If you were to pull into a parcel of Tr’ondek Hwech’in territory 14km (8 miles) southeast of Dawson City, Yukon, you’d see a row of wooden wall-tent frames, wash and cook houses tucked up asleep under 1.2m (4ft) of snow. George McLeod, 43, is managing the property, keeping a close eye on the structures in the run-up to another busy school year. He has good reason to take it easy this winter: He’s just graduated alongside 19 other, mostly Tr’ondek Hwech’in, citizens with an emerging North of 60 skillset: the ability to carry a crop from seed to summer kitchen to farm stand – and strengthen his community while he’s at it.
McLeod is working on what’s known to locals as the old Strachan dairy farm, 37 hectares (91 acres) of land bordering the Klondike River, where soils were last tilled at the turn of the 20th century. It’s Tr’ondek Hwech’in settlement land – a community of 1,100 whose territories span the glacier-fed rivers of the Klondike. The soil is as black as night and so rich you could almost eat it; the region is nursed by the midnight summer sun, showers and insulating hills.
The region, to people like McLeod, looks like an agricultural gold mine. But it’s far from a breadbasket. For starters, heat-finicky staples such as wheat are unlikely to grow in the Klondike. The region’s proximity to the Arctic Circle, graced with sustained summer sunlight, is a boon to crops, but only for an average of 90 days a year. When the sun abruptly departs, frost soon follows – a potential enemy if it hits before the end of a plant’s natural lifespan. Though climate change may extend the growing season, first and last frost may also become more unpredictable, posing challenges for crop management. But during the Klondike Gold Rush, Dawson’s farmers learned to produce many hardy root vegetables to help feed the town’s booming population of scurvy-suffering miners, and some are ready to rise to the challenge once more.
Like many other Yukon First Nations, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in are two decades into their comprehensive, self-governing powers, and the nation’s elected leaders, and the elders council, just placed agriculture at the top of the latest strategic plan.
For most folks in Dawson City, two small grocery stores provide the bulk of what loads their dinner plates. The Yukon produces less than 2 percent of its food. Though grocers work hard within the bounds of existing supply chains and best-before dates, perishable goods often arrive in a sorry state. A stroll through the aisles may present mold-spotted tomatoes and limp, brown lettuce – tired from their onerous trek, often by air. That makes it expensive: In one study, 40 percent of Indigenous Yukoners said they cannot afford to buy the food they need from the store. When the lone highway connecting the Yukon to southern Canada washed out four years ago – an incident likely to increase with climate change – a brief episode of food hoarding and empty shelves made headlines. As the region warms at twice the southern pace, food security is more than just a topic for academia.
Dexter McRae is the Tr’ondek Hwech’in director of human resources and education. Back in the spring of 2014, McRae brought the farm to the table – the Yukon College table that is. He organized a breakfast meeting with management from both sides to discuss the Tr’ondek Hwech’in’s well-researched ideas. It didn’t take any convincing. The Yukon College doesn’t have an agriculture program, unlike similar institutions in Norway and other circumpolar jurisdictions. Like the First Nation, it saw a huge potential for growth in meeting the needs for professional skills training and research into northern cultivation. And the First Nation has the land to do it.
Fast forward to harvest 2016, and locals headed east along the Klondike Highway bound for the airport might have honked and waved at students hovering over their potato, beet and kale crops. There would have been a long row of sunflowers bordering the entrance like a stage curtain, tempting onlookers to peek at the action behind. The insanely sweet carrots had been blockbusters at farm stands in northern First Nation communities, while baby varieties of nugget potatoes had been so bountiful the students struggled to keep up. A single, brilliant-white cauliflower from one of the research plots had produced a dozen jars of medley pickles, to which students added long green beans and sliced carrot for color. Even the corn had grown husks. “Nobody else in the Yukon can grow corn without a greenhouse,” McLeod explains. The farm’s cold stores emptied just a few weeks ago when they donated the remaining 770kg (1,700lb) of potatoes to community members. “We were all running in the dark,” McLeod says. But they pulled it off in a really big way.
“It teaches you patience,” he says. “It’s so rewarding; you get chills up your spine watching your food come up the ground.”
Students now hold a Yukon College certificate and can include on their CVs such skills as crop management, harvesting, food preservation, marketing, carpentry, farm maintenance and landscaping. In the near future, academic-based certificate programs will allow students to ladder into higher education. That’s because, for the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, it’s not just about food. It’s about sustainable land stewardship, health and wellness, land-based education and economic sovereignty. In fulfillment of the farm’s broad mandate, a number of local elders taught students to harvest traditional food and medicines such as wild onion, bear root and cloudberries. They learned to produce salves and teas as practiced for thousands of years. Soon they hope to market these products to summer tourists, a lucrative strategy in Nordic nations. Given the small size of the Klondike community, these initiatives hold considerable potential.
As the cold stores await their next bounty, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in have no shortage of projects in the making. Pigs, chickens and maybe even goats will soon join the ranks. Other tracks of settlement lands could grow fodder and host animal husbandry – the latter yet to be researched within a strong culture of hunting. But there’s been no shortage of jokes about moose corrals, McRae says. A year-round greenhouse and composting system will be constructed this spring, allowing farmers to speed up the growing process and help with transplants. By growing distribution, they hope to further assist more remote communities such as Old Crow, noting the potential to work with the local Indigenous-owned airline, Air North.
Still, the challenges of farming in the Klondike mean the region isn’t about to feed every need.
“We know that we can’t produce everything that’s required,” McRae says, pointing to grain and legumes. “We simply want to play a role in sustainability in the Klondike. And we’re just one of the partners making that happen.”