If you work dawn to dusk on the farm in Yukon Territory, that can make for 20-plus hours at this time of year as summer advances and it never really gets dark.
Of course, agriculture isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when most of us think of this land of the midnight sun. Instead, our imaginations go to those vast tracts of unspoiled wilderness and to what our history books told us about the Klondike Gold Rush.
And, in part, we’re right to see it that way. Yukon is as big as Belgium, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands combined, and only a tiny fraction is worked by its 150 mainly first-generation farmers.
Yet those farmers think they’re onto something good.
Among them are families like Wayne and Alison Grove, who began establishing Eldorado Game Ranch just outside Whitehorse in the mid-1990s. Today they are hay producers raising elk and bison, and they run one of the larger farm operations in the territory.
Like so many others, Wayne Grove uses the word “intense” to describe the growing season here.
“The biggest factor is sunlight. When those plants start growing, it’s like they’re in overdrive,” Grove says. “But our growing window is very short. It’s about 50 days. And you’d better be harvesting by mid-July and completed by early August. If you’re not done by the end of the first week of August, you start encountering cool, and cool brings damp and you have a harder time drying.”
Grove gets a second cut only about once every six years.
It’s dry up here, too. Annual precipitation over the past 30 years has averaged about 10.5 inches, divided roughly between rain and the snow that falls through the region’s long winter.
“The challenge is getting your timing right,” Grove repeats. “Typically speaking, we don’t get rain in the spring when we need it. The rain comes when we’re thinking about hooking up a baler. We joke about that.”
Hay is the predominant crop here, and it is the biggest driver of Yukon’s agriculture in terms of the number of farms, area and revenue. But agriculture North of 60 is also steadily diversifying, as the territory’s farmers find ways to adapt, grow and add value to other types of farm production.
Production of vegetables and berries has increased steadily. Crops such as potatoes, parsnips, carrots, beets, cabbages and tomatoes do well here, and so do small fruits such as Haskaps and raspberries. Growers are even successfully producing apples using specially designed shelters to keep their trees alive over winter.
A wide array of livestock is raised here too — chickens (broilers and layers) pigs, beef cattle, elk, rabbits, alpacas, sheep and goats, ducks, turkey and quail, and the amount of cut meat and value-added products processed through permitted facilities here is on an upward trend.
There’s a dairy farm near Dawson City, and a large federally inspected egg producer, plus several research farms, a teaching farm at Dawson City, a variety of farmers markets, and First Nations governments’ agricultural initiatives on territorial land.
It isn’t huge. Annual farm income is $4.3 million, but there’s an energy about the place that makes growth — some growth, anyhow — seem inevitable.
Where “big” means something different
“It’s not how much land you have up here,” says Steve MacKenzie-Grieve, a small-scale grain grower here. “It’s how much (production) you can sell. If we farmed any more than we do now we probably couldn’t sell it.”
MacKenzie-Grieve and his wife Bonnie own Yukon Grain Farm near Whitehorse. It isn’t the most remote farm in the territory to grow grain, but they are the largest producers of barley, oats and peas, plus some wheat.
The couple own around 300 acres and crop anywhere from 350 to 450 including parcels rented from neighbours, growing both vegetables and grain.
There are no grain handling facilities here, so their grain crops are all processed on-farm into feed rations which are sold to other small-scale livestock operations throughout the region.
Their vegetable crops, which are an increasingly important side of their farm business, are sold direct to Whitehorse grocery stores.
They bought land here in 1999 and moved to the territory in 2004, making innumerable trips between here and Coaldale, Alta., hauling farm supplies and every storage bin and piece of farm equipment they needed to get established.
The plan initially was to semi-retire here, having successfully established their son in the family business they’d operated in the south where he installs insulation in farm buildings across Alberta and B.C.
Today both he and Bonnie, their daughter Leslie, and a half-dozen dedicated staff work full time on the farm. Yukon Grain Farm is everyone’s livelihood.
“We made the move up here to slow down,” MacKenzie-Grieve says. “We were just going to do a bit of grain. But it kind of snow-balled.”
The surprise of the north
Yukoners have been growing crops and raising livestock since the late 1800s, mainly to feed themselves. The Alaska Highway, constructed mid-century, lessened demand for locally grown food when southern goods began to flow north, but interest in farming surged here in the 1970s.
It was at that time when the Yukon Agriculture and Livestock Association was established, today known as the Yukon Agricultural Association (YAA). There is also a dedicated agriculture branch within the Yukon government’s Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, but no agricultural department.
