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Hooray!

Fresh produce is a rarity north of 60, but the experience of Helen Green and Andrew Cassidy shows the local-food movement has ‘tons of room for growth.’

Helen Green and Andrew Cassidy are accidental farmers.

Other careers brought the couple to Hay River, on the shore of Great Slave Lake, NWT. But when they found an acreage in nearby Paradise Valley, it seemed a shame not to make use of some of its fine loamy soil – although plowing up a 30-by-40-foot chunk of pasture was pretty ambitious for a couple with only one other mouth to feed, their young daughter Anna.

“We just leapt in and planted a whole lot of everything,” says Cassidy. “At the end of the year, we had way more carrots than we could ever use. So we decided to bundle them up, take them to the Fisherman’s Wharf, and try to flog as many as we could.”

The wharf is a popular spot in the town of 3,600, a place where you can buy fresh-off-the-boat whitefish and pike, along with a few locally produced food products. But no one was selling freshly harvested produce.

“It was amazing how quickly we sold out,” says Cassidy. “It was the last wharf of the season, but we were hooked.”

The Northwest Territories isn’t a hotbed of agriculture – there’s one commercial egg producer and maybe another 20 people who earn part of their income from farming. But it’s also a place where farmers can have an unusually close relationship with their customers, and Cassidy says that’s encouraged them to be more innovative.

“We’re learning what works for us as farmers and what works for consumers – although we think of them as friends and neighbours,” he says. “We’ve been educating each other.”

Because demand for produce from Greenwood Gardens – now greatly expanded to include a variety of vegetables, melons, berries and herbs – has continued to be “overwhelming,” the couple has been fearless in trying out new things. Not everything is immediately embraced, but because they (and a neighbour who also started market gardening) are the only game in town, there’s a very direct back-and-forth between farmer and customer.

“For example, we started growing heritage varieties of carrots,” says Cassidy, who earns most of his income from his day job as executive director of the Territorial Farmers Association (farmnwt.com).

“It’s been a long time since anyone around here has seen purple carrots. We bundled them with regular ones and people’s reaction was, ‘Can I just get a bundle of orange ones?’ We wouldn’t do it. It was, ‘Here’s the bundle. You get purple, white and orange ones altogether.’ Then a few weeks later, you’d see people searching for the bundles with the most purple carrots in them because they liked their different flavour and texture.”

It was a similar story when Green began growing herbs. The couple now has two acres and four greenhouses, including a heated unit used to start transplants. The latter was fairly pricey and herbs are a way to help generate additional revenue from that expenditure. But fresh herbs in Hay River were as rare as purple carrots, and Cassidy says they’ve spent endless hours explaining how to use herbs such as fresh basil. He recalls taking $50 worth of basil to the wharf, selling almost none of it, and not bothering to take any the next weekend. But then person after person came asking for it because word of someone’s fresh-basil-inspired culinary triumph had spread through the grapevine.

This direct, unfiltered connection with customers has not only driven their business, but convinced Cassidy the local food movement has just scratched the surface.

“There is tons of room for growth,” says the 37-year-old.

Take, for example, the concept of seasonality. Cassidy says he’s had more than one conversation with customers who couldn’t fathom why he didn’t have potatoes for sale in June. And while building your menu around what’s available locally is still a foreign concept to most people, he can see that’s starting to change.

“I don’t think people are crafting their menus around what’s available at a particular time in the season, but I think they are beginning to understand that having oranges available during winter isn’t natural,” he says. “They’re thinking more about their food and how it’s getting to them.”

In Hay River that usually means by truck, with the 1,000-kilometre trek from Edmonton being the last leg of a journey that frequently begins in California.

While it’s great you can get ‘fresh’ lettuce in January, something picked and packed a week or two or three ago simply can’t compete with the real deal, says Cassidy, who is also Hay River’s mayor.

Green and Cassidy’s overly exuberant carrot crop in 2006 has sowed something else in town, he notes. Today, the number of townsfolk taking up gardening is “growing by leaps and bounds.”

“People start off with one raised bed, then they get two, then they’re turning up the front lawn, then the back lawn, and then they’re asking the neighbour if they can put a raised bed on their property,” says Cassidy. “I think we’re not only going to see more urban farmers, but this will be an incubator for future farmers.”

It’s clear to him, he says, that people’s desire to be more closely connected to their food isn’t a yuppie or urban dalliance, but a powerful force that farmers need to explore further.

“After all, isn’t that how agriculture has always evolved? By meeting demand and paying attention to how your customers are voting with their dollars.”