Urban growers say starting an agriculture business in Yellowknife can be an uphill battle. They’re calling on the city to do more to support the fledgling sector.
On Monday afternoon, city councillors debated whether to adopt a proposed implementation plan for Yellowknife’s food and agriculture strategy. It includes things like updating bylaws to permit urban agriculture, small livestock, and greenhouses.
Kyle Thomas – one of the owners of Bush Order Provisions, a market garden and bakery startup – told councillors he largely supported the plan but there are areas where the city can do more to help agriculture businesses grow.
Thomas said access to water is one of the biggest challenges as the areas of Yellowknife where agriculture is currently permitted aren’t on piped water. He said the city’s plan to encourage collection of rainfall or offer a water subsidy should be a higher priority.
“We’re looking at creative solutions to bring water to our site, outside of just the regular trucked service that is provided,” he said. “Any subsidy or support from the city to help get that off the ground would be wonderful.”
Access to soil and compost can also be tricky, Thomas said. The city halted plans to sell compost after the production of consumer-grade compost at Yellowknife’s solid waste facility proved more challenging than initially thought.
“Soil and compost are a renewable resource, and should be and can be developed locally,” Thomas said.
Thomas, who intends to develop a farm, commercial kitchen and greenhouse on land in Kam Lake, hopes the city will prioritize tax incentives to offset the significant investment required to start a new agriculture business.
Finally, he suggested that the city support a community abattoir to bring more livestock to market. He noted that in the Yukon, the territorial government supports such a facility.
“It could create more jobs, it could create more businesses that are growing or taking care of livestock,” he said.
Etienne Croteau, chef and owner of Boreal Flavour, said the cost of land in Yellowknife made growing his own vegetables impossible. He suggested that the city lease lots in Kam Lake to encourage agriculture.
“If we want this agriculture project to take place and be taken seriously, I really think the city will have to be involved … to get access to lands,” Croteau said. “Otherwise, how will we do that?”
Croteau added that he feels the rules about building a commercial greenhouse aren’t clear to growers.
City manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett said this was an area city staff were “starting to wrap our heads around.”
Councillor Niels Konge questioned why the agriculture industry should receive municipal support over other industries. He noted that commercial agriculture enterprises already receive greater tax breaks than some other industries.
“I always have a challenge when any specific industry comes along and asks for very specific supports,” he said.
“Everybody wants a subsidy and that’s the challenge as a councillor – how do we figure out what specific groups should get these subsidies, for how long should they get these subsidies – because it’s quite difficult to roll subsidies back.”
Thomas, explaining the importance of his industry, said both the pandemic and recent wildfire seasons had demonstrated the value of improvements to northern food security.
“Removing barriers for agriculture businesses would help develop more agriculture businesses, which would bring further sustainability for all northerners or Yellowknifers,” he said.
Mayor Rebecca Alty said councillors will have to have a “philosophical discussion” about what kind of development they want to incentivize.
Bassi-Kellett said staff don’t believe agriculture is more important than other sectors, but see it as a “small but mighty” and growing area of the economy.
“We have some catching up to do for the agricultural sector and we do need to make sure that we’re providing the support there,” she said.
Under the city’s economic development strategy, agriculture and food are highlighted as one of the city’s key sectors.
Several councillors expressed tentative support for the overall implementation plan, though Julian Morse and Robin Williams suggested it could be pared down.
Councillors will continue to debate the specifics of the plan at their next regular council meeting on April 12.