An NWT farming advocate says the Covid-19 pandemic is highlighting just how important growing food locally is – especially in the North.
The Northern Farm Training Institute, in Hay River, recently developed a plan to encourage people across the territory to start their own food gardens.
Dubbed the NWT Collaborative Growing Plan, it includes online lessons, an initiative where former students act as local food ambassadors in their communities, and an ambition to raise money for seeds.
Jackie Milne, founder and president of the institute, says the plan aims to build local food security at a time when donations to food banks have decreased, many people are out of work, and there’s uncertainty about the future.
It’s something she hopes the territorial government will support.
“We’re very vulnerable here in the North, let’s not kid ourselves,” she said.
“Before there was a rush on seeds I said seeds would be the next toilet paper. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.”
Food security has long been an issue in the North. According to the NWT Bureau of Statistics, 23.1 percent of households in the territory said they were worried about not having enough money for food in 2018.
Numbers from the NWT Bureau of Statistics indicate agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting contributed less than one percent of the territory’s gross domestic product in 2018 – the lowest share of any sector.
Milne believes part of the issue is that Canada, especially the North, is too reliant on other countries for food. She wants to empower more northerners to produce their own food, alongside wild harvesting.
According to her institute’s calculations, it would take 600 acres of cultivation to grow enough food to make up 25 percent of northerners’ diets.
“At the end of this we will realize food production is like any Red Seal ticketed trade,” said Milne. “And we’re all apprentices. We’ve all got to be apprentices.”
From community greenhouse to farm
Inuvik’s community greenhouse is working to provide people with fresh, local produce during the pandemic.
Executive director Ray Solotki said around 100 members and 20 community groups usually use the greenhouse but, due to restrictions associated with the pandemic, it’s currently closed to the public. Now a few staff are farming for the community.
“We’re still producing food and we’re becoming actually an Arctic farm instead of a community greenhouse,” Solotki said.
“We’re trying to keep as much food flowing through the greenhouse as possible.”
The greenhouse has received funding through the charity Community Food Centres Canada to offer subsidized vegetable boxes. Also available are subsidized planter boxes so people can grow food at home.
“We’re trying to offer lots of opportunities for the community to still have access to fresh local produce,” Solotki said.
The greenhouse has been working with all seven communities in the Beaufort Delta to help their community greenhouses continue growing.
Ray Solotki inside her Inuvik community greenhouse in the summer of 2019. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
“The addition of food and that hope of growing something is really important in the North,” Solotki said. “It makes it feel more connected, it makes us feel more empowered, it gives us more opportunities for food sovereignty and choosing what we eat instead of just what somebody brings in a truck.”
Beyond food, the greenhouse’s plant sale – which helps support staff – is moving online. Solotki also plans to help beautify the town of Inuvik.
“We’re still going to be doing hanging baskets and showing people it’s not just gloomy and grey. We have stuff to look forward to and life is still going on.”
Increasing food security through locally produced and harvested food is also part of the territorial government’s 2019-2023 mandate. In the spring of 2017, the territorial government introduced its first commercial agriculture strategy.
In an emailed statement, Drew Williams, assistant director of strategic communications for the Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment, said the territorial government “is aware of, and actively monitoring, the national and international challenges facing our country’s supply chain.”
He said the government had taken measures to ensure the food chain from southern suppliers to the North continues.