Sharing the North: Food Producers of Northern Saskatchewan
When most people think of food and agriculture in Saskatchewan, they probably picture rolling fields of wheat. If pressed, they might mention patches of bright yellow canola or the vibrant blue of flowering flax. Few would cite chanterelle mushrooms, wild rice, freshwater fish or Labrador tea. Yet, that is what northern Saskatchewan produces in abundance every year from its network of waterways and deep forest. Hunting, foraging and fishing have been employed by Indigenous people in one form or another for thousands of years in the region. Now, people are sharing that abundance with the rest of the world.
Foraging the Forest – from Mint to Morels
Photo credited to Desiree Johns/Boreal Heartland Food Products
Randy Johns has managed Boreal Heartland Food Products since its founding in 2017 in the northern village of Air Ronge. Boreal Heartland focuses on seasonal and sustainable items, from Labrador tea and wild mint to chanterelle and morel mushrooms. Everything that Boreal Heartland carries is foraged by locals, many of whom harvest along family traplines.
“A lot of our harvesters will go out with their children or grandchildren,” Johns explained. “It’s a way for some of them to pass on their knowledge of the forest to the younger generation. And there’s a whole lot of things that are built into those teachings. There’s respect for the forest, respect for the plants. Respect for each other. That’s a big part of the northern Indigenous culture…the concept of respect.”
Harvesting in “the bush” is not an easy job, but Boreal Heartland offers certified training, emphasizing sustainability and respect for the environment. Harvesters are taught “the rule of thirds” – one third for animal consumption, one third to allow plant life to regenerate, and the remaining third for human use. The commitment to sustainability also means that rarer species of plants are left untouched.
Boreal Heartland buys directly from harvesters. According to the company’s website, 90 per cent of them are Indigenous people from northern Saskatchewan. From its packaging and processing plant, Boreal Heartland’s teas, herbs and plants go out to stores and restaurants across the country and beyond.
“The key is sustainability. We need to kind of walk a line where we can figure out how to create products and so on that that people all over the world want to access, but at the same time, keep the forest as we see it around us,” Johns said.
“I think people yearn for some connection to the natural world. The attraction to some of our products is also the fact that it’s harvested by Indigenous people. So, in a way it’s a gift from the Indigenous people to the rest of Canada and the rest of the world.”
Wild, Wild Rice
Photo submitted by Against the Grain Wild Rice
Wild rice was introduced to northern Saskatchewan in the 1930s as food for muskrats and waterfowl to improve trapping and hunting for residents. It wasn’t until the late-1970s that commercial wild rice harvesting began on a larger scale. At the time, people harvested the crop in canoes. Today, wild rice is harvested by airboats that pass back and forth through the rice patches and knock the grains into a wide collector mounted on the front of the boat.
For producers like the Muirhead family, wild rice harvesting was a completely new adventure when they started Against the Grain Wild Rice in 2015. Every fall, the Muirheads take the trip to their fly-in camp on remote Meeyomoot Lake, where they spend weeks harvesting and packaging wild rice. During peak harvest times, their pilot can make up to 10 trips per day in his Cessna 180, which is stuffed with 50-lb. bags of wild rice. Most of their product is destined for international markets, but a portion is sold in the province under the Against the Grain label.
Northern Saskatchewan boasts numerous wild rice producers of varying sizes. The La Ronge Wild Rice Corporation was founded in 1982 by Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, Lac La Ronge Indian Band, Meadow Lake Tribal Council and other northern partners to process and package its rice locally. The presence of a local processing plant is part of what has helped turn northern Saskatchewan into Canada’s largest wild rice distributor.
Under the Waters
Northern Saskatchewan has an abundance of lakes and rivers in a pristine setting, which makes it a natural fit for outfitters catering to American anglers. Unsurprisingly, the area is also home to a thriving fisheries industry with a unique northern Saskatchewan character.
Dore Lake is home to Fonos Fish, where Jon Fonos has been catching and processing walleye, northern pike, burbot and whitefish for the last 20 years. Fish are deboned and frozen within hours of being plucked from the water, which makes his catch a high-demand item for chefs in the province. Consumers can find his fish through The Little Market Box in Saskatoon or Pine View Farms near Osler.
Many consumers in Saskatchewan are familiar with the Ile-a-la-Crosse Fish Company for the high-quality packaged fish at Federated Co-op grocery stores. For northern Saskatchewan fishers and residents of Ile-a-la-Crosse, the company has helped to bring opportunity and a degree of prosperity, supporting 50 commercial businesses and directly employing local people. Since its opening in 2017, the company has expanded to work with Wollaston Lake Fisheries and northern Manitoba fishers.
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