Greg Haist harvesting potatoes at his farm in Paradise Gardens. Photo submitted by Janet Dean
After this year’s flooding in and around Hay River, you could be forgiven for thinking commercial farming in the territory might disappear for good.
Wringing produce – and a living – from the territory’s sandy, rocky soil is often perceived as a noble but Sisyphean effort to drag a southern industry into the North.
“We seem to have this attitude that we can’t produce in the North and everything has to be trucked in,” Ray Solotki, executive director of Inuvik’s community greenhouse, told Cabin Radio in 2019.
In a screenshot posted to Facebook by the Northern Farm Training Institute, even NWT Premier Caroline Cochrane tells an inquirer: “The NWT does not have the soil and conditions required to grow crops.” (The territorial government confirmed the authenticity of the message.)
While farmers in Paradise Valley – a region south of Hay River hit hard by this year’s flooding – acknowledge farming in the North has its quirks, they say their challenges are compounded by this longstanding perception and the policy choices that follow.
Take Greg Haist.
Haist has been farming in the NWT since 1980, he says, and is currently sitting on 5,000 lb of harvested potatoes with more than 10,000 lb still in the ground.
Usually, he would be busy harvesting and storing those potatoes for winter, gradually selling them over a period of months. But after losing a significant amount of 2021’s harvest to the flood and having his cellar compromised, this year he tried to sell early.
The problem, he soon discovered, is that the only buyers interested in acquiring hundreds of pounds of potatoes in one go are locked into contracts with bigger commercial players. There are no loopholes that allow a switch to local farms.
“We’re primarily a government community here in Yellowknife,” said Janet Dean, executive director of the Territorial Agrifood Association, known as the TAA for short.
“If someone like Greg wants to sell to large-scale [government-run] organizations, let’s say the prison or the hospital, well, they have contracts with southern food suppliers to buy southern potatoes.
“Meanwhile, his potatoes are sitting unsold. But with these contracts in place, they can’t make exceptions because of their procurement policy. So it’s a really complex web to get in and be commercially viable as a producer in the NWT.”
Procurement strategies that prioritize local farms are in place across North America, and studies suggest they bring with them positive impacts for the affected communities. The TAA says it sent a report about such strategies and a series of recommendations to industry minister Caroline Wawzonek last year, but has yet to receive a response.
Wawzonek, who is the minister responsible for the NWT’s agriculture sector, said that while a formal response hasn’t been finalized, she and her department have reviewed that report.
The minister told Cabin Radio the TAA’s recommendations “do blend well into work that’s already happening,” such as a wider procurement review she is leading.
“It’s timely to hear from a specific sector, where they weave in elements of procurement, because we are looking at procurement more broadly,” said Wawzonek.
But asked if government facilities could be given targets to secure quantities of produce locally, Wawzonek said the timing did not make sense.
“The simple reality, right at this moment in our agricultural sector, is that they were so deeply impacted by the flood that they’re likely going to have to do some rebuilding before we can set the kind of forward-looking target I’d like us to have,” she said.
‘Never shut the door on a good idea’
Haist has another problem.
In the same year as a catastrophic flood, he’s still on the hook to pay more than four times the taxation rate British Columbia farmers would on his 12 acres of land. It’s a situation that Dean says would not happen anywhere else.
“They’re still paying property tax at a residential rate on farmland,” said Dean. “In other provinces, the property tax rate on farmland is, like, 25 percent of the residential rate.”
In Alberta, just over 100 kilometres to the south, farmers pay 25 percent of the residential rate and no property taxes on farm buildings.
Wawzonek, who is also the NWT’s minister of finance, said her government was “open to hearing about other options” if the way farmland is taxed is proving a barrier to industry.
“I mean, never shut the door on a good idea. We can certainly take it back to the Department of Finance,” she said.
Tax rates in the General Taxation Area – anywhere in the NWT outside a municipality – are set using a formula that multiplies a property’s assessed value by a mill rate. Each year, the GNWT explains in an online FAQ, the finance minister sets the mill rate for each class, or type, of property.
Dean doesn’t believe her sector’s concerns about taxation mean the minister is doing a bad job. She just wishes Wawzonek didn’t have so many competing responsibilities, being the minister also tasked with sustaining mining, fishing, tourism, and a host of other NWT industries.
“It’s an early-stage industry and it needs government attention,” Dean said of agriculture in the North.
“Without an agriculture department … our minister is very busy with all her other departments. And it’s so hard to make it a priority.
“We don’t want to compete, we’re not saying this is more important than mining or social issues. But we need someone who can make agriculture their focus. Because really, we’re not suggesting big changes. We just need someone spearheading them.”
