Farming North of 60

Meet Your Farming Neighbours: A Prairie grain farmer finds new opportunities in the Yukon

Yukon farmers Leona, Mac and baby Eleanor Watson. photo: Leona Watson

Leona Watson’s upbringing on a large-scale Prairie grain farm didn’t prepare her for farming in a land where the permafrost shifts landscapes and the sun can shine 19 hours a day. Or did it?

Six years after the born-and-bred farm girl followed her outfitter husband, Mac, as far north as farming allows, Watson sees a land of opportunity despite the challenging environment and a lack of agricultural development.

She says there is no place she’d rather be than the farm they are gradually carving out of the wilderness a few minutes outside of Whitehorse.

“I can’t wait to help develop the farming sector in the Yukon,” says Watson. “I want to bring my passion and my ag background and my network to grow this industry.”

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By southern standards, the Watsons’ farm is small — they currently harvest about 40 acres of oats as greenfeed for their horses and 20 acres of timothy/brome pasture as hay. However, farming in the Yukon isn’t like farming in more southern climates.

In addition to an ultra-short growing season, the Watsons have to contend with equipment limitations and “do-it-yourself-or-not-at-all” equipment repair.

“I would do a million things on our farm, but I don’t have the right equipment and I can’t justify new technologies when I don’t have the acres and won’t have the income from them to support it,” says Watson. “We don’t even have cell service in our fields. Maybe one day, but overall farming practices in the North are simple.”

There’s also the challenge of exorbitant shipping costs.

“All my inputs have to come up from Fort St. John, Dawson Creek or Grande Prairie. We’ve got a $3,000 trucking bill every time anything needs to come up the highway,” she says.

And, there’s the issue of non-existent processing and marketing infrastructure. She’s not going to grow canola, for example, because there’s not now and not likely to be canola- crushing infrastructure.

That said, she’d much rather look at opportunities than limitations. Having grown up on a large-scale grain and cattle farm in northeastern Alberta, Watson understands scale and efficiency. Having spent multiple years visiting farms all over the world, first as a trustee with the Royal Ag Society of the Commonwealth and later via the Nuffield Scholarship program, she has an appreciation for creativity and a willingness to tackle challenges in new ways.

“There is so much potential in the Yukon,” she says. “Everywhere around me, I see what could be.”

Field of dreams

Last summer, she and her husband finished clearing an additional 50 acres. Watson hopes to put that land into production this spring, while also continuing to clear over 100 acres on her new homestead quarter. She expects to spend the first handful of years just getting the second quarter going, likely via hay production. From there, she sees diversifying into something else — possibly cattle, possibly a crop that can be grown without too much equipment. One of her dreams, and she admits she has many, is to build her own mill so she can process her own grain crops.

“When I diversify our farm, it’s going to be in value-added products, sold straight to consumers. That’s where the biggest opportunities in agriculture lie,” says Watson. “Instead of playing victim to the large commodity sector, I’m going to do something niche, something local, something that hopefully makes things more interesting, hopefully makes things less stressful and — most importantly — supports this farm’s viability financially.”

Some of the 40 acres of oats Watson cuts as greenfeed for the horses. photo: Leona Watson

Farming in the Yukon, stats

Like the Watsons’ farm, the Yukon’s total agriculture industry is small but growing. According to the Yukon Agriculture Branch, the territory was home to 130 farms in 2011. Together, those farms grew 1,867 hectares of hay, 13 hectares of vegetables and 12 hectares of berries (4,613, 32 and 30 acres, respectively).

In 2016, the number of farms had grown about 10 per cent, hay was up to 1,930 hectares, veggies to 19 hectares and berries had doubled to 24 hectares (4,769, 47 and 59 acres, respectively). Meanwhile, total farm income grew about 15 per cent between 2012 and 2017, to $4.3 million. Livestock numbers have grown too, thanks in large part to the Yukon’s first stationary slaughter facility, which opened just north of Whitehorse in 2016. Inspected red meat slaughter has increased from 277 animals in 2016 to 743 in 2020.

Watson says there’s plenty of demand for locally produced agricultural products of all kinds.

“The community is all for supporting local. There’s a real sense of pride in products that are grown in the Yukon,” she says.

A growing industry

Even with the recent growth, however, the Yukon’s ag industry is still in its infancy. In fact, only about five per cent of the Yukon’s total food consumption is locally produced, the vast majority of livestock feed including hay is still shipped into the territory and, so far, Yukon farmers have not begun exporting agricultural products south.

“Our goal is to be self-sufficient and self-sustainable with food production,” says Watson. “Right now, almost everything is hauled up from the South. I was told once that if anything happened to the Alaska Highway, we, in the Yukon, would only have food for four days. We need to be talking about what we can do for the North to support market potential and market access too.”

One thing Watson doesn’t want is free money.

“We need people with knowledge and experience and passion. We need real support, not just handouts. Some Yukoners’ perspective is ‘there’s a grant for that.’ It’s a bit unfortunate to see how much money we get. Every bit helps, yes, but it’s not the solution to long-term success,” says Watson.

Regardless of crop, Watson’s goal is to influence her land for the better.

“I want to be a farmer who enhances the environment. I don’t want to be just sustainable because that means our goal is to reach a point and stay there. I don’t want that — I want to continuously improve the land we work.”

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