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It’s a rail yard. It might be a pellet mill. Now it’s a farm.

Industrial land south of Hay River will be transformed into a farm and food processing facility under plans announced this week.

Brad Mapes has already built a rail yard on land he owns outside Enterprise along NWT Highway 1. He also plans a pellet mill, among other industries. To that collection, he’s adding agriculture.

“There are several areas on the property with a lot of black dirt and good soil,” Mapes told Cabin Radio on Tuesday.

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“I wanted to give a group the opportunity to utilize the land and produce food for the North, and also create employment for some of the regional communities around us.”

Mapes’ business, AWP Industries, has joined forces with a company named North Star Agriculture. In a press release this week, the two said they will start creating a 400-acre “agriculture production and food processing hub” in the spring of 2023.

Sonny Gray, who founded North Star in the Yukon just under a decade ago, said the two companies will invest some of their own cash in the infrastructure needed, as well as targeting funding from grants where available.

“At this point, things are pretty preliminary. We have the deal in terms of securing land, which in the NWT is no small feat,” Gray said by phone.

“Here in Yukon, a lot of our clientele is Indigenous groups. Ideally, North Star NWT starts to cultivate those relationships and starts to help the different communities with food production as time progresses.

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“People could bring livestock there to be processed. Same with food storage. We recognize the biggest problem the NWT faces right now is the lack of industry, and part of that is the lack of key infrastructure. We’re more than willing to help develop that so the communities themselves have access to infrastructure.”

What will be grown?

Kevin Wallington, best known for Hay-River based Polar Egg and his role at the territory’s agrifood association, will lead North Star’s NWT operation and the creation of what amounts to a new farm.

He acknowledged that fitting a farm around an existing rail yard will bring a “dichotomy of an industrial operation and food development,” but he is energized by the prospect of setting out what grows where this coming spring.

“There’s a really exciting thought of having crop development on the outside of the property, as you’re driving down the highway – fields producing food that are benefiting the North,” Wallington said.

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A rail line at the facility in June 2020. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
A sign at the industrial park’s entrance in 2020. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

He envisions a working farm at the centre of the site and, to its northern extremity, commercial operations that might include a processing facility for vegetables and a slaughterhouse. Livestock will be part of the farm, Wallington and Gray each said. Mapes listed potatoes, carrots and beets as possible crops, noting drainage related to the highway and CN Rail line helps to ensure the area is well-watered.

Wallington stressed the need to grow the site at an achievable pace and gradually scale up the operation.

“I don’t think we’re looking to hit home run after home run here,” he said. “What do we need? What would be beneficial to help other producers? We really want to use this as an opportunity to bring leadership, and food, and support the other people that are already out there doing work.”

As an example, he pointed to Riverside Growers, the Hay River-based operation that is still recovering from damage wrought by flooding earlier this year.

The new agriculture centre will try to learn from hydroponics operations pioneered in the NWT by the likes of Riverside Growers and others in Inuvik and Yellowknife, Wallington said, and the centre will do what it can to help Riverside Growers and others return to production, “in whatever way that looks after the dust settles.”

Where will the food go?

Mapes, Gray and Wallington say the twin aims of the project are to generate food for the North and help nearby communities do the same.

Equally, the farm and food processing facility will be located in a transportation hub. Highway 1 reaches south to Alberta, as does the rail line that picks its way through some of the land to be developed.

“Once they get everything going, they can market their products in the North but also look at marketing in the south by hauling it on rail,” Mapes said.

A CN Rail train leaves Hay River in January 2019
A CN Rail train leaves Hay River in January 2019. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

“Hay River is a great place to be developing this stuff,” added Gray. “It’s the launchpad. From there, we can take product to Yellowknife, to the communities, or it can go backwards – there are lots of empty trucks running down south.”

This week’s press release promised community engagement in early spring 2023 before work begins in earnest at the site.

“We’re looking at a market study to tell us exactly what people are eating in the NWT, what they would like to eat, and what the price points are,” Gray said.

“There’s a lot of partnership potential and lots of ways we can work with other people. We can’t do everything,” said Wallington.

“We want to have a solid, strong plan and team.”