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.
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.
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