Farming in the (sub) Arctic is hard, but not impossible.
Just ask Carine Pattin and her husband Darwin Rudkevitch: since 2000 the pair have been growing all things green under the midnight sun through their Arctic Farmer brand in Kam Lake.
Their venture began in 1990 as a landscaping outfit.
Based on the needs of his clients, Rudkevitch recognized an opportunity to grow and sell his own plants and flowers.
A decade later, Pattin joined the project and they opened a nursery and greenhouse.
“We grow herbs, veggies, berry bushes, annuals, bulbs and seeds,” said Pattin.
Plants for the nursery, such as shrubs and bulbs are grown outside in the summer.
Landscaping, and the nursery and greenhouse remain the heart of the business.
“I start up the greenhouse in the first week of March and we go until July when we run out of stock. And the landscaping goes until Halloween,” after which the approaching winter conditions make landscaping impractical, Pattin said.
In the early spring, their most popular products are herbs and vegetables: especially cabbages, tomatoes, potatoes and carrots.
Ornamental plants and flowers are sold from spring until the summer. Pattin ships many of them to remote communities like Jean Marie River, Tulita, Norman Wells and Fort Good Hope.
In Yellowknife, her customers for large-barrel planters of flowers include the city, the airport, Mid West Property Management and Gas Town.
Pattin, Rudkevitch and their staff must make their own soil, since sand and peat dominate the natural ground in the Yellowknife region.
“We have equipment to make our own soil. We mix compost and manure and peat and sand together. We have to do that (otherwise) we’d have to import soil from Alberta. We have a pile of orders of people wanting dirt,” Pattin said.
While her greenhouse might smell pleasant and offer a warm respite from biting Yellowknife spring winds, outside observers won’t see the work that goes into running such a business north of 60.
The tropical greenhouse conditions are made possible with a wood boiler that feeds into an in-floor heating system.
“We have to load up the boiler with four-foot logs. It’s kind of a pain in the ass. We also have propane heaters. It’s expensive to run them,” Pattin said.
“We would love to keep the greenhouse open all winter but it would be stupid expensive. We couldn’t keep up with the -40 C (temperatures). Unless we grow weed because we’d get a good return on our capital. In March it’s hard to even (grow things) at 10 C,” Pattin explained.
The pair also runs the adjacent Yellowknife Tirecraft shop to make ends meet during the winter.
In the summer, longer daylight hours can sometimes be too much for the plants — making them grow fast and “spindly.”
“There’s more labour involved in maintaining them. We have to keep cutting them back,” said Pattin.
Arctic Farmer was among the fortunate few who made it through the toughest months of the COVID-19 pandemic relatively unscathed.
When almost all businesses closed in March of 2020, Pattin looked to Quebec, where greenhouses were deemed essential services.
“We approached the government here and explained that we sell seeds and vegetables and everyone is pushing for a more self-sufficient territory. It didn’t take much convincing. We showed we could abide by all the COVID-19 rules. We did a lot of deliveries. People were stuck at home and were like ‘now that we’re here we might as well work in the yard.’ It was a good season.”
Despite the challenges of flexing their green thumbs to make a living in the North, Pattin said she appreciates that their years of hard work have paid off in a loyal customer base.
“Other large stores in Yellowknife make hanging flower baskets that were grown in the south. I make the hanging baskets myself from scratch, from plugs and cuttings.”