“People are always surprised to hear about agriculture North of 60,” says Sonny Gray, president of YAA. “I think people are also intrigued. It’s what farming used to be.”
He’s referring not just to the smaller scale of the farms here, but their self-sufficiency, interdependency and their reliance on local markets to sell product. Direct marketing is the name of the game up here.
Gray’s own small operation is Flat Creek Farms, producing about 150 pigs and approximately 100 meat rabbits, which makes it one of a substantial variety of livestock operations across the territory.
Growth in the livestock sector is due in part to increasing availability of slaughter facilities, including a mobile abattoir operated for some time by the government, plus a more recently established one with butcher shop in Whitehorse.
Several farms in Yukon, including Flat Creek Farms, also now sell their production under the Y BAR Meats label, which stands for Yukon Born and Raised. The distribution and marketing company provides an opportunity for farmers to sell more product to stores and restaurants instead of trying to do farm gate sales.
The main aim of Yukon’s agricultural sector right now is to displace imports, says Gray. Store shelves are well stocked, and food is affordable because Yukon is part of national grocery store food distribution, although it’s more expensive in outlier communities. The food system here is vulnerable, being entirely dependent on the flow of goods up the Alaska Highway, says Gray.
“Our logistics system in the north is truckloads… we are a truckload away from having an empty store,” Gray says. “If it doesn’t come, you have enough in the supply system to have a day’s worth.”
This impact on supply chains due to this year’s pandemic has reminded northerners again of their sitting-duck status if things go south — in the south.
“The importance of us becoming as self-sufficient in food as possible from a food perspective ticks a lot of boxes,” Gray says. “It’s about food sovereignty and being proud of being able to produce our own food. It’s about nutrition and the impact eating healthy food has on on our health care system. And it’s about the environmental impact of trucking food all the way from California and Mexico.”
Farmers are imports too
Plenty of farmers in Yukon, like the Mackenzie-Grieves, are imports themselves. For instance, Wayne Grove was an engineer and Alison Grove a nurse when they moved up here, initially living closer to Whitehorse until they bought their farm about a half hour outside the city.
At first, they were just keen to get farther out of town, says Grove.
“I was used to a rural place,” says Grove, who grew up in northern B.C. “My dad was a guide outfitter and I was accustomed to being in remote areas.”
The piece of land they bought had previously been a small sheep farm. It had a spectacular view and access to the Takhini River, but it was largely undeveloped, meaning covered with trees, when they acquired it. The Groves knew there was a strong demand for hay here. In a matter of weeks, they were making plans.
“Within a month of buying the farm I’d bought myself a bulldozer. Then, a tractor. The rest is history. We ended up as one of the larger hay producers in the Yukon.”
The Groves now have 500 acres in mixed grass hay, sold to customers who are horse owners and cattle producers. They also supply their own animals, including elk and bison.
Cattle and hay producer Dev Hurlburt, on the other hand, is a born-and-raised Yukoner. He and his spouse, Louise, and their son, Cody, are owners of Horse Haven Ranch, a mixed farm in the Ibex Valley near Whitehorse, where they board horses and raise wild boar and a large herd of beef cattle, selling value-added meat products to local retailers under the YBAR MEATS label. Hurlburt also has a trucking company and custom hauls hay.
Their ranch evolved from its beginnings in the early 1990s as a hobby farm to the diversified business operation it is today. Their son Cody now runs the farm full-time and earns his living at it, which is uncommon in Yukon. About three-quarters of all farm operators reported off-farm work in the last Census of Agriculture.
A “can do” attitude a must
The soil classification for the small amount of land developed for agriculture is Class 5 but farmers are figuring out ways to amend and work with it. Not surprisingly, it’s the cooler climate and short-growing season that top everyone’s list of challenges.
Seeding time, usually around mid-May, is always a gamble, says MacKenzie-Grieve. You want everything in early enough to make the most of the lengthening days, but late May frosts are always a risk, and first fall frosts can come mid-August, although a killing frost can occur any month of the year in the Yukon.
“Our yields can potentially be every bit as good as anywhere, although what most people don’t realize is this is also a really dry place so we have to irrigate,” MacKenzie-Grieve says. “We irrigate out of the Yukon River to our farm. We can raise a 125-bushel barley crop and last year oats ran around 140 bushels irrigated. On dry land we can raise a 50- or 60-bushel oat crop. But wheat and peas are very marginal here, and we barely have enough time to grow those crops. We’re getting away with it but I suspect one year we’re going to get caught with a hard frost.”
