The northern village of Cumberland House seems an unlikely place to find a farm or a farmer. For starters, it’s remote — 450 kilometres north east of Saskatoon at the end of Highway 123, a notoriously bad road that spring can turn into one long mud-hole.
The village, established by the Hudson Bay Company in the late 18th century, sits on Pine Island in the Saskatchewan River Delta, and the local population, which includes the village, the nearby Cree Nation, and anyone else who stands still long enough to be counted, numbers around 2,000.
But Cumberland House also has its share of graces.
And for Murray Gray, those graces start with the soil laid down over millennia by the river. “Extremely beautiful,” Gray says. “Flat. Mellow. And conducive to growing anything, really.”
Gray runs his own commercial market garden in Aylsham, 175 kilometres southwest of Cumberland House on the way toward Prince Albert. (It says something about Highway 123 that Google Maps calculates it takes just over three and a half hours to drive that 175 kilometres.)
Gray is also an on-farm food safety co-ordinator, and he has been managing Cumberland House’s community market garden since 2013, so he also sees another one of the area’s graces.
The northern community’s isolation from intensive agriculture means the disease and insects found in southern Saskatchewan are mostly absent, so the area can grow vegetables, such as turnips, that don’t fare well in the south, Gray says.
And despite the northern latitude, Cumberland House’s growing climate isn’t too bad, Gray says, with the Saskatchewan River tributaries tempering the climate to produce what is, for this part of the world, a very long frost-free season.
That, in turn, brings up the other graces, like the fact that there’s a market for locally grown vegetables. Local residents are hungry for reasonably priced fresh produce, and mining camps offer a target for high-value crops such as lettuce, strawberries, cantaloupe, and baby potatoes.
And perhaps most important are the people involved in the project. Gray describes the northern village of Cumberland House as a “progressive” community that “likes to go forward with projects that are not leading them astray.”
Mayor Val Deschambeault champions the project. The five men who worked full-time with Gray last year are eager to get started again this spring. And Gray himself understands how to motivate and work with people.
It’s a good thing Gray gets it, because he’s also working with Île-à-la-Crosse, about 400 kilometres on the other side and north of Prince Albert. He’s working with other northern communities as well, and others are catching wind of the projects too. And although each community starts small, Gray thinks they can do big things.
Gray’s approach is to work with people rather than telling them what to do. He gets workers more involved with the business side by encouraging them to go to town council meetings. This helps them appreciate what the town council goes through to get funding, he explains. Besides, in a smooth-running operation, management and employees aren’t totally separate, he says.
And Gray knows everyone likes to see results they can be proud of, whether they’re getting their hands dirty or approving funding. Politics come into play when funding doesn’t produce the expected results, he says.
Strawberries are good politics
“They love their strawberries. Insanely. If you can produce strawberries, there’s no politics,” Gray says, chuckling.
Last year, Cumberland House’s market garden yielded about 1,500 lbs. of strawberries. It was a crop they picked all through summer and into October.
Part of that success comes down to simple, but effective, gardening technology, such as high tunnels. The tunnels are plastic cold-frames that stretch over the plants. High tunnels protect plants from the extremes of weather, boost heat units, and extend the growing season by two months, Gray explains.
“You can start growing produce that you don’t normally grow here in Saskatchewan,” he says. That includes cantaloupes, vine-ripened tomatoes early in the season and red peppers.
In 2014, Gray and his Cumberland House team planted about 4,000 strawberry plants, one-tenth of an acre of potatoes, another tenth of an acre of carrots, turnips and beets on a five-acre patch. They also built a high tunnel for crops such as cantaloupe.
Those five acres had a socio-economic return-on-investment as well. Gray worked with five Cumberland House men who’d never grown anything before. He taught them how to grow produce, and how to tell when fruits and vegetables were ripe by tasting.
Seeing what their work was yielding helped them develop pride in their work, Gray says.
Gardening is a lot of work, but Gray sees no point in mindless labour. So he uses plastic mulch to suppress weeds.
“Nobody likes to weed. It’s a waste of time,” he says.
Jeremy Daigneault is a young man who works with Gray in the Île-à-la-Crosse market garden. He says Gray’s technique for growing produce is simple. And he’s a fan of the plastic mulch.
“All you do is lay it down and watch them grow. Find your odd weed here and there and that’s it,” says Daigneault.
Cumberland House is the oldest permanent settlement in Saskatchewan, but Île-à-la-Crosse is a close second.
Daigneault was enrolled in the Gabriel Dumont Institute — a college and cultural institute –— when he saw Gray do a presentation on fruits and vegetables.
“We got interested in it because we had a community garden and nobody was using it in our town. So we decided to put it all together and start our community garden,” Daigneault says.
Daigneault had a year of marketing, but no gardening experience before working in the market garden. Gray took Daigneault to his own commercial market garden for hands-on training and worked with him at Île-à-la-Crosse.
Daigneault says he was surprised by how much food they could produce with a small piece of land. “We were kind of running out of room there for a while.”
Gray encouraged a little friendly competition between the Cumberland House and Île-à-la-Crosse markets last year. For example, they competed to see who could grow the tastiest strawberries.
“Once you get a bit of a competition going, then they start taking more pride in what they’re doing,” Gray says. Selling their produce in the community further builds pride, he says.
The Cumberland House men have figured out which areas they like working in. So this year Gray plans to have them specialize in different areas, such as high tunnel production, root vegetables, corn and peas, and outdoor mulches such as strawberries.
Specializing also gives Gray a chance to set up another contest. “There’s nothing like a little competition to see who has got the best crop,” he says.
Gray has no plans to drop the community gardening projects, but he’s already thinking about succession. The biggest worry is that the right people won’t be in place to properly manage the projects in the future, he says.
This year Gray is training a young woman as a project manager. And Daigneault shows great promise for managing his community’s market garden.
Gray says Daigneault has the foresight needed to plan ahead. He’s got a good head for business, is good with equipment, quick to learn and listens. Gray has total confidence that Daigneault can carry forth, he adds.
Daigneault is a young man, and he’s still considering his future. But he’s been thinking about taking over the project. He thinks it’s important for the community to sustain itself using the resources around it rather than trucking so much food in. And running a market garden seems like a good career to him, he says. “It’s lots of work, and that’s what I like to do.”
Gray has also got big plans for the northern market gardens in the next five years.
“I want to see the self-sufficiency of the communities for sure. I want to see processing facilities where we can store, sell and produce with the commercial kitchen for the winter.”
He also wants to see greenhouses in the communities so they can start bedding plants. He wants the businesses to be self-sustaining and to employ people full-time year-round.
“Just a simple little plan,” Gray says.
Daigneault will be setting up a high tunnel for the first time this spring. They’ve outgrown the community garden in Île-à-la-Crosse and so are moving to an old farm. Daigneault says the soil is full of nutrients from the cattle that were kept on the farm.
Asked about the future of the Île-à-la-Crosse market, Daigneault says: “I think we’re just going to start small and build up.”