A subarctic orchard? Why not, says pioneering Yukon fruit grower

John Lenart is raising fruit trees at his nursery near Dawson City and selling them to other would-be orchardists. 'Now that we've got types of apples that work up here, we're trying to get them out to people.'

John Lenart is growing apples and grapes at his remote nursery near Dawson City

How do you like them apples? John Lenart is growing about 75 varieties at his nursery outside of Dawson City and selling trees to other would-be growers. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

Every summer, it seems to get a little easier to find locally-grown vegetables for sale in Yukon — from cabbage and carrots to beans and peas.

Locally-grown fruit, though (not counting the plentiful wild berries) is all but impossible to find.

Until you stumble upon the Klondike Valley Nursery, John Lenart's remote and fertile little off-grid Eden, just outside of Dawson City.

'I knew I had this passion for growing,' Lenart said. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

There you'll find current bushes, cherry trees, grape vines and apple trees — lots of apple trees. 

"I knew I had this passion for growing and what's developed out here is just an expression of that," Lenart said. "We're certainly pioneers with developing techniques for Northern growing." 

The long-time Yukoner had been growing and selling ornamental conifers for years, but more recently, people began asking him for apple trees. 

75 varieties

"It was food security that pulled me back into it. The concern that people have now for climate change, that renewed interest people have for growing their own fruit," Lenart said.

Selling fruit trees is a big part of his business now. Last year he sold about 20, this year it's been closer to 60. 

Lenart is also growing grapes, cherries, currants and ornamental trees at this nursery. 'We're certainly pioneers with developing techniques for northern growing,' he said. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

Apples are his main passion — right now, he's growing about 75 varieties, experimenting with different breeds and different types of growing shelters.

"Now that we've got types of apples that work up here, we're trying to get them out to people," he said.

"We're raising them and introducing them to people in the territory, along with methods of how to do it. We've written a bit of a guide on how to grow fruit in the north."

'People can't find you'

So far, most of the apple trees he's sold have gone to the Whitehorse area.

"There's going to be much greater-producing backyard orchardists there, if everything works out as we hope."

But, operating his nursery from a remote, off-grid spot in central Yukon presents business challenges as well as horticultural ones. There's no road to the Klondike Valley Nursery; ​you get there from Dawson by boat (in summer) and by foot.

"Economically, it's a very serious… what's the word? Impediment to success," Lenart said.

"People can't find you, they can't drive up into your yard and buy stuff. So it's all made it very, very difficult."

Lenart's commute to and from his off-grid nursery involves, in summer, a paddle and a hike. In winter, it's a walk across the ice. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

With files from Cheryl Kawaja