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Food learning project grows into way of life
Northerners continue local food production ventures past project's end

Katherine Hudson
Northern News Services
Published Friday, May 4, 2012

The North is home to sub-zero temperatures for more than half the year, with some high Arctic communities only having two or three months with a climate acceptable for growing vegetables, herbs and fruit outside.

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Jeff Shatford, from left, Sandy Jaque, Marylan Yanick, Janet Paulette and Doug Robertson learn how to test their soil for nutrients during a Seedy Saturday workshop in Fort Smith in March 2012. - photo courtesy of Kirsten Bradley

However, through some local initiatives which took place in communities throughout the NWT from October to March, residents have learned how to produce fresher, better tasting and more nutritious food than what is imported. Whether it's through hunting, fishing, purchasing meat from someone in the community or planting fruits and vegetables in an indoor, outdoor or greenhouse garden, the North can eat more locally than some might think.

The Local Food Learning and Leadership Project is officially over, with funding from Health Canada, which Ecology North obtained through the territorial Department of Health and Social Services, running out at the end of March. But many communities are transferring the knowledge and skills learned and heading into the spring and summer months with new initiatives of their own.

"The funding has ended but the goals behind it continue," said Shannon Ripley, environmental scientist at Ecology North. "The goal is to support people in the NWT in growing more of their own food and learning about different techniques that they're interested in related to growing their own food and to encourage leadership development."

Five co-ordinators planned locally-grown, food-related projects in communities such as permaculture expert Susie Wegernoski in Fort Resolution; market gardener Jackie Milne in Hay River; Teresa Chilkowich who headed prenatal programs in Fort Simpson; and Kirsten Bradley of Fort Smith who grew plants with the Aboriginal Head Start Program and organized a seed and garden fair.

For Bradley, although the funding has stopped flowing, the project has planted an interest in the community that is now germinating on its own.

"It was just timing. People in the community were really, really excited about this project. As much as anything, it was timing and it was fun to be there and provide knowledge and equipment that people wanted and needed and information," she said.

Bradley planted peas, carrots, radishes, beans and tomatoes with the three- to six-year-olds, explaining the importance of water, sunlight and healthy soil. An indoor gardening club was established at Joseph Burr Tyrrell Elementary School and Bradley is hoping to introduce fall gardening workshops at Paul William Kaeser High School and, depending if space is available, develop an indoor garden at the Fort Smith Public Library.

She also organized a one-day course titled an introduction to permaculture (how to develop sustainable human settlements and self-maintained agricultural systems modeled from natural ecosystems) that ran twice with about 25 students in march. The community also hosted a Seedy Saturday a seed and garden fair -- that month.

"We gave out seeds for vegetables that we know grow well here, and we had gardening displays, a kids' planting activity, and gardening workshops all afternoon. We had about 90 people out, so it was really a big success," she said.

With some of the funding distributed through the project, Bradley said the community purchased a food dehydrator.

"It is hard to grow all your food and store it for the winter. At the end of summer, there will be a demonstration housed at the museum and anyone can borrow it to make things like jerky, fruit leather," said Bradley.

Ripley said Northerners sometimes assume the long winters and lack of ample soil in some regions ]is a strong barrier to local food production.

"In all of our communities, there are a lot of opportunities for growth. It's been really inspiring to see how much momentum there is growing around local food production in communities throughout the Northwest Territories," she said.

"The more we are producing our own food the more were encouraged and motivated and realize that it is possible for us to eat more locally."

In Yellowknife, Ecology North is in the final stages of investigating another local food production strategy: the feasibility of setting up a commercial berry orchard in and around the capital, Ndilo and Dettah. The organization is researching the market potential, land costs, irrigation possibilities and soil fertility.

Local food production and selling it to community members or to other communities in the NWT is not a new initiative, potatoes used to be shipped to Fort Smith and Yellowknife from Fort Simpson by the boatloads every few weeks in the 1970s, according to Dawn Tremblay, Ecology North's program co-ordinator.

"That's the way it used to be a lot of the time and we've kind of moved towards expecting our food to come from the grocery store, but it doesn't have to," she said.

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