Breaking ground: Market gardens in northern Sask. growing prosperity from 'sand'

Murray Gray is helping northern communities set up market gardens to provide affordable fresh food and jobs for local people.

Leaders credit gardens for growing community pride, opportunities

Gardening consultant Murray Gray inside the grow tunnel at Buffalo Narrows, one of a number of northern Saskatchewan communities that have set up community and market gardens in recent years. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

Murray Gray says nobody believed he could grow corn in northern Saskatchewan, where summers are short and winters are harsh. But Gray says he could grow a garden in a parking lot.

"It's beautiful growing conditions up here because the sun never seems to set in the summertime," he said earlier this month, standing near rows of healthy corn in Buffalo Narrows, Sask., about 430 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.

Gray is a consultant who helps northern communities set up market gardens to provide affordable fresh food and jobs for local people.

In communities with limited economic opportunities, including some with chronic unemployment, leaders want to build self-sustaining industries.

Market and community garden consultant Murray Gray with some of the corn he was told he wouldn't be able to grow in northern Saskatchewan. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC News)

Some early skepticism

Leonard Montgrand is the executive director of the La Loche Friendship Centre. He was initially skeptical when Gray promised he could grow fruit and vegetables in La Loche, which is about 515 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.

Where southern Saskatchewan is known as a farming region with rich growing potential, Montgrand said conditions in his community are a little different.

"It took me a while to wrap my mind around because I was thinking to myself, 'OK, what are we going to do with a community garden? Our summer is so short," said Montgrand.

"And our soil is like ... we don't have soil, we have sand.

"I'm thinking, 'How are we going to grow anything in this inhospitable landscape?"

Workers setting up the grow tunnel at the La Loche Friendship Centre. (Submitted by Leonard Montgrand)

Montgrand already had a grant to build the garden and decided to take a chance. The friendship centre built a grow tunnel — a long, greenhouse-like structure that usually features plastic stretched over a semi-circular metal frame — and used it to tend a range of fruit and vegetables.

Two gardeners were hired to maintain the garden and, although their wages are low and the job doesn't provide a lot of hours, Montgrand said it was an exciting start to a project he thinks can bring more prosperity to his community and others.

High unemployment

The 2011 Statistics Canada National Household Survey estimated the unemployment rate in La Loche to be at 22.3 per cent, meaning almost a quarter of people actively seeking a job had not found one.

People are saying that 'Why isn't there more? We want some.'- Leonard Montgrand , La Loche Friendship Centre

The labour force participation rate in the community of just over 2,600 people was estimated at 26.6 per cent, meaning a quarter of people who are of working age were actively seeking work or employed.

Montgrand wants to see additional federal and provincial funding to employ more people in market garden projects in northern Saskatchewan.

Along with creating jobs, Montgrand said the gardens are a way to ensure low-income families have access to fresh food.

He said much of the produce he sees in stores in La Loche is expensive and almost out of date by the time it's transported north from the cities.

"We know that if we can create gardens to feed our own community members that's one less worry on the plate of a lot of low-income earners," said Montgrand.

Workers finalizing the setup of the grow tunnel in La Loche, Sask. (Submitted by Leonard Montgrand)

Debate over distribution of produce

So far, some of the fruit and vegetables grown in the market garden are being sold to the local grocery store, which in turn sells them on to the community.

The produce that is not sold is being given away to low-income families.

Montgrand said some La Loche residents felt all of the produce from the garden should go direct to the community.

But he said money from the sales goes toward buying food for the community food bank.

According to Montgrand, the biggest problem with the project to date is that there is not enough food from the garden to go around.

"People are saying that, 'Why isn't there more? We want some.' Because the lineup is too long, we run out," Montgrand.

Strong support in Beauval

Nick Daigneault is the mayor of Beauval, about 340 kilometres north of Saskatoon. His community has also built a grow tunnel and is budgeting to build a second one in 2018.
The Village of Beauval is budgeting to build another grow tunnel to expand its community garden in 2018. (Submitted by Nick Daigneault)

The project employed one person full-time in its first year, and this year the job is a combination of full-time and part-time employment.

Daigneault said the Village of Beauval isn't charging for the vegetables but giving them away to make fresh food more accessible.

Although the project had a slow start, Daigneault said it gathered strong community support after word spread about the quality of the vegetables.

"When some people in town heard that we were starting a garden they said it was about time, mainly because they feel that this is a life skill that we should know," said Daigneault.

"We should be able to plant and grow our own food." 

He said the project might create more jobs if it progresses to a market garden model but that is yet to be decided.
Beauval Mayor Nick Daigneault says the community has embraced its garden with so much enthusiasm there are plans to build a second grow tunnel. (Submitted by Nick Daigneault)

Murray Gray was also involved in the creation of the Beauval grow tunnel, and he helped to set up gardens in Buffalo Narrows, Île-à-la-Crosse and Fond-du-Lac.

On a sunny evening in Buffalo Narrows earlier this month, Gray was packing potatoes and carrots to sell at the weekly market the next morning.  

He said the garden, which is being funded by the Buffalo Narrows Economic Development agency, employed four people in the summer.

Overcoming seasonal challenges

Gray was particularly proud of the rows of vivid green corn, almost ready to harvest.

It is hunting season in northern Saskatchewan, and Gray expected people in Buffalo Narrows to snap up the locally grown vegetables to add to their wild-meat stews.

He said the garden builds a sense of pride in the community, especially for the young people who tend to the vegetables and sell them at the market.

According to Gray, the only barrier to growth is space, and he's working on changing that too.
Murray Gray says Buffalo Narrows residents are using vegetables from the market garden to beef up their stews during hunting season. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC News)

"The North is always struggling for employment opportunities and this was one of the ways that we could probably, basically, establish that," said Gray.

"It's seasonal, that's the problem, but if we work into the future at some point in time the philosophy is to grow and process and store.

"If you get big enough you should be able to have year-round employment."