Feeding 200 people? Hay River farming institute developing new model farm

The Northern Farm Training Institute in Hay River, N.W.T., is looking to develop a model farm that can feed 200 people. The hope is that Northerners can grow and raise a million calories’ worth of food for people in their own communities.

Northern Farm Training Institute wants Northerners to grow and raise own food to feed communities

The greenhouse at the Northern Farm Training Institute. The organization wants to develop a model farm that can feed 200 people. The farm grows vegetables in two different greenhouses as well as outdoors. (Jimmy Thomson/CBC)

An average person needs to consume nearly a million calories per year — and Jackie Milne wants those calories to come from the North.

"How much of our diet can we confidently produce for ourselves?" she asks.

This question encapsulates her mission as president of the Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI) in Hay River, N.W.T.: to learn how Northerners can grow and raise a million calories' worth of food for the people in their own communities.

The NFTI is starting small. They want to develop a model farm that can feed 200 people — roughly the population of Tsiigehtchic — on a varied diet of vegetables, poultry, dairy, and meat from several sources.

"We are building a food system specifically that fits us," Milne says, proudly indicating the land around her.

She intends to build a menu that will feed people 75 per cent of their calories from animal protein, like meat, eggs and dairy, with the remaining 25 per cent coming from veggies.

"The North has fed people for thousands of years. We just need to restore those food systems."

'We're acting as the predators'

If northern food systems used to consist of complex food webs that included grazers like bison and caribou, as well as their predators, the NFTI is trying to find ways to approximate that as closely as it can.

There is one horse at the farm, along with sheep, goats, pigs, cows and chickens. (Jimmy Thomson/CBC)

Milne is standing in the middle of the field where the farm's staff and volunteers graze their small herd of cows. The cows are contentedly munching on thick grass that Milne says can actually benefit from the grazing — growing back thicker if grazed for the right amount of time.

Similarly, the pigs are rooting through the forest nearby, clearing land for more gardens, and the goats have mowed down a huge swath of formerly impassable bushes.

And the predators?

"We're acting as the predators," she says, as a site manager moves cows from one fenced-in area to another.

Using domestic animals' natural grazing behaviours to make the land more productive is a new project for the NFTI.

"[Modern farming has] done the most damage with animals, so it's really important to learn how to stop doing that," Milne said.

Winter? No problem

In the greenhouse, huge zucchinis and tomatoes are ripening on the vine, soaking in the sun of the long summer days — compensation for the short growing season.

Jackie Milne, the institute's president, unloads spent grain donated by NWT Brewing Company in Yellowknife. The farm feeds the grain to the animals. (Jimmy Thomson/CBC)

"Just by having them in the greenhouse, it puts us on par with B.C.," she says.

The long winters don't seem to bother the animals, either; free-roaming most of the year, they show up at the gates of the barn when it gets too cold outside for them, and remain in there until spring.

"You have to be ready for winter," Milne says. But she adds that for the farmers, winter is a reprieve, since there isn't much farming that can be done until the ground thaws.

"It's a great place to be a farmer, because you actually get to rest in the winter."