Long before eating local became fashionable, a determined pair of Alberta transplants began trying to coax food from the Yukon's stubborn, silty soil. Their goal was to fill a void in the region's local market, where the food supply for both farm animals and humans is dominated by southern imports with steep markups.
A decade later, Steve and Bonnie Mackenzie-Grieve's Yukon Grain Farm has become the northern territory's most successful farming operation, selling only locally produced feed grain and potatoes. "We saw there was a market and we tried it," says Steve Mackenzie-Grieve. "We just kind of flew by the seat of our pants."
An early phone call to a Loblaws' grocery rep to ask whether the supermarket would be interested in local tubers jump-started the farm's foray into the potato business; the grocery chain's enthusiasm was enough to convince the couple that it would be worthwhile to invest in storage facilities and plant 30 acres of table potatoes. Grocery clients now account for 90 per cent of YGF's business and represent the most promising area of growth (the Mackenzie-Grieves are also thinking about putting in a carrot storage facility and experimenting with beets); the remaining 10 per cent of revenue comes from the growing number of small-scale farmers who rely on YGF's feed to support their chicken, goat and horse operations.
Success, though, hasn't come without some cold, hard lessons—literally.
The Yukon's harsh climate narrows the growing window to between 70 and 100 days each year (farmers in Canada's south can count on up to 150 days). Harvesting must be done quickly, often in wet conditions that southern farmers wouldn't dream of tackling.
Despite the frosty hurdles, YGF has grown its sales by 5% to 10% annually. "We're fortunate," he says, "because we're supplying a basic need: food. If we were making powerboats or supplying luxury items, I would be concerned. But when you're supplying stuff that people have to have, it's good peace of mind."
Years in business: 11 Days in Yukon growing season: 70 to100 Distance (in kilometres) north of Whitehorse: 30 Tonnes of potatoes sold each year: 400 Potential customers in Yukon: 30,000 Employees: 3
1. Explore new markets. Steve's cold-call to Loblaws was critical to YGF's growth and survival. With a foot firmly planted in Loblaws' door, the couple has an open channel to sell new products as they diversify.
2. Tap into your inner customer. If your product tastes good to you, chances are that customers will feel the same.
3. Embrace the unknown. The Mackenzie-Grieves had no experience in mixing feed when they set out to grow grain. The learning curve was steep, but their reward—higher margins and a broader customer base—was worth it.