Frost Hardy Farm keeps local community supplied with haskaps, honey and chicken
This year many seed companies saw record sales of products as everyone and their dog decided that in the time of COVID, food security was a pressing concern and it was about time to start a garden (in the breaks between baking sourdough bread and building puzzles, of course). Many of those would-be farmers were soon faced with the reality of how much work it is to grow your own food, especially in a cooler climate like the Yukon.
It’s something that Julia Ahlgren and Benton Foster, owners of Frost Hardy Farm, know all too well. The couple moved to Whitehorse in 2008 from a rural area in Quebec. In 2012, they bought the piece of Golden Horn land that would become Frost Hardy Farm. The parcel was zoned agriculture, though it hadn’t been developed beyond a house and a field that had been cleared 30 years earlier.
The couple’s first attempt at growing on a more commercial scale came in 2014, with a few hundred haskap plants and sour cherries. A lot of experimentation was required to figure out plant productivity in the climate and soil conditions (more delicious experimentation was required to taste-test jams, chutneys and butters).
“The Yukon climate is very different than what we were used to in Quebec,” said Foster. “The number of frost-free days in Whitehorse is significantly lower than down south and that means we have to choose crops that can tolerate cold weather in the shoulder seasons, as well as a few frosty nights in the middle of the summer.”
Ahlgren and Foster say the land here is much drier than back east and the soil is silty with very little organic content. In order to farm, they had to drill an irrigation well and import organic material to give the crops a head start.
Frost Hardy Farm (named for the gardening term, as well as a quality needed by any Yukoner) made its public debut at the 12 Days of Christmas market in 2018.
“We had absolutely no idea what to expect and thought we made plenty of jam, butter and chutney to make it through the first week,” said Ahlgren. “We could hardly keep things stocked and found ourselves making more batches of product every night after working our day jobs. It was tiring, but so exciting to be making something with the literal fruits of our labour.”
Frost Hardy disappeared for a period after that market, while Ahlgren and Foster welcomed their first child, Marek, in the summer of 2019. However, in 2020, there are a few more acres planted on the farm, as well as some chickens and beehives. There have also been collaborations with Daddy’s Donuts and Summit Kombucha. Not that Frost Hardy is on easy street. There are always new challenges. Ahlgren and Foster say it can be difficult to plan around the availability of basic resources required to support farming activities. Most aren’t readily available locally and shipping costs add a premium to locally grown foods. Labour is also expensive, so Ahlgren and Foster have roped in friends and family where they can.
Farming in the Yukon comes with a few other unique obstacles, including producing food with wildlife at the doorstep.
Years ago, Ahlgren and Foster were preparing to go to a wedding overnight in Skagway. As they packed the car, they watched a flock of bohemian waxwings descend upon the haskaps. The pair tried to figure out how to scare the birds away and tried decorating the field with CDs tied to strings in the hope the reflection would scare the birds off.
“Fruitless indeed,” said Ahlgren. “By the time we got back, there was nothing left but purple bird poop around the yard. We now have netting over the bushes.”
Ahlgren and Foster have also had encounters with foxes and bears, both of which make them grateful for the eight-foot electrified game fence that surrounds the haskaps, chickens and beehives. This summer, they watched a curious black bear amble over to the hives before making contact with the fence and running off.
This year, Frost Hardy goods will be available at the Fireweed Market and Christmas fairs. A longer-term plan involves setting up a commercial kitchen in order to offer products in retail spaces. If the bees make it through this cool, wet summer, that will include honey.