In early June, the NWT received 50,000 lb of seed potatoes from Alberta to be distributed to communities across the territory for free.
The donation was facilitated by the Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI) in Hay River, and president Jackie Milne said it was the “coolest thing ever.”
Days later, a nearby potato farm announced it was closing for good.
Now, some residents are raising concerns about what southern donations like this mean for farmers and agriculture in the NWT. Could all these free potatoes disrupt local markets and put northern producers out of business?
Winnie Cadieux, an NWT resident and former mayor of Enterprise, thinks so.
“[The donation] raised a lot of questions for me, and I’m not a real investigative person,” she said. “Why 50,000 lb? I mean, 5,000 lb probably would have been sufficient to assist small communities with growing or those that wanted to grow.”
Cadieux questions whether the NWT is facing a food and seed shortage, which was one of the reasons NFTI cited for acquiring the donation. Every time Cadieux went to the store, she said, she was able to buy everything she wanted – including seed potatoes.
“There was no shortage,” she said. “There [were] lots of seeds on the shelves, there was lots of produce on the shelves.
“It just seems like somebody should have been asking questions.”
Two sides of northern food
Cadieux’s concerns – shared by a few NWT residents who reached out to Cabin Radio – hint at a broader discussion of northern food security and sovereignty.
As the Covid-19 pandemic wears on, that discussion has become more heated.
Kevin Wallington is the chair of the NWT Agrifood Association and owner of Hay River-based Polar Egg. When he first heard about the donation, he said he was of two minds.
On the one hand, having enough donated potatoes to share throughout the territory and help people grow their own food seemed an exciting opportunity for the North.
On the other, Wallington said, he understands the uncertainty northern farmers might feel now that the produce they grow is being given away for free.
“I think it’s tough,” he said. “I wear both hats because I do support small-scale and community initiatives.
“I also understand the challenges and the margins when it comes to food, and how challenging it is for farmers to produce food and sell it and do so [profitably] for them to be able to continue to grow and expand their business.”
Seed potatoes have been given out to residents across the NWT following the donation from an Alberta farm. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Wallington said his own business, Polar Egg, doesn’t necessarily suffer from those same uncertainties since poultry farming has been well-established in the NWT for some time. But for less-established crops in the territory, turning and growing profits can be challenging.
This includes potatoes, Wallington said, since competing with free potato supplies could be a big gamble for farmers to take.
“I hope that this is a very good case study for us in the North to be able to discuss all the positives and negative impacts of these kinds of opportunities when somebody’s willing to support the Northwest Territories,” he said.
On June 6, Boden Farms – one of the only commercial potato farmers in the NWT – posted on its Facebook page that the business would be closing down permanently, “effective immediately.”
The reason for the closure was not specified, and Boden Farms declined a request from Cabin Radio to speak on the record.
“We thank all that have supported us over the last [two] years and wish you all the best,” the post read.
The farm had only been in operation for two years.
Milne, the NFTI president, said she doesn’t believe the potato donation has affected NWT markets since it was meant for home gardeners.
“And all farmers were equally offered the seed potatoes,” she said. “There was no discrimination against who had access to them.”
To Milne, it seems those asking these questions don’t understand “the scope of the challenge before us now.”
According to Milne, there aren’t nearly enough commercial farmers in the North to meet the demands of those in the NWT.
A Sunnycrest Farms worker stands in front of the truck loaded with 50,000 lb of potatoes in a photo submitted by Jackie Milne.
In a 2016 census, there were 16 farms recorded in the NWT. Relying solely on those producers has the potential to open up northerners to food insecurities, Milne said.
“If you have a farmer, and he’s got this giant farm and he’s producing food for 10,000 people in the Northwest Territories, and he shuts down, you’ve got 10,000 people who become dependent on one person,” she said.
What’s needed is a balance between those two extremes, Milne said. The more people know how to knowledgeably grow food, the more they will be food-secure.
NWT food system ‘in transition’
Home and community gardening can’t be the entire basis of a food system, says Amy Lemay. That model has to work together with larger-scale agriculture models to ensure food security.
Lemay is a research associate with Northern Agricultural Futures, an initiative based at Wilfred Laurier University that identifies barriers to local agriculture and builds capacity.
Lemay has studied local food systems in the NWT as part of her work.
She thinks the territory’s food systems are in transition, beginning to rely less on imports and more on local agriculture.
“I’m seeing it as a transition from a food system that was based on traditional country foods, as well as this dependency on grocery store food brought in from outside, to one that’s looking at developing an agricultural productions piece of a system,” she said.
“It’s a novel chance to watch this happening first-hand.”
Lemay thinks one of the biggest challenges facing local agriculture in the NWT – aside from a lack of money and land-ownership barriers – is developing a shared vision that unites farmers, communities, and producers.
The “great potato debate” exemplifies this challenge, Lemay said, and the need for unity.
“[There are] going to be a number of different ways to build this agri-food system,” Lemay said, “and [it’s important to be] accepting of the different approaches that people are going to pursue in order to achieve that vision and the collaboration that goes along with that.”
On the issue of collaboration, Lemay, Wallington, and Milne all agree. Developing a healthy, sustainable food system in the North – that serves everyone equitably – is going to require communication on all levels, from large-scale producers to independent family gardeners.
“I think that it’s a collaborative effort to say this is where we want to be, and how do we work together so that every region can be a part of meeting that need,” said Wallington.
“At the end of the day, we’re all working together to do it.”