Chickens have very defined personalities, it turns out. Whenever Ray Solotki opens the shipping container-turned-coop outside Inuvik’s Community Greenhouse, one of her 22 hens will rush over and flatten itself down, eager to be picked up.
“They’re kind of like little dogs,” says Solotki, town councillor and executive director of the greenhouse. “I’m very attached to them, but I also would eat them. That’s just the reality.”
It was also the original plan for the birds. Last year, with funding from the United Way, Solotki and her team flew up 22 chickens to the hub of the Beaufort Delta. The birds would lay eggs while the sun was shining, provide fertilizer for the greenhouse and then be turned into soup come winter (to be donated to Inuvik’s homeless and warming shelters).
But a local farmer offered to take half the birds into his own coop, and Solotki
realized she could make space in her garage for the others. And so far, so good. The birds are still comfy and warm, Solotki reports, and producing plenty of eggs while inside her homemade coop.
If they emerge unscathed come spring it will be a successful test of whether the cost and labour of overwintering chickens 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle can be scaled down to a single household.
“Will it work? Will they go stir-crazy? We don’t know. We have no idea what it’s going to be like,” Solotki said last fall, just before the birds went into her garage. “So this is the pilot winter. Do they survive? What do they need? How much light do they need? Do they need to go for a walk? Like, do I need little chicken harnesses?”
Chickens are heartier birds than you may think. Inuvik’s birds belong to the Dekalb breed, capable of surviving at temperatures of minus 10 Celsius. And all across the circumpolar world, from Alaska to Iceland, people have raised hens for meat and egg-laying. Here in Canada, Polar Egg in Hay River has had great success with its operations. The company has over 100,000 birds who produce millions of eggs a year. But for smaller farmers it’s not always worth the effort.
In the 1970s, the former manager of Rankin Inlet flew a couple hundred chickens to his town and fed them on discarded char and trout guts from Rankin’s fish plant. Turns out you can’t lay eggs on only a sashimi diet, and so “laying mash” from down south had to be imported. It was a great success, until it wasn’t. Volunteers got burned out and the chickens became more attractive as a meal.
The challenge in keeping the birds alive in the North mirrors the challenge of keeping people alive. Food and shelter are expensive here, whether you’re human or chicken. Communities remain overly reliant on fragile and complex supply chains shipping food up from the south. (Each Dekalb chicken, normally $20 a bird in the south, cost $300 to fly up to Inuvik.) The end result is a lack of fresh produce and nutritious grocery options in most northern communities. Hunting and fishing, as traditional and sustainable ways to feed one’s family, can provide for a lot. But are fresh, cheap eggs really so much to ask?
Solotki doesn’t think so. That’s why she and her team built the coop outside Inuvik’s greenhouse (itself a source of local produce). The chickens are egg-laying machines (one Dekalb hen can produce 500 eggs over its two-year laying period), and the birds also seem to be having an enjoyable time bathing in Inuvik’s dirt and feasting on discarded produce donated by the Northmart grocery store, along with a mix of grains and yoghurt.
“Who knew, chickens love yoghurt,” says Solotki. “They also love ham, which is kind of gross.”
The coop has also inspired some creative farming ideas from other small-scale operators. A pastor at the local baptist church wants to set up a farm out in the bush, says Solotki, and Tundra North Tours is also working on an on-the-land farming program.
Having spoken in Finland two years ago at the Circumpolar Agriculture Conference, Solotki knows small-scale farming can work in the Arctic, whether it’s with chickens, pigs or even goats. It just takes a little northern ingenuity.
“If you have the right breed, if you have the right setup… there’s no reason we can’t be doing these things,” she says. “They do it in other parts of the world that are just as cold.”