N.W.T. farmers say now is the time to teach people how to grow their own food

Jackie Milne, president of the Northern Farm Training Institute, says if any of Canada's major import markets decide to stockpile their agricultural goods during the COVID-19 pandemic, the North could see immediate effects. 

Some using social media to teach communities how to become more self-sustainable

Jackie Milne, executive director of the Northern Farm Training Institute in Hay River, N.W.T., says there could be an immediate effect for the North if there is a disruption in the food supply chain further south during the pandemic. (Facebook/Jackie Milne)

France Benoit is preparing her seedlings for spring while self-isolating at her home outside of Yellowknife.

The owner of La Refuge Farm said the many pictures of bare shelves at grocery stores has inspired her to double the amount of food she normally produces in one season so she can bring more produce to market during the pandemic. 

"COVID-19 has ramped up my eagerness to grow more food for Yellowknifers," she told CBC. 

La Refuge Farm normally produces enough fruits and vegetables to feed one person for three months. Benoit is looking to produce more root vegetables, like carrots, potatoes and beets, because they are more calorie- and nutrient-dense and can be stored for long-term use.

Benoit said now is the time to teach people how to produce their own food to take the pressure off grocery stores — in case there's a disruption somewhere in the food supply chain.

"This is absolutely the right time to be doing this," Benoit said. "A few weeks from now it will already be too late — we need to do it pretty quickly." 

Pandemic is opportunity to tackle food insecurity 

France Benoit prepares carrots at her farm just outside Yellowknife. (Submitted by France Benoit)

The N.W.T.'s agricultural sector mostly consists of greenhouses, backyard production and community markets. The territory also produces a large number of eggs and potatoes sold in grocery stores. 

The territory has 32 community gardens and 25 community greenhouses, according to the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment's website.

Jackie Milne, president of the Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI) in Hay River said most of the territory's agricultural imports come from other countries, like the United States and Mexico. 

If any of Canada's major import markets decide to stockpile their agricultural goods during the pandemic, she continued, the North could see immediate effects. 

"We are already used to being shorted," Milne said. "We're already used to lower quality foods making it [to the North]."

Some of Canada's top grocery stores have told CBC they have plans in place to ensure that goods continue to move across borders. 

But the concerns are different for the Northwest Territories, Milne said, because there are already issues of food insecurity in the region. 

Seedlings Benoit is preparing for spring planting. Over 23 per cent of households in the territory say they struggle to pay for groceries, according to the N.W.T. Bureau of Statistics's 2019 numbers. (Submitted by France Benoit)

Over 23 per cent of households in the territory say they struggle to pay for groceries, according to the N.W.T. Bureau of Statistics's 2019 numbers. That number varies greatly per region, with 16 per cent of households struggling in the Yellowknife area to 55 per cent of all homes in the Tlicho region. 

Benoit said the solution to food security during the COVID-19 pandemic will look different for each community because they all have different needs and levels of expertise.

"We have this [pandemic] as an opportunity to say, 'OK, how about we be proactive and deliberately contribute to strengthening our food independence,'" she said.

Ray Solotki, the executive director of the community greenhouse in Inuvik told CBC agriculture is considered a "hobby" in the territory and that needs to change.

"When there's an emergency, now everyone is concerned that we won't be able to do what we have to do," said Solotki. "Well, that's because our hands have been tied for a long time.

Ray Solotki, executive director of the Inuvik Community Greenhouse, said the attitude in the territory that agriculture is a 'hobby' needs to change. (CBC)

"We need to be looking at who's doing what, who's doing what well and supporting those industries right now."

CBC asked the territory how it's planning for any possible food shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic, but a representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A 2017 commercial agriculture plan from the territorial government said "a lack of educational resources" hampered the growth of the sector.

Online classes could help communities self-sustain

With all this in mind, Benoit, Solotki and Milne are taking to social media to share what they know about farming so households can become more self-sustainable.

Solotki said the Inuvik greenhouse is creating "simple how-to videos" for people looking to cultivate food in the Arctic. 

Milne is taking it one step further. She is proposing a series of free online classes through Zoom to teach communities everything they need to know about farming — from how to build soil, to the ideal times to plant and harvest crops throughout the season. Milne submitted this idea to the government of Canada for funding.

Both Milne and Benoit hope their example will inspire people to grow their own food, so sustainable food sources will last through this pandemic and into whatever happens next. 

With files from Mackenzie Scott


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