With diamond mine closures getting ever closer, Northerners are looking hard at how to diversify the NWT’s economy, and agriculture’s showing early promise as a new sector.

Northern farmers get to work at the Northern Farm Training Institute. photo courtesy of the Northern Farm Training Institute

“There’s lots of potential here for small-scale agriculture and we have potential for some commercial agriculture,” said Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly, “but I think the effort that we put into agriculture should really be around food security for families, households and communities.”

O’Reilly’s own home garden produces a large amount of food for his family – carrots, potatoes, salad greens, string beans, cauliflower, zucchinis and tomatoes.

“If we can do this in Yellowknife, you can do it in virtually every community here,” said O’Reilly.

“The Arctic coastal communities might be a little bit more of a challenge, but there is a greenhouse in Inuvik and I understand there’s one in Paulatuk and one in Sachs Harbour that are going up this summer.”

In addition to growing healthy food that can be sold cheap locally, therefore helping in the struggle against high costs of living, community production can also help reduce the amount of freight that has to be shipped North, lowering emissions from transportation.

O’Reilly thinks agriculture could be an important part of a new Northern economy that, in his view, should also include a strong polytechnic university, an expanded fishery and more effort into the conservation economy and tourism.

In addition to greenhouse and garden projects, entrepreneurs have been finding unique niches for local food production.

Travis and Susan Wright started up what the GNWT says could be the northernmost apiary – that is, beehive operation – in the world. Fed off fireweed, wild red clover and goldenrod, the Wrights’ bees produce a unique product that’s marketed as Bush Pilot Honey.

Outside Yellowknife, France Benoit is putting 6,000 square feet of land to use producing food that she sells at the city’s farmers market on Tuesdays in the summer.

One particular success story is Polar Eggs, which employs five at its growing, medium-sized business in Hay River.

“It has a large impact on Hay River and who knows, they have potential to be even bigger perhaps,” said Joel Harder, director of economic diversification for the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment.

Family-run Boden Farms, outside Hay River, also had a banner year in 2018 as it shifted from a small-scale operation to a commercial enterprise, producing 1,800 kilograms of Russet, Red Norland and Yukon Gold potatoes from its 48 acres.

Meanwhile, also in Hay River, the Northern Farm Training Institute is running strong, helping train budding greenthumbs across the NWT.

O’Reilly says the territory needs to find more ways to make land accessible for farming across the NWT, in addition to more dollars for training.

It won’t match the types of job numbers and incomes offered through the NWT’s diamond mines, which contribute close to a quarter of the NWT’s gross domestic product, but four or five jobs in a given community could make a difference.