As Kent Deltess looks out over the 160-acre farm at Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation (CPDFN), six wild horses roam free in the background. The horses are a testament to the organic nature of the farm, which the community hopes will solve many of the food insecurity problems in the area.
Four years ago, the community committed itself to taking control of a food scarcity crisis south of Fort McMurray. The farm is going through its third harvest season. It is expected to produce thousands of pounds of potatoes. A herd of up to 30 heads of cattle is expected to double after calving season.
“It’s excitement and change,” said Deltess, who works as a contractor in addition to his work on the farm. “I see the potential and commitment here. Once you start getting grants and other financial supports, there can be a lot done with what’s here.”
Many rural communities in the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo region are food deserts. Conklin and Janvier have convenience stores packed with the usual sodas, candies, chips and frozen foods, but they are vacant of any fresh or nutritious food.
Meanwhile, the nearest grocery stores are 90 minutes away, either in Anzac or Lac La Biche. This forces people to spend extra time and money for basic groceries, which can be difficult during winters or if children need to be watched.
Deltess said starting the farm was an exercise in patience. Clearing the land for farmland began four years ago. But in its first season, the farm produced 150,000 pounds of potatoes in its first season. It was so large that the community gave away potato bags to nearby communities and the food bank.
The next season was 2020, which also saw a flood decimate the crop. Many elders were reminded of a flood in 1949 that pushed the community south and onto higher ground, but away from farmable land. CPDFN administrator Matthew Michette said the 1949 flood killed more than 1,500 cattle and horses.
“Historically this has been quite an agrarian community from the turn of the century up until 1949,” said Michetti. “They had enough land cleared that you could see right across the prairie.”
This year, the farm won't hit the same production levels it did during its first year. This summer's harsh heatwaves hurt the crop and cut the yield nearly in half. When temperatures went above 40 degrees Celsius, a water truck was used just to make sure the potatoes would survive.
The farm is organic and doesn’t use pesticides, making it vulnerable to nature's unpredictability. Much of the farm work is done manually, which Deltess said helps with local employment.
“Leadership’s vision is sustainability, food sustainability and being able to feed 500 to 600 people,” said Deltess. “But we put 10,000 pounds of potatoes in the ground last year and it all flooded. We can’t control the weather.”
CPDFN has invested nearly $500,000 if its own money into the farm without any grants. The community is researching funding options to expand operations. One goal is indoor grow pods to produce more food, such as leafy green vegetables like lettuce, throughout the year. The First Nation might also expand the farm depending on next year's season.
“Even just breaking ground, it’s a lot of time, a lot of work and a lot of money," said Deltess. "The nation is just chipping away at it and I think they are doing a great job of it with what money and resources they have available.”
-with files from Laura Beamish
Scott McLean, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort McMurray Today