In September 2014, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation and Yukon College began work to convert 87 acres of land on the shore of the Klondike River into a productive farm. There was tantalizing proof that it could be done: they had already uncovered a buried tractor and the frame of an old wooden farmhouse.
In fact, more than 100 years before, a farm on that very spot outside of Dawson City provided potatoes and carrots to feed the flood of people arriving during the gold rush. It survived for roughly 50 years until it fell into disuse in the 1940s.
Dexter MacRae, training and education director for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, has been at the centre of the farm’s resurgence. “In the Yukon, we produce something like two to four percent of our own fresh food and produce,” he says. “The rest of it is all brought in from outside.” For centuries, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in sustained communities by foraging and hunting, fishing and berry-picking. But in the years after the gold rush, people became reliant on the general store in town. This spurred the development of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Teaching and Working Farm, with the idea of nurturing an interest in agriculture, animal husbandry and gardening among Yukon students.
The farm is a space for students, community members and elders to work and exchange knowledge about the land. In its second year of operation, the farm school is run in conjunction with Yukon College, which offers a master gardener program. It includes three hours of unpaid class time and 4.5 hours of paid farming time each day. Guest speakers, elders and Yukon College instructors work through the curriculum from May until September, giving students a chance to learn a wide range of skills. Students are encouraged to live in tent frames on the farm during the four-month course, to give them better access to the land and to the on-site instructors.
The program is proving popular. It was conceived to accommodate 12 students each year. This year, they had 23. “Doing and learning on the land is a natural, inherent skill,” says MacRae. “So we see amazing things happen.”
HISTORY: Until the late 1940s, the site was home to a dairy farm that also grew fodder for animals, as well as vegetables that were sold in town.
INFRASTRUCTURE: Yukon College carpentry students built 18 tent frame accommodations for students, staff and instructors, along with a tent frame classroom. Plans for more permanent structures, such as a greenhouse designed to support year-round growing, are being discussed.
LIVESTOCK: The farm is home to eight pigs, six rabbits, more than 200 chickens and one unintended arrival. They incubated their chicken eggs, MacRae says, “and somehow we ended up with a turkey.” (The turkey appears perfectly comfortable with the chickens, he notes.) The farm will look to add more livestock like goats and cattle in the coming years. “From there we could, in theory, make products such as goat cheese,” says MacRae.
PRODUCE: In 2016, the farm produced 3,000 pounds of carrots and more than 6,000 pounds of potatoes, much of which was sold in Dawson City. This revenue goes back to the school to offset operational costs.
COMMUNITY: “It is a space for anyone who values on-the-land experience,” says MacRae. The farm is open to visitors or those who wish to harvest and plant for themselves. “The elders have bi-weekly trips to the farm to give the students tips and so on,” he says. “They can’t get enough of it.”
FUTURE: There are big plans in the works for the farm. “I see trails for visitors who are interested in the farm,” MacRae says. “The students have actually talked about a restaurant operating, perhaps on weekends.” There’s even the possibility of opening a bed and breakfast on the property.