On Wednesday, the Northwest Territories will receive a highly sought-after 50,000-pound delivery. Seed potatoes donated by Alberta’s Sunnycrest Farms are on their way.
The Northern Farm Training Institute, in Hay River, and a team of volunteers will then get to work distributing the potatoes – for free – to any takers in the NWT.
Jackie Milne, the institute’s president, called the donation the “coolest thing ever.”
Milne thinks that’s enough potatoes for every person in the territory to receive a pound. Normally, she said, a consumer could expect to pay around $4 per pound of seed potatoes – meaning the Sunnycrest Farms donation is worth about $200,000.
Milne had hoped to get money from the territorial government to start an NWT seed bank that would help residents feed themselves during crises like the current pandemic.
When that funding didn’t come though, and an online fundraiser didn’t catch on, Milne asked the industry body Potato Growers of Alberta for help.
Almost immediately, the potato group found a farm willing to donate a semi-truck of potatoes.
Jeff Ekkel, an owner of Sunnycrest Farms, said Covid-19 means a reduction in people eating French fries as restaurants are closed down. That means fewer fries are being made and demand for Sunnycrest’s seed potatoes has dropped by 15 to 20 percent – but the potatoes had already been grown.
“We were glad we could give them somewhere else where they could be put to a pretty good use,” said Ekkel.
“We’re a family farm here … and we’d like to help other people. We were put here to help people and if we can help someone, we will do that.”
Food insecurity ‘a serious problem’
Milne says this year, it’s more critical than ever the NWT grow its own food. She’d like to see 25 percent of peoples’ yearly caloric intake grown or harvested within the territory.
“Once I saw what was happening with the borders closing, I knew our food system would be affected,” she said.
She adds that denser vegetables like onions, potatoes, and carrots grown last year have been stored in climate-controlled warehouses, so supplies of those have yet to be affected.
A Sunnycrest Farms worker stands in front of the truck loaded with 50,000 pounds of potatoes in this photo submitted by Jackie Milne
This season, as a result of the pandemic, there have been delays in temporary migrant workers arriving to work on Canadian farms, writes The Conversation. Outbreaks of Covid-19 attributed to workers living in overcrowded housing units have been reported by the CBC.
If farmers don’t have enough workers, Milne thinks that’ll be a “serious problem” for the NWT.
“You know how we have communities that live on the coast that are subject to tsunamis? They have these big horns that they will blast if there’s an earthquake out in the ocean, because they can time how much time before the wave hits the shore, so people can get away,” said Milne.
“Trust me, the horn is blasting right now.
“And then instead of it being a disaster, maybe it will be more of a transformation toward a more sustainable way of living, which most of us already want to embrace.”
Potatoes will be ‘coming out our ears’
Depending on the level of care potato plants receive, said Milne, they can produce between two to 20 pounds of potatoes each. If a seed potato is cut into two or three pieces, that means even more potato plants and potatoes.
“We will be able to grow potatoes ‘till they’re coming out our ears,” said Milne. “[It’s] a real significant amount of food.”
Potatoes, she explained, “produce the highest quantity of food per square foot of any vegetable humans eat.”
Once the truckload of potatoes arrives, the institute will get them out to communities. However, Milne said her group needs help driving potatoes to people or funding to fly seeds to communities without road access.
If you can help, message the institute on Facebook or donate to its GoFundMe for community food security. Buffalo Airways in Hay River has offered to help with shipping, the institute said in a newsletter on Tuesday.
Avid gardener and Makerspace YK president Cat McGurk, who lives in Yellowknife, said her organization would be happy to work with the institute to make sure the seed potatoes get planted.
“We were definitely hoping to run some workshops this summer around food security – building food security, how to build garden beds, using readily available materials, and soil and how to build soil,” McGurk said.
Makerspace YK is in the early stages of planning a community access garden, which McGurk said differs from a community garden in that anyone can help out and anyone can take food.
“Maybe we’ll be able to use those potatoes in that plot,” McGurk said. The location for the plot has yet to be made public.
Like Milne, McGurk is excited about the seed potato donation.
“It’s encouraging to me that such an accessible crop has been made available to so many northerners … it’s an unfathomable amount of food,” McGurk said.
“I think the cool thing about potatoes is that they’re quite easy to grow and they’re a really easy way to catch the gardening bug.
“Everyone kind-of likes them and they taste so much better once you’ve grown them yourself.”