—have as a duo managed to transform an entire muskeg, or boreal swamp, into usable growing land by rooting up tree stumps and churning up the ground.
The pigs' work highlights a portion of the research being conducted at NFTI, which looks to find ways to incorporate animals into the overall agricultural system that flows with nature rather than works against it—a model known as permaculture, and one that recently earned NFTI the honour of becoming the first Savory Institute hub in Canada.
The animals aren't just there to till soil, however. Not only is meat culturally significant in the North, but it is also crucial for providing enough calories and protein in an area where nuts and legumes can't be produced in large enough quantities.
At the same time, climate change, industrial activity and increased human pressures on wild animals have meant certain species, especially caribou, are dwindling in the NWT, adding to the food security crisis. Milne believes domestic meat, done sustainably, can lend a helping hand to wild herds and the communities that depend on them.
"The more harsh the climate is, the diet tends to be more meat-based. So if we're to let nature recover—say, for example, the caribou seem to need a little bit of rest—we're still going to eat meat," she said. "So how can we have a domestic system that we can rely on so we can take the pressures off the different wild systems? We have to be able to do it in an authentic, sustainable way, so we have to look at what types of animals would be best suited here."
Along with pigs, NFTI already has its own chickens and a tiny herd of Dexter-Galloway cattle, thickly coated little creatures capable of producing milk and meat. These days, Milne is also looking into sheep, who apart from their obvious benefits to humans as a source of meat, dairy and wool, are "browsers," meaning they can be used to regenerate forests by grazing down certain plants after a wildfire in order to encourage reforestation.
After fires consumed 3.5 million hectares of forest in the NWT last year, Milne suspects that sheep, tended to by some large guardian dogs to ward off bears and wolves, could not only thrive in the territory, but actually work with nature to facilitate quicker regrowth of the ecosystems on which so many wild animals depend.
The same goes for reindeer, another species being considered by NFTI. Milne is researching what it would take to manage a domestic herd of the ungulate that would provide similar benefits to the forest along with spectacular food for a region defined by people's relationship to caribou and moose meat.
"Learning about the different animals is connected to what they eat. Some are very much grass eaters, others eat leaves and weeds, so ensuring there will be more natural food for the animal here is going to help," she said. "We're really looking at that. That'll be probably one of the funnest parts to implement, but with animals you've got to really make sure the system is in place."
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