Regenerative Agriculture in the North

Kim Rapati

What if, instead of feeling like you had to leave the smallest possible footprint in this world, you realized you could become a tool for restoring landscapes, promoting life, and improving the soil? You can! At our farm campus in Hay River, Northwest Territories (NWT) we experience this first hand, with tangible, measurable results.

The Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI) is a non-profit society created by local Métis and northern farming expert Jackie Milne in 2013. This is a dream come true that started as small as you can start—from Jackie looking for a way to feed her family of five, while staying at home and having a relationship with the land.

Fast forward 25 years to her being asked to teach Indigenous people in 13 remote fly-in communities in the NWT and realizing the importance of proper training and empowerment for creating genuine change. Over the next two years, we saw how impactful the training programs were in inspiring people to build food systems in their communities that came from their own initiative and brought real health and hope.

Feedback from our training courses told us we needed a real farm campus, where students could stay and learn together, where we could research, experiment and really demonstrate the potential our land has to produce abundance. We accomplished this, building a farm campus using regenerative agriculture techniques and guided with Holistic Management, and have trained over 200 people from over 30 different northern communities.

Holistic ManagementNFTI is an accredited Savory Hub, part of a global network of educators for regenerative agriculture who are helping us achieve our vision. The Savory Institute is facilitating large-scale global land restoration through Holistic Management and regenerative agriculture implemented by this network. Learn more here: http://savory.global As a part of our holistic management, the team at NFTI is guided by a holistic context.
Our ideal quality of life is…
– Helping our families, community, co-workers and others to thrive.
– Living with love and joy.
– Maximizing our personal potential and realizing our individual goals.
– Learning continuously, and sharing what we learn with others.
In order to achieve this quality of life we will produce.
– Free time for ourselves.
– Profit, to be reinvested in furthering our goals.
– A pleasant, stress-free, and well-organized working environment.
– In order to maintain these forms of production far into the future we will…
– Nurture our landscapes to be as diverse, productive, beautiful and full of life as possible.
– Manage our landscape so that it supports good quality jobs for people.
– Help our community members to be empowered, free and valued so that they can maximize their own potential and contribute to the community using their unique talents and passion.

Healing with Pigs

Probably the best example of our regenerative agriculture is the story of our pigs.

In 2015, we secured the lease at our current farm campus land, a 260-acre property along the Hay River, the site of an abandoned confinement pig farm that had operated for a few years in the 1990s. When we first got on the property, it was a daunting task to dismantle the derelict pig factory and clean up 20 years of garbage and neglect. We transformed this former industrial waste lot into something that fit with the land and our community: a diverse farm campus with classrooms, teaching gardens, greenhouses and a mixed herd of over 200 animals.

The day we brought pigs back to the site—not to go into a confinement barn, but to be out in the forest—was very healing. The pigs chortled in happiness at being in such a beautiful place. We now have a herd of 40 heritage breed Berkshire and Duroc, who are a very important part of our land management team. They are our rototillers, our fertilizers, our perennial gardeners and our waste reduction partners.

Our challenge is that we have so much virgin land, but have limited labour and machine-work is very capital intensive. The work that we need to do is exactly the work that pigs are passionate about and built for! In the spring, summer and fall, our herd is rotated through various mobile electric-fenced cells on the farm campus, where they work to stimulate more perennials in the understory of our forests, which in turn support our browsers and grazers. We are working together with them to create silvopasture, a more diverse forest habitat for our sheep, goats and cattle with the goal of a 50% tree canopy.

In our setting, there is a lot of moss on the mature forest floor, which is a cap that suppresses new vegetation, reducing the capacity for browsing and grazing. Having the pigs root in these areas, cultivating the dead materials and moss with their urine and dung, is stimulating ancient grass that lay dormant in the soil from the bison era. We are increasing the energy cycle—our forest, or silvopasture, is now capable of capturing more energy from the sun and building more living layers of growth in the understory.

In the winter, our pigs are happy in the barn and are still doing important regenerative agriculture work. They help us reduce food waste in our community, thus reducing greenhouse gases from the landfill. We pick up the “distressed food”—this is the food every store typically throws out at the end of the day—from our local grocery store every day and feed it to our pigs. We also feed them spent grain from a brewery in Yellowknife, which we mix with used vegetable oil from the fryers from gas stations and restaurants around town. In total, this represents a reduction of organic waste going into our landfill of 100,000 lbs per year.

Our community doesn’t recycle paper or cardboard, so we have also been collecting that material to use as bedding for the pigs in the winter. The pigs are helping build soil by generating soiled bedding which we later compost and use for growing more food.

