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Northern gardening surpassing expectations

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CARMACKS, Yukon Surrounded by boxes of vegetables, a lady completes her
paperwork inside a tool shed. Her office environment is shaded from the
direct sunlight but when she's asked to talk about the greenhouse she
pushes aside a scale and steps out of the darkness.

Like other proud gardeners, Alice Kowalchuk will gladly take guests on a
tour of the bountiful harvest. Her circuits take longer though because
she's cultivating thousands of square feet.

On the Little Salmon/ Carmacks First Nation is the Yukon's first greenhouse
which has been operating for four years. Certainly the site isn't her
garden, yet she cares for the vegetables as if they were her own.

"Watching them grow and then mature, when people buy them, then I think I'm
growing the vegetables to make somebody happy in their stomach," said
Kowalchuk, who's been in charge of the building since it opened.

The greenhouse teems with life as moisture drips down from the tarpaulin
creating a sauna-like effect adding 20 degrees to an already warm summer's
day. As hot as it can be, Kowalchuk believes her daily routine is mentally
therapeutic.

"It's relaxing and watching the stuff grow before your eyes, it's awesome."

Conceptually, the idea of growing vegetables north of 60 degrees seems
unlikely. Between the cold winters and poor top-soil, Yukon has never been
an agricultural haven. Yet, Little Salmon is capitalizing on the climatic
advantage it does possess, 20 hours of sunlight daily in June and July.
More than a dozen varieties of produce, ranging from the usual tomatoes and
peppers to the more colorful broccoli and corn, have created a community
joie de vivre.

"A lot of people think this isn't the right climate to grow vegetables but
we're proving them wrong," said Chris Gull, the farm manager.

Early success in 1999 with the root cellar, an underground bunker able to
withstand temperatures of minus 50 degrees, prompted the band to further
its farming ambitions. Following grants of $85,000 ($60,000 U.S.)
predominantly from Agriculture Canada and the Yukon government, Little
Salmon's green thumb expanded.

From the original hothouse and plot across from the tribal office, another
10 smaller units were built for the elders followed by the development of a
potato field. Proposal writer Dawn Charlie spearheaded the greening of
Little Salmon and obtained the funding. Recognizing the long summer days
and temperatures frequently above 80 degrees, there were some growing
conditions that gave credence to these initial monetary requests.

Likely the hardest part, she mentioned, was getting the community to become
gardeners. Even the basics had to be explained.

"This is a flower, this is a weed plus there was a First Nations' slant on
agriculture," Charlie said, citing the semi-nomadic history of the
Aboriginals in this area. "Everything is novel and experimental in the
First Nation with things that are generally not done."

One of the Little Salmon's more fruitful crops is the small Yukon red
potato that's grown in a field requiring a five-minute canoe ride across
the Yukon River. Along with other vegetables the potatoes are on just
one-third of an acre. The plan includes tilling the surrounding land to
become a 40-acre farm.

With potatoes as the main staple, the food is distributed to the band's
elders and diabetics on a weekly basis with some leftover for minor sales.
There haven't been any scientific studies but Kowalchuk has witnessed a
change in dietary patterns during these past four years.

"Before we had this, a lot of people didn't have other vegetables but now
they're trying them and liking them," she said.

Whatever communal programs have existed will multiply in their size soon.

By the end of this summer, a 4,440-square-foot greenhouse will incorporate
thousands of vegetables and plants. The highly visible structure came with
an additional $40,000 ($25,000 U.S.) grant for labor and materials and will
consist of a steel frame draped with a double layer of plastic in order to
retain the warmth.

"This heats up pretty quickly, even when it's cloudy, because we'll have
solar panels," manager Gull said.

To compensate for the minimal amount of good earth in which to grow plants,
the community has embarked on its own composting heap. Only vegetable
matter is used in this collection and within three weeks, the pile has
decomposed enough to be recycled into the band's gardens.

Along this all-natural theme, there are no pesticides or chemicals sprayed
onto the vegetables. While these foods cannot be called "organic" because
of the rigid international certification involved, the gardening does fall
within the cultural concept called Dooli, or traditional law.

Susan Davis, director of the band's Lands and Resources department, said
the least amount of tampering with the natural law, the better.

"To be using generically modified foods breaks Dooli because you're not
supposed to mess with food and nature," Davis said. She also added with
less energy required to bring food to the table because of the greenhouse,
this is also in keeping with Dooli.

With this building, the growing season can last longer and it's not
unreasonable to believe if the deep frosts hold off, there will be fresh
food into November. As costs of fresh vegetables are much higher in
reservations and rural areas of the Yukon because of shipping expenses,
many levels of government will be examining the results in Carmacks.

Director of the Yukon Agricultural branch Dave Beckman said this project
between the First Nation, the territorial and federal governments will
likely open the door to other programs of this nature.

"Clearly the economic potential and what it can bring to a rural community
with development, social fabric and self-esteem," said Beckman about the
other benefits besides cheaper produce.

Kowalchuk added to that by saying there's a noticeable sense of community
pride about the greenhouses and gardens. Many of Little Salmon's youth are
involved in the project as there are enough hours to provide full-time
employment for four teenagers in the summer while some of the special
education students get hands-on training in the spring.

The gardens at Little Salmon truly are a communal effort. As the students
are gaining work experience, the older generations have a
physically-stimulating activity that enriches the soul.

Virginia Blackjack started the elders' program by coordinating miniature
greenhouses, about 100-square-feet each, to be built behind the seniors'
homes. Once the students and other band citizens erected the frames and
laid the dirt, Blackjack said the building and the plants become the sole
responsibility of the elders.

Ultimately, the intended purpose of initiating a gardening program at
Little Salmon/Carmacks is taking seed. While there haven't been any
official reports or studies to infer the health of the First Nation,
Kowalchuk has seen the dietary changes.

"More people are starting to eat fresh vegetables and now young kids are
eating tomatoes instead of living on chips and fries," she said.