Farming and successful food production in Whitehorse, where the average annual temperature is -0.1C and summer can be as short as 60-90 days, is no mean feat – although it helps when those summer days enjoy 20 hours of sunlight. Historically, local Yukon food production has been fairly patchy, although hunting, fishing and trapping have always provided a good source of local nourishment. The fact is that traditionally nearly all food, fuel, building materials, and manufactured goods have been imported – often from considerable distances away. However, with some smart, hard, work food can be grown in the territory and there are a few dedicated souls in Whitehorse who have made it their goal to do just that, sharing their knowledge around along the way.
Tom and Simone Rudge of Aurora Farm are two of them. Their family farm not far from the city of Whitehorse is an example of the diversity of food production that can be achieved in the region. Tom has an agriculture degree and Simone is a teacher and together they have developed their 160 acres into a year-round hive of activity. They keep Berkshire and Tamworth pigs (six sows and the very charming boar, Dolce) producing 21 babies last season. They also have a milking cow and a couple of Hereford and Angus Dexter cows, all of whom see out the bitter winter months snugly accommodated in a huge, cosy barn. In the summer they raise pastured, certified organic, free range chickens, growing 500 last summer.
All of their meat is sold at the farm gate and they hold community butchering days, sharing out the work-load and giving their customers the opportunity have a true connection to where their food is coming from. They also provide a service to other regional livestock producers with their mobile abattoir which they operate from May through until November.
The winter time doesn’t see them resting up too much and those long, Yukon nights are filled with soap making and hand spinning, weaving and felting of cashmere, silk, angora, merino wool, mohair.
However, Tom and Simone’s commitment to local food production goes well beyond the produce from their own farm and they are dedicated to supporting other local food producers, regularly helping out others with large seasonal projects. Where their impact has been most significant is in their support for the Fireweed Community Market, which runs weekly from mid-May to mid-September and is now extending their opening days. They were there among the group which founded the market in 2000 and have helped keep it running in the years since. Simone chaired the committee for 13 years and Tom is the current secretary.
The market is a one-stop shopping spot for Yukon food products from preserves to foraged berries and all products sold there must be made, grown or substantially value added in the Yukon. Fireweed Market began with just three vendors and now has up to 100 vendors throughout the year, with a solid core group of 20 to 30 vendors each week. It is foodie-central for the locals in Whitehorse and has proved successful in incubating local food businesses, promoting and supporting local food and crafts as well as expanding to now include a much-loved 12 Days of Christmas market.
Another face that is familiar to market-goers seeking fresh, locally grown produce is that of Mary Girouard, one half along with husband Rolland, of the truly remarkable Rivendell Farm. Rivendell began in 1983 when Mary and Rolland purchased 120 acres of uncleared land which they then began cropping. Their production on the land has always been organic, but in 2009 they gained organic certification for what had become in 2008 the Yukon’s first ‘pick-your-own” membership program.
For anyone who thinks that fresh food production can’t be successful in the Yukon, Rivendell is a huge eye-opener. This inexhaustible pair were one of the very first local food growers in the region and, using various methods to extend the growing season, are now the second largest vegetable producer in the Yukon. They sustainably produce up to 60 different varieties of fresh foods including berries, herbs, fruit and vegetables, including many heirloom varieties. As well as continuing their membership program and their regular stall at the Fireweed Community Market (of which Mary is a Director) they host community events, food workshops and have branched out to supply a venue for weddings and corporate retreats.
They also host school visits, produce seeds for the general public and support urban gardening ventures. They shut down for the winter in mid-October, beginning work again in March. They will have fresh flowers ready for the market by May and fresh food by June.
There’s no doubt that fresh food production in this region has significant challenges. However, local food heroes like Tom and Simone and Mary and Rolland can’t fail to be an inspiration to other potential food producers, leading the way on the path to food security for the Yukon.