The abandoned pig farm:
The old Northern Pork site (now the NFTI Farm Campus) is a 260-acre lot zoned for agriculture along the Hay River. In 1991 it opened as an industrial pig barn, with 1,000 animals inside the windowless 300 m2 metal walls and steel cages—from newborns, brood sows and boars to finishing hogs. The animals lived on concrete and their manure was washed into deep pits on either side of the cages.
The pig barn shut down in 1997, officially because of the abattoir closure, but newspaper articles state it closed because one former employee of the factory barn was seeking unpaid wages and a lot of debt had been acquired. Another article reported it was closed after Municipal and Community Affairs launched legal action over manure management concerns. Whatever happened, it’s clear that the industrial factory farming system does not suit our northern context.
Since its closure, the property was abandoned and used as an unofficial party and dumping site until 2012, when the Town of Hay River forgave the outstanding debt on the land, so that it could be moved back into Town inventory and now leased to NFTI.

Unique Opportunities

Working with animals to restore ecosystem processes to landscapes takes time. It involves letting yourself really get to know how things interact—how plants grow, what talents our domestic animals have, and how they interact with their environment to help our land become invigorated, always looking to support good water cycles, mineral cycles, community dynamics, and solar energy capture.

We have a unique opportunity in the North to establish domestic food systems that are regenerative from the start. We can build productive local farms that support healthy, resilient communities and produce quality local food while complementing and supporting the traditional wild harvesting of plants and animals. Hunting and gathering is an important key for true food security.  Regenerative agriculture helps with the focus to maintain the highest function of ecosystem processes.

What are our challenges for agriculture in the North? From our experience, the biggest challenge is people thinking we can’t do it! Northerners know about food security; it’s in our ancient history to plan, manage and use our food systems so that we can thrive.

And how does raising domestic animals fit into the culture in the North? Well, we know that in the recent past, Northern people had fully functioning, nourishing, sustainable food systems. With settlement, population growth, climate change and resource development affecting all types of wild harvest, our traditional local food systems have become stressed. Now, by protecting our environment and complementing wild harvesting with domestic food production, we can restore a thriving food system in the North that celebrates our own unique culture and environment.

At NFTI, with guidance from the Savory Institute, the staff teaches holistic methods of farming scaled for what we need in our social context, creating economic opportunities and jobs—that are sustainable and have regenerative effects on our landscapes. By empowering northern people to develop and restore our own food systems through an adapted education program with proven successful results, NFTI will directly address the root cause of our food security issue, facilitating us to take back sovereignty of our food systems and realize our unique opportunities to feed ourselves and lead rich lives.

What if you understood that you have an opportunity with your actions to increase biodiversity in our ecosystems and invigorate ecosystem processes? With regenerative agriculture, and empowerment for from-the-land food skills, we can restore food independence in our communities.

You can read more about our training programs and our From-the-Land Food Ambassadors program on our website: www.nftinwt.com

More about NFTI                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
Our Programs                                                                  
Since our start in 2013, NFTI has trained over 200 people: over 50% First Nations / Metis / Inuvialuit from 30 different communities. We provide a variety of styles of training from day workshops to whole semesters to consultation or unique courses for your group. Some examples include:
– Building Soil, Northern Garden Design, Garden Marketing and Business Planning
– Raising Animals (chickens, turkeys, goats, pigs)
– Food Harvest, Preservation and Storage (canning, meat processing, value-adding)
– Northern Market Garden Internship (400 hours)
– From-the-Land Food Ambassadors Program
Our Farm Campus
NFTI is dedicated to helping promote and teach various new methodologies for sustainable and regenerative agriculture that are being practiced around the world. We teach a unique application of these food production systems that is tailored to Northern small-scale, highly productive farming, which is part of a new trend in job creation and self-employed careers. This includes biointensive vegetable gardening, greenhouse systems, permaculture, food storage and value-adding techniques, and holistic planned grazing with livestock. We are working towards becoming a carbon-negative campus with CO2e sequestration projects and zero waste strategies to help achieve the NWT’s GHG reduction and climate change adaptation goals.
Our 260-acre farm campus is the largest land-based farm in the NWT, featuring:
– Cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys
– Outdoor gardens, a hoop greenhouse and geodesic dome greenhouse
– Large yurt classroom and 10 smaller yurts for students staying at the farm campus
– An animal barn, industrial kitchen, offices and farm store
– Fields, boreal forest, ponds and the Hay River