Economy

What's stopping the growth of northern food production?


Of all the challenges northern growers of fresh food face, the toughest to conquer could be changing your buying habits.

Leaders of the North's food industry, speaking at last week's Opportunities North conference in Yellowknife, said the shifting of people's mindsets to purchase "local, clean produce" remains a key obstacle.

"We seem to have this attitude that we can't produce it in the North and everything has to be trucked in," said Ray Solotki, executive director of Inuvik's community greenhouse and a supporter of similar projects across the Beaufort Delta.

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Solotki says the current preference for southern food means the funding focus falls on transportation networks, and not the NWT's homegrown industry.

"Everybody tells you that they support it, but at the end of the day – when you get your stuff from the supermarket shelf – everybody has a tendency to go back to that product that they've been buying for the last five, 10 years," said Alex McMeekin, operator of the Riverside Growers greenhouse in Hay River.

What we need in the North are people that are going to be champions of this.

KEVIN WALLINGTON, POLAR EGG

A large part of that? Convincing people to pay a premium for local products, on the understanding that doing so supports local businesses and local jobs.

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Solotki gave the example of Gameti's 10,000-pound potato yield this year. She said the potatoes are not being sold as they cost $2.50 a pound, compared to the grocery store's 68 cents a pound.

While northerners live with an extraordinary cost of living – making the desire to purchase cheaper food easily understood – Solotki said there's another way of looking at those prices: the extra cost employs someone locally.

“There are elections this year. Everyone is voting," she said. "You also vote every day with the dollars you spend.

"Every day that you go to the store and don't buy something local, or you go online and ship it from the south just because it saves you $10, it means you are not putting money back into your local community."

Inuvik's community greenhouse

Inside Inuvik's community greenhouse. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Speaking to Cabin Radio in September, Wilfred McNeely Jr – former grand chief of the Sahtu Dene Council – said he and his partner Tisha face similar hurdles getting their produce to people in Fort Good Hope. 

For the past six years the McNeelys have had an active garden, greenhouse, and laying hens. This year, they are getting into canning. However, having overcome the challenges of getting items into the community and filing government paperwork, they are struggling to sell their excess produce.

McNeely said some residents prefer buying everything "in one shot" at the store, instead of the extra trip to see him. Others, maybe going through a hard time, may not have the time to prepare a meal.

Yukon-based farmer Carl Burgess said it's not impossible to convince residents to pay a premium for local food. It's a booming industry in the neighbouring territory, he said, with demand far outstripping production.

Burgess instead sees a need to “flip the story so that northern food production is not necessarily a quaint or a cottage industry.” Pointing to the Yukon as an example, local producers are “barely satisfying the market,” he said – producing just half a percent of the overall market.

Kale 'like candy'

Solving the NWT's apparent apathy toward locally grown food involves marketing, competitive prices, and consistent quality, said McMeekin.

Solotki believes mindsets are slowly changing.

"What I've seen now, in the communities, is children who are running to the greenhouse,” she said. “To them, kale and peas and strawberries from the garden are like candy.”

Kevin Wallington, who runs marketing and sales for Hay River-based Polar Egg, said positive changes are afoot. Regulations are changing, territorial government support is growing, and municipalities are devising plans to support the industry, he said.

Yet the biggest bureaucratic hurdle remains, said Marie Auger, of Yellowknife's Sweet Ride Honey and Hives.

"The difference between the Northwest Territories and the Yukon is we have a lot of unsettled land claims here and that makes it hard for people to get any access to land,” she said.

"The GNWT [and] municipal governments seem to give up land to million-dollar corporations and it's kind-of squeezing out the little guy.”

Empty trucks

For now, Solotki can’t sell her produce at the grocery store. Instead, she relies on door-knocking, local buy-and-sell pages, and trying to "convince people that they should buy my local lettuce that's more expensive than what comes from Northmart, because if I'm trying to hire someone locally, that's what's reflected in the cost." 

Solotki's Inuvik greenhouse is planning to partner with Burgess’ Yukon farming company ColdAcre Food Systems to create a year-round hydroponics facility, with an eye to one day selling items from grocery store shelves.

In the longer term, Burgess suggested, spin-off economic benefits like culinary tourism will grow from the seed of investment in agriculture. Nor is he struggling to find staff in Whitehorse, saying young people knock on his door wanting to work for something "cool."

"Since when is farming cool?" he joked.

A stall at Fort Smith's farmers' market in August 2019. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

"What we need in the North, and what we need in Canada, are people that are going to be champions of this and are going to go back to their communities and say that the food industry is not only imperative, but it’s legitimate and it’s something that’s worthwhile investing in,” said Wallington.

If that happens, rather than relying on the ship-north mentality, Solotki sees a possibility to reverse that trend. 

“Those trucks that we’re paying with all that carbon footprint, coming north, are heading back down south empty,” she said.

“If we could be creating an industry in which we’re not only producing food for our own local needs, but actually we are becoming a producer that is shipping south, how great would that be?” 

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