The Hurlburts also irrigate their hay crop, and with heat and sun it can be bountiful. “I can grow a hay crop over four tonne an acre and that’s grass hay, not alfalfa,” Dev Hurlburt says.
Farmers here face more challenges than a short growing season, though. Long distances to haul basic necessities and few peers to bounce ideas off are real issues, says Hurlburt.
There’s another challenge too. It’s tough in this environment to really get a handle on your cost of production, and it’s a challenge as well to get your mind around whether you’re a hobby farm or a business that’s paying the bills.
“It’s gotta pay the bills,” Hurlburt says. “I think that’s where a lot of people, especially in the Yukon, have a little bit of a warped sense of farming. They don’t recognize all the costs.”
Could you farm here?
The YAA’s website is frequently visited by those thinking the Yukon might be the place for them next. YAA’s executive director Jennifer Hall gets occasional phone inquiries, too. She says she’ll hear people describe what they want to do and it can seem “idealistic.”
“I get a call or two a month,” she says. “Most people have family farm experience and would like to start an operation up here, but they have never lived in the north nor have any land development experience.”
The Yukon government’s Agricultural Lands Program also hears expressions of interest in programs it offers to acquire public land for agriculture production and grazing.
You’d better have plenty of know-how and a serious level of can-do attitude in your tool kit if you’re thinking about it, because farming is done here without the resources and infrastructure southerners take for granted.
You’re roughly a thousand miles from the expertise and resources of dealerships and farm supply stores, for starters. That means tackling most jobs yourself — and having the stuff you need when you need it.
Grove’s engineering background gives him the confidence to tackle most equipment repairs, but the limitation is always diagnosis, especially with sophisticated newer equipment, he says. “If I need to repair a tractor, I can do it,” Grove says. “But I don’t want to. It takes up my time and I’m not professional at it. I might be able to fumble my way through it but it would take me three months whereas if I could take it to the shop and get a couple of guys on it in the proper shop they’d be done with it in a few days.”
Grove has learned how important it is to have extras of everything on hand, too. There’s no running to town for parts around here.
“I believe in redundancy,” he says. “When I buy equipment I’ll ask the dealer what fails on it. Tell me what this equipment needs because then I’ll buy it while I’m down there. And I always have extra fuel filters, hydraulic filters, oil filters.”
It’s a hedge against a potential wreck, because a narrow production window is merciless for anyone who hasn’t planned ahead.
“If you have a breakdown you’re reliant on transportation and getting stuff here. I’ve seen a guy who had a six dollar bearing go on his baler and he lost $30,000 worth of hay because he missed his window and got rained on.”
Northern farmers need to know how to market their own production, too, says Gray.
“You have to be in a business from start to finish, getting it on the shelf or in the cooler. That’s not typical where I grew up back east. The milk truck showed up and off it went, and you didn’t have to worry about it. Or you take livestock to the auction. We don’t have that ability here. And it’s been tough for some farmers. Some of them are very good at raising livestock or growing vegetables, or whatever, but they’re not marketers or they don’t have the background in sales, or maybe not the confidence.”
But there are more reasons than ever to become better at it. It’s roughly estimated that less than five per cent of the food consumed in Yukon is produced here, so there is plenty of room for growth.
The Yukon government sees opportunity in locally grown food. Combined with heightened awareness of food security in the north, that’s led to increased support for local food purchasing by retailers and restaurants as well as at farmers markets and through farm-gate sales.
Yukon is also advancing culinary tourism with links established between its tourism and agricultural sectors, forging more partnerships between producers, chefs, restaurant owners and other buyers.
It begins with a passion
For all the things Yukon producers go without, there’s one thing they most definitely have and that is passion. It’s a must-have, says Gray.
“You’ve got to love what you’re doing,” he says. “There’s too many other jobs out there that are easier… 65 per cent of our population works for one form of government or another, whether it’s federal or territorial, municipal or First Nations. And those are well-paid jobs. For you to get out there and work your butt off and make some money, when you could be making way more and working way less, you’ve got to be pretty passionate about what you’re doing.”
But, as the farmers who spoke to Country Guide also say, they get to do it in one of the most spectacular places in the world.
“We have the freshest air, the cleanest water,” says MacKenzie-Grieve. “It doesn’t come much better.”
“It’s not always a money thing,” he continues. “If you’re a good farmer I don’t care where you’re at. You have to gain a certain satisfaction from growing a crop, harvesting a crop and marketing a crop. That has to be of value to you. Because if it isn’t, then you probably shouldn’t be farming anywhere.”