It appears many people in Hay River are keenly interested in a plan for sustainable agriculture being prepared by consultants for the Town of Hay River.
Thirty-eight community residents – a large turnout by Hay River standards – attended a workshop on Oct. 16 to offer their input.
“What for me was most enlightening was how much passion there was around the table from the different parts of the supply chain,” said Markus Weber, a consultant with Edmonton-based Serecon Consulting Group, which is preparing the plan for the town.
Weber said the turnout was much larger than he expected.
Community residents brought a host of ideas and concerns to the workshop, under the overall themes of land stewardship, food security and variety, and economic opportunity.
There was discussion about the regulatory environment, finding workers, equipment, water supply, distance to markets, lack of skills and knowledge, transportation, obtaining supplies, storage facilities, financial support, education, potential for food independence, the co-operative atmosphere among everyone in the agricultural sector in Hay River, and much more.
Jordan Stackhouse, the economic co-ordinator with the Town of Hay River, said the workshop was a culmination of thoughts and ideas on food security, and diversifying the town’s economy.
“It’s really exciting and I guess it’s appropriate that today is actually World Food Day and we’re talking about food security and how we’re going to move forward in the Northwest Territories with agriculture,” said Stackhouse at the Oct. 16 meeting.
Jackie Milne, a well-known activist for agriculture and founder of the Northern Farm Training Institute, summed up the feelings of many people at the workshop by telling a story she heard last summer from a visiting archeologist about why many aboriginal people came to the Hay River area long before the town even existed.
“It was because this place had more food,” she said. “This place naturally is an area in the North that has more abundance. And so the irony of it is that Hay River exists because of food. That’s why this town is here. It really isn’t here for any other reason.”
Milne’s inspiring call to expand that heritage of food production into the future drew a round of applause from those at the workshop.
There were also more down-to-earth discussions of what Hay River needs to see agriculture grow.
Milne said a way needs to be found to attract young, strong and healthy people into agriculture.
Eileen Gour suggested a service could be created to help those who can’t afford to buy expensive agricultural equipment, perhaps a co-operative approach of leasing or borrowing.
“Not everybody can afford a $10,000 rototiller,” Gour said.
Doug Lamalice of the Hay River Reserve said many aboriginal people have become “spoiled” by groceries stores, and have abandoned the traditional skills of farming and hunting for food.
Weber said agricultural producers in Hay River largely use direct-to-market channels to sell their goods.
“It’s the Fisherman’s Wharf and the Winter Market, primarily. People selling to neighbours. People bartering with neighbours,” he said. “It’s working well for the level of production that’s here now.”
However, he said people may want to look at how to build a more extensive wholesale supply chain and value-added processing.
Weber added the length of the growing season in Hay River’s northern climate isn’t as big a limitation as some might expect, and many crops will grow here.
Consultants have visited Hay River a couple of times since beginning work on the plan in September, and talked to up to 40 people prior to the workshop.
“We’ve got a lot of other work that we’re doing in addition to this. This is gathering public input,” Weber said of the workshop. “We were also here actually seeing people’s operations and getting information on how they’re producing food now and what their barriers are.”
Plus, the consultants are going to do such things as gather information on soil surveys, look at town bylaws, consider taxation issues and examine regulatory issues.
“There were lots of brand-new ideas and many of those may never come to fruition, but many of them might,” Weber said.
A report from the consultants is due before the end of the year.
Stackhouse said the Town of Hay River needs to get a sense of what the community wants in terms of moving forward with an agricultural strategy.
“So I think we were able to get some of that today,” he said just after the Oct. 16 workshop concluded. “Now if our consultants can turn that into actionable steps, we’ll be definitely headed in the right direction.”
— Paul Bickford