Murray Gray says nobody believed he could grow corn in northern Saskatchewan, where summers are short and winters are harsh. But Gray says he could grow a garden in a parking lot.
“It’s beautiful growing conditions up here because the sun never seems to set in the summertime,” he said earlier this month, standing near rows of healthy corn in Buffalo Narrows, Sask., about 430 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.
Gray is a consultant who helps northern communities set up market gardens to provide affordable fresh food and jobs for local people.
In communities with limited economic opportunities, including some with chronic unemployment, leaders want to build self-sustaining industries.
Some early skepticism
Leonard Montgrand is the executive director of the La Loche Friendship Centre. He was initially skeptical when Gray promised he could grow fruit and vegetables in La Loche, which is about 515 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.
Where southern Saskatchewan is known as a farming region with rich growing potential, Montgrand said conditions in his community are a little different.
“It took me a while to wrap my mind around because I was thinking to myself, ‘OK, what are we going to do with a community garden? Our summer is so short,” said Montgrand.
“And our soil is like … we don’t have soil, we have sand.
“I’m thinking, ‘How are we going to grow anything in this inhospitable landscape?”
Montgrand already had a grant to build the garden and decided to take a chance. The friendship centre built a grow tunnel — a long, greenhouse-like structure that usually features plastic stretched over a semi-circular metal frame — and used it to tend a range of fruit and vegetables.
Two gardeners were hired to maintain the garden and, although their wages are low and the job doesn’t provide a lot of hours, Montgrand said it was an exciting start to a project he thinks can bring more prosperity to his community and others.
The 2011 Statistics Canada National Household Survey estimated the unemployment rate in La Loche to be at 22.3 per cent, meaning almost a quarter of people actively seeking a job had not found one.
‘People are saying that…