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Cashing in on cold crops
Northern Farm Training Institute holds first High Arctic workshop

Kassina Ryder
Northern News Services
Monday, June 29, 2015

Mariah Blake says she had to see it with her own eyes to believe it was possible to grow food in Tsiigehtchic.

NNSL photo/graphic

Kim Rapati and Ulukhaktok resident Emelia Agyemang build a simple heap compost with food waste, shredded paper and cardboard waste and nitrogen-rich wild greens. - photo courtesy of Kim Rapati

"I thought people were crazy when they tried to garden here," said Blake, the community's economic development officer.

"I didn't know how much of it was possible."

Blake was one of 14 participants in the Northern Farm Training Institute's (NFTI) first High Arctic workshop, a training program geared specifically for gardening in the northernmost parts of the NWT.

The workshops were held at NFTI's school in Hay River the week of June 12, said operations manager Kim Rapati.

Because most programs at the school take place once a month, residents of more isolated communities hadn't been able to participate but the organization aimed to bridge that gap.

"We wanted to kind of combine a few of the courses together into one so they would be able to come for a little bit longer and get a good idea of what was going on," she said.

Participants came from Aklavik, Inuvik, Fort McPherson, Tuktoyaktuk, Tsiigehtchic, Ulukhaktok, Tulita, Fort Good Hope and Colville Lake.

The Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI) provided funding for the workshop, including participants' travel and accommodation costs, Rapati said.

Blake's interest in growing food was sparked last year after staff with ITI visited Tsiigehtchic to set up garden plots at residents' homes as part of the Small Scale Foods program, Blake said.

"Before then I didn't really pay too much attention to gardening."

While some families already had small gardens, the initiative resulted in about 13 more plots last year, including one of her own, Blake said.

Since then, six more residents have asked for help to set up their own gardens, all of which were scheduled to begin construction the week of June 20.

Tsiigehtchic gardeners are still learning which crops grow best, but plots are yielding a surprising variety, Blake said.

Potatoes, tomatoes, beans and radishes did especially well last year, as well as different types of lettuce and kale.

"We had a crazy amount of lettuce growing," Blake said.

Shelly Andre and Shawn Van Loon grew so much produce in their two plots last summer, they were giving it away to family and friends, Andre said.

"There was lots," she said. "We gave some away to my parents."

This year the pair is growing green onion, green peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, tomatoes and sunflowers, as well as carrots.

Other gardeners are trying cucumbers, jalapeno and bell peppers this year, Blake said.

Trial and error is a large part of working out what will and won't thrive in Arctic gardens, said Rapati.

"We focus on a lot of the crops that provide the most calories - potatoes, carrots, leeks, which in turn are the ones that people in the North eat more in stews and things like that," she said.

To help compensate for harsh growing conditions, participants in the High Arctic workshop had to learn to create nutrient-rich soil out of the sandy earth found in many Northern communities, Rapati said. Adding biochar and compost is a great way to boost nutrients.

"It's a little apartment building for microbes," she said. "It brings life into the soil."

In order to ensure a supply of charcoal, students learned how to build their own biochar stoves, which can be turned off before the charcoal inside turns to ash.

"You can stop them at the right time so you get the charcoal out of it," Rapati said. "Everyone has the materials to make these in their own community."

Students also learned how to design raised-bed gardens and were provided with a small pop-up greenhouse to take home. They were also given haskap berries, Saskatoon berries and raspberries to start their own orchards, Rapati said.

"That will be really neat to see how they grow," she said.

Now that the workshop has given them a chance to get their hands dirty, Rapati said students have the skills they need to establish successful gardens in their home communities.

"You need the explanation and you need the practice," she said. "Like any other trade, you need the theory and then apply the skills."

A second workshop is scheduled for August to teach how to harvest and preserve crops, which will include lessons on how to pickle and make jam, Rapati said. She also hopes to include lessons on how to build solar dehydrators. In the meantime, Blake said she's already thinking of ways Tsiigehtchic gardeners could benefit the entire community.

"I was thinking that would be a really good idea, just grow vegetables and sell them here," she said.

"That would be a good employment opportunity for somebody for the summer."

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