Striking agricultural gold in the Yukon
The northern lights have seen queer sights but the queerest they ever did see, was... an agriculture conference in the subarctic, maybe? At least that what I would have thought a few weeks before I was invited to Whitehorse to be a guest speaker at one.
Now, as I sit in the Vancouver airport on my way home waiting for a connecting flight (my 16th so far this year), I have to think what a great opportunity it was to attend that event.
I was asked to talk to Yukon producers about farm machinery. Hopefully, I left them with some useful information, but I'm sure I left the territory with more new knowledge than I left behind. That's because most of what I knew about the Yukon before this trip I learned from Robert Service! Considering he published those infamous Klondike poems around 1907, I was a little out of touch, to say the least.
And by the way, I should apologize to him for using one of his well-crafted lines to do something as unpoetic as open this blog post.
The Yukon conference was organized by the Agriculture Branch of the territorial government. Staff there are busily trying to boost local food production and lure more northerners into the farming profession. As I understand it, there are currently about 160 producers in the region; and despite the fact it's such a small group, they are pretty diversified, raising beef, pork and poultry, along with growing vegetables and even some short-season cereals. Most of them are market gardeners working on a relatively small scale.
Consumers in the Yukon—like everywhere else—have developed a taste for fresh, locally-grown food, and they're willing to pay for it. Most farm commodities grown there are sold right at the farm gate or at a farmers' market, and they're netting some good returns. Talking with a few people at the conference, I was able to get an idea of just how much: $4.50 a pound for a hanging side of pork—not cut and wrapped. $6.50 a pound for chicken. Even though feed costs are high, most agree those numbers pencil out pretty well.
There are some unique challenges to be overcome when farming that far north, though. One example was the beef producer who told me he preferred Texas Longhorn cattle because their horns allowed them to fight off wolves, which have cost him several animals over the years.
From a machinery standpoint, things aren't easy either. There are only a Kubota and a Bobcat dealer in the region, so the choice of new tractors is limited, if you want to buy locally. Getting implements is even harder. Most of those I spoke to told me they were using some pretty old machines, and they were eager to talk about how to get their hands on more equipment. Finding it is one thing, but getting it to the Yukon in a cost-efficient manner is the real trick.
On my 6:20 AM return flight from Whitehorse to Vancouver, I had a chance to see the sunrise on the southern horizon; as I looked back north out the window of the plane, it was still night in the Yukon. They may have to endure long hours of winter darkness; but in large part it's those endless days of summer sunshine that make growing cereal crops possible, even as far north as Dawson City.
So I have to say thanks to Brad, Matt and Tony at the Yukon Agriculture Branch for giving me the chance to go north for the first time. I think I even saw the marge of Lake LeBarge from the plane on the way in.
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