The original goal for the Northern Farm Training Institute was to make it as accessible as possible to anyone who is interested in any aspect of Northern agriculture.
Now that the first year of the program is wrapping up, it seems to have met its goal.
“We did it in a unique way,” said Hay River’s Jackie Milne, the program’s founder. “We really wanted to make it attainable for anybody who was interested… so we targeted it over the weekend, counting Friday… and we didn’t make it an obligation to attend every class because, once again, that might not work. We’ve had extremely good attendance, practically 100 per cent, and we have a waiting list of over 40 people.”
A graduation ceremony is this coming weekend in Hay River, the program’s host community, and most of the 15 students will receive certificates stating they’ve completed all six of the season’s workshops. However, if life got in the way of attending any of the classes, students can complete the course the following year by joining the workshop they were unable to attend.
Agriculture is currently a small industry in the NWT, but it was identified as a sector with high potential by the NWT Economic Opportunities Strategy Advisory Panel report released in the spring.
The report identified the sector’s current strengths as the NWT’s abundance of land, a demand for fresh produce, the success of a variety of agricultural initiatives, and a wide variety of local wild plants and animals.
The challenges for the sector, however, include the convenience of southern food products, limited access to land, the high cost of transportation between communities, a limit to government subsidization due to trade agreements, and the fact that NWT land is not identified or set aside for agricultural use.
Enthusiasm ran high with the students who participated in the Northern Farm Training Institute program, and many have returned home to start small business ventures or hold workshops of their own in their home communities, Milne said.
She noted students hailed from all five regions of the NWT.
This situation was exactly what the program co-ordinators were hoping to achieve.
Between April and September, six workshops covered planting seed in the spring; designing and planting a sustainable garden; food forests North of 60; garden maintenance and marketing; food harvest, preparation and storage; and small and large animal husbandry.
Approximately five years ago, Milne volunteered to run workshop days on gardening at the Hay River Community Learning Centre of Aurora College.
The workshops were so popular that the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment gave a small grant to expand the workshops to include Enterprise and Kakisa. The following year the program expanded to Fort Simpson, Fort Providence and Fort Resolution.
The Department of Education, Culture and Employment, the NWT Literacy Council, Ecology North, and Aurora College have also contributed to this year’s program.
“The production of food is like any other skilled trade. It’s hands-on,” Milne said. “If you’re a carpenter, you’ve got to cut wood. If you’re a plumber, you work with pipes. It’s the same with agriculture and food.”
With that perspective, Milne suggested the money spent on travel, accommodation and wages for herself and GNWT staff be used to fund the travel of interested students from their home communities to a central teaching location.
“Then they could become mentors for other people in the community,” she said.
The program has yet to secure funding for 2014, but Milne is planning for another year of workshops, and her vision for the program is still expanding.
An example of where she’d like to see the program go is a “school farm” where students could stay and complete intensive study of certain subjects, like greenhouse management and animal husbandry.
“What I really would love to see is little satellite centres in the other regions,” she said. “Maybe people who are higher in the Arctic (could host one)… because it would give more focus to what would be successful where they are.”
— Lyndsay Herman