Forced to count eggs before they hatch
The federal and territorial governments have collaborated to provide funding for farming in the NWT through a grant program called the Canadian Agricultural Partnership. While this program is exciting for many farmers, its reach is limited: three out of nine applicants qualified in 2021.
People whose projects qualified for funding but who later saw their investments wash away in the Hay River are back to square one. So what other funding options are possible?
Dean says banks offer preferred lending terms to farms in other jurisdictions, but that’s not on the table in the NWT.
Here, she says, “the banks don’t acknowledge that we have farms, so they’re not able to access agricultural discounts and benefits like they would down south.”
Most commercial farming operations have unique financing needs due to the seasonal nature of their work. To accommodate this, major Canadian banks offer financing programs tailored to farming.
But a key component of qualifying for those loans is securing an agreement with the federal government that they will take on some of the risk. These agreements come through two federal programs: AgriStability and AgriInvest.
Neither of these programs accept applicants from the Northwest Territories.
Without that support, banks are hesitant to offer loans. Without loans, few people have the capital required to cover farming’s formidable upfront investments out of pocket.
The result is that growers in the NWT take on more personal financial risk than many other farmers in Canada. That risk makes any decision to rebuild in a place that just catastrophically flooded even harder.
The GNWT says it is actively working to provide updated flood mapping as soon as possible, maps that would help farmers understand more about where the threat now lies.
Until those maps become available, the NWT government is advising residents to rely on “anecdotal evidence” as they rebuild.
The dirt on NWT soil
As a result, many farmers in Paradise Valley are looking at moving farther from the river to protect their assets.
But just how much land in the NWT would be able to produce crops like Paradise Valley?
Haist said soil testing has taken place that shows “a substantial amount of Class 3 soil” in the territory, a soil type that is considered to have some limitations but is capable of sustained use for cultivating crops.
That’s the class of soil Paradise Valley farmers are working with, Haist added.
“It’s only limited in its potential by the weather. All kinds of root vegetables grow quite well here: carrots, rutabagas, beets,” he said.
A 2008 soil survey commissioned by the GNWT found 826,336 hectares of Class 3 soil within a 4.3-million hectare study area in the southern NWT. Another 500,000 hectares were Class 4, which can also support crop cultivation.
The 2008 report concluded the territory’s potential for agriculture has been underestimated, with “an abundance of soil resources that appear capable of sustained agriculture, in spite of the negative perceptions associated with being located north of 60.”
Soil maps show extensive regions of brunisolic soil in the NWT, a soil order widely used for agriculture across Canada.
But while all this data sounds promising, fieldwork in the area has been limited.
David Bysouth, a researcher at the University of Guelph, is trying to fill that gap. He’s writing a PhD on NWT soil.
“I’m definitely not the only soil researcher in the Northwest Territories, but I believe I’m the only one looking at it from an agriculture perspective,” Bysouth said, calling northern farming “a relatively novel research area globally.”
Bysouth says existing soil mapping – and the soil order and class system – are not always reflective of the reality on the ground.
“We’re realizing that these broad sweeping generalizations like, ‘oh, the soil isn’t good for agriculture in this region,’ don’t really make sense, because soils are so inherently variable from one hundred metres to the next,” he said.
He believes these systems create an impression of static soil quality when the land can evolve with the right care.
In Paradise Valley, he argues as an example, “farmers have overcome some of the soil’s limitations by growing cover crops … I know one farmer who has used sunflowers to improve the quality of the soil.”
For Haist, there is also not enough said about some of the unique strengths that come with farming in the territory.
“You don’t need to have pesticides to kill off bugs and pests the way you do in the south. And usually all that’s required for weeding is mechanical weeding. There’s reliable water for irrigation,” he said, listing some of the positives.
There’s also the benefit of up to 20 hours of daylight a day.
So why does the attitude persist that northern commercial farming is a doomed effort?
“We get a lot of negative press,” said Haist. “Or not negative, exactly, but sort-of… pessimistic.”
According to Haist, what he characterizes as woe-is-me coverage of NWT farmers – especially following the flood – isn’t helping their image or attracting potential investors.
Haist says farmers want policy that makes it easier to do their jobs, but the fact that the farming itself can sometimes be tough is part of the business. It doesn’t slow them down.
“It doesn’t matter where you are, farming is an uphill battle,” said Haist. “It’s the unknowns, right? I follow farmers from Montana on YouTube and they’ve got grasshoppers if it’s hot, they’ve got hail, they’re dealing with climate change, they’ve got all kinds of things that they’re dealing with. So just about any farmer anywhere has problems.”
“Farmers are resilient,” said Dean. “They’re frustrated, but they’re farming for a reason. They’re good at what they do, and they want to keep doing it.”
And if anyone wants to buy a significant amount of potatoes, please email Greg Haist.