By Stephanie Gordon
The resilient and resourceful farmers who choose to farm in the Yukon.
A common misconception about farming in the Yukon is that it’s a vast barren wasteland where nothing grows, but that is simply not true.
Working with the season at Spruce Cottage Farm
With the mountains as her backdrop, Jolene grows almost every kind of vegetable you can imagine: beets, broccoli, brussels sprouts, celery, squash, peas, zucchini, spinach, turnips, and artichokes. She also grows bedding plants and flowers because “vegetables nourish the body; flowers nourish the soul.”
Most farms in the Yukon are horse farms (29 per cent), but crop farms (23 per cent), poultry and egg farms (12 per cent), and greenhouses (10 per cent) still exist.
Jolene has been growing for more than 20 years and was in Victoria, BC before moving to the Yukon sixteen years ago.
“The biggest difference is the timing of things. I can grow anything here that I could grow in Victoria, but I might need a bit more infrastructure, like some season-extending devices like a floating row cover or greenhouse,” Jolene explains.
The growing season in the Yukon is short and intense, with the most productive months being June and July where the longer days bathe everything in sunlight. The Yukon experiences extremes when it comes to daylight: long sunny days during the summer and short dark days during the winter because of how the northern hemisphere tilts toward or away from the sun.
The endless sunlight during the summer is also why row covers – which provide frost protection and support rapid plant growth – are commonplace in outdoor farms. Jolene also selects shorter-season varieties that mature faster to avoid losses that could come from surprise frosts as early as mid-August.
“I tend to grow things for the season they’re in. For example, I’m going to grow spinach in early spring, not in the summertime, because it just bolts, right?”
When it comes to pests, there are very few, thanks to the frigid winters. However, she still experiences aphids and larger pests like voles, mice, and snowshoe hares. There’s a fence around her entire garden with fine mesh around the bottom to keep the small critters out, but big pests – like grizzly bears and deer – have also been spotted in fields by other Yukon farmers too.
Jolene shares she’s learned a lot about growing in northern conditions from her late friend Claude who started the garden.
“He taught me the importance of thinning carrots and creating space for vegetables to grow to their full size. Because in Victoria, it’s so easy to grow things, you can sort of plant everything close together. But our season is short so to make the most of it, you need to thin your carrots,” Jolene says.
Local support makes farming remote worth it for Sarah’s Harvest
Further north, near Lake Laberge, Sarah Ouellette has been running a certified organic market garden for the last decade. She farms only 0.4 acres, but it’s highly productive – last year she grew 16,000 pounds of herbs and vegetables including lettuces, spinach, arugula, kale, Swiss chard, carrots, beets, rutabaga, cabbage, and potatoes. It’s no surprise she was selected as Yukon’s 2019 Farmer of the Year.
In 2021, the Yukon reported 88 farms, but it wasn’t always so little. Yukon agriculture peaked during the Klondike Gold Rush and until the mid-1950s, farms around Dawson City, Mayo, and along the Yukon River overflowed with healthy crops that were easily transported on sternwheelers down the river. The number of Yukon farms naturally declined as rivers were replaced by highways and the population of Whitehorse grew – moving people further away from the fertile soils of the central region.
Different agriculture now thrives. Sarah plans to expand her operation by building a new 24 x 48 passive solar greenhouse, and she’s not alone. In the last few years, greenhouses in the Yukon and neighbouring Northwest Territories have increased by 54.8 per cent.
It is no surprise that season extenders – like greenhouses – are increasing in an area where the growing season is notoriously short and intense and sunlight is abundant.
“We really could get frost at any time,” Sarah explains. “The sun sets for four hours, but hardly, it’s just below the horizon a little bit but it’s not actually dark. The crops grow so fast, it’s crazy.”
The growing conditions are like a cold desert. Thankfully Sarah’s farm is located near Lake Laberge so irrigation is nearby and essential for her productive harvests.
A shorter, intense growing season is also punctuated by other challenges of farming remotely.
“I find I need to plan ahead and be very conscious of my inventory and ordering well in advance. I usually buy things in large quantities, like enough for several years, because the shipping is so expensive,” Sarah says. Sarah keeps a big roll of row cover, extra irrigation fittings, and drip tape on hand because she doesn’t have the luxury of going into town during a packed growing season to replace specialized parts.
Despite being far away from suppliers, customers are close by. Across the territory, direct sales were up by 48 per cent from 2015 and the high rate of direct sales reflects strong community engagement for Yukon-grown produce.
Sarah sells directly to the community in addition to selling to retailers and restaurants.
“I feel there’s a huge need here. So much of our food comes trucked up the highway and we’re in a really vulnerable position. We’ve all seen when the highways get shut down for whatever reason, like landslides or floods, and the grocery stores empty within three days,” Sarah explains. “There’s so much room for the agricultural community to grow up here.”
“I want to fill this need for the community. The appreciation that I receive from my customers goes a long way in keeping us motivated. I just feel like this is really important work,” Sarah says.