North

Parking lot to farmland: How this Yellowknifer is tackling food insecurity

Yellowknife farmer France Benoit is proving you can grow food just about anywhere — even a parking lot in the N.W.T.

France Benoit turned a parking lot in Yellowknife into 5,000 square feet of farmland

France Benoit shows off some of the vegetables grown at her farm. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

When France Benoit first laid eyes on the vacant parking lot in Yellowknife's industrial area in 2019, she had a vision.

Benoit didn't fixate on the large coils of rusty wire, stacks of lumber, sea shipping containers, rocks and sand scattered across the site.

She saw an opportunity — a way to feed her community.

"We can't just wait to develop agriculture in the North, waiting for big prairie fields and 100-thousand acres. It's not going to happen," said Benoit, a commercial farmer who converted an empty parking lot into Yellowknife's largest urban farm, Le Refuge.

Le Refuge is Yellowknife's largest urban farm. A portion is located in Yellowknife's industrial area called Kam Lake. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

The more than 5,000 square-foot farm overlays a parking lot that's wedged between outcrops of bedrock and black spruce trees in the heart of Yellowknife's industrial area. 

"For me, it's food security. I'm not just growing carrots. I'm feeding people," Benoit said, who sells her produce at the Yellowknife Farmers Market and from garden beds at her home.

That means imagining farming in new ways.

"What can we do with what we got?" she said.

Benoit harvested more than 150 kilograms of potatoes this fall from the farm, along with beets, kale and other root vegetables on a piece of land that use to be a parking lot. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Benoit didn't grow up farming but her family's business was food — a grocery store in rural Quebec.

"Our food came through the door that separated the grocery store to our house. And so to me, this is how food came to be," Benoit said.

In the early 90s living outside of Yellowknife, Benoit's roommate introduced her to backyard gardening.

"Farming or you know, backyard gardening with a heavy passion, became the way that I was going to solve all of those environmental crises. So I thought that is something that I can do. I can learn," she said.

Alex Lynch is a protege at Le Refuge. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

That passion bloomed into an off-grid farm, Le Refuge, on Madeline Lake about 25 kilometres outside of Yellowknife.

After 10 years, Benoit moved to the city.

She sold the house, bought an electric bicycle and began scouting out new locations for her farm.

"A face only a mother could love," Benoit joked about her first impression of the parking lot. Developing it took forethought, hope, patience and vision, she said.

Sadeé Walden helps harvest potatoes at Le Refuge. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Benoit brought in 20-30 tonnes of soil to cover the blasted bedrock, she said.

Before she could get planting there was planning, permits, water and soil tests.

"To be honest, I saw the vision but it was a bit challenging when you come to this site," said Alex Lynch, a protege at Le Refuge, about seeing the parking lot for the first time.

This fall they harvested more than 150 kilograms of potatoes at the farm. 

Beets were just some of the vegetables that were harvested. (Mario Dec Ciccio/Radio-Canada )

"People assume you can't grow food here like you can in the south ... it's important for people to see that it was possible," he said.

Wendy Lahey brought her children to the farm this fall for a lesson in farming and food security.

"I want my kids to see that it's fun. That it brings community together, that's it's really straight forward," she said.

Sadeé Walden also stopped by with her family.

"Kind of cool how she turned it into a farming area where she can grow plants instead of cars parking," Walden said.

Benoit sells produce at the Yellowknife Farmers Market. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Le Refuge once again evolving

Another Yellowknife food producer, Bush Order Provisions, recently announced it's buying the land, farm assets and equipment to build a market garden. 

"I'm happy, happy, happy," Benoit said, who added she's thrilled to sell another farm to local food producers.

The biggest pay off, she said, is seeing her parking lot farm through others' eyes. 

"People that have no background in gardening ... to see them mesmerized and puzzled and surprised ... is a great reward for me," she said.

'For me, it's food security. I'm not just growing carrots. I'm feeding people,' Benoit said. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

About the Author

Kate Kyle is a reporter for CBC North based in Yellowknife. Find her on Twitter @_kate_kyle

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