Sovereign Soil: Sub-arctic soil gives birth to far-out crops in new Yukon-filmed documentary

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While embedding himself with some of the subjects of his documentary, David Curtis has had a lot of conversations about potatoes.

“I still doing volunteer work with the people in the film, and I was out planting potatoes with Otto (Muehlbach) just last week,” said the director, whose new documentary Sovereign Soil looks at farmers near his home of Dawson City, Yukon. “I was riding a potato planter from the 1900s that was originally horse-drawn. So yeah, I talk about potatoes a lot. And I’m Irish, so potatoes are important to me.”

Along with Muehlbach, a German immigrant, Sovereign Soil introduces viewers to other proud Yukon-ites like Jackie Olson, a member of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, and John Lenart and Kim Melton, two experimental agrarians who have successfully grown apples, pears, and grapes.

The documentary covers a year in the life of the farmers and their crops, covering the extremes of seasonal weather in the sub-arctic region, and posing questions about interdependence of culture, communities, and nature in relation to food sovereignty and agricultural progress.


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Curtis, who lived in Vancouver before pulling up stakes to move up north more than 20 years ago, calls himself as a bit of a recluse, which by Yukon standards might be saying something. But he did know most of his subjects before he began filming.

“I started off having honest, deep conversations with each one of them to make sure they felt comfortable with the themes we’d be exploring together,” he says in an interview posted at (the NFB co-produced the doc with Jackleg Films).

That was how he has come to be a regular on Muehlbach’s ancient potato planter. “I also felt it was unfair that I ask my neighbours and friends to give of themselves and their time without giving something back.” So, during filming and since, he has he pitched in — “planting and harvesting potatoes, weeding, collecting birch sap, cooking dinners, teaching workshops, building fences.”

The director describes the small Dawson City (population 1,400) community as “collaborative and cooperative” (sorry, no end-of-days preppers here — you’ll have to look west to Alaska for those) and says the city has “a kind of cosmopolitan thing” going on. He notes that it is home to local arts college the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture and to a wide range of citizenry, including international immigrants, recent retirees, and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation.

Though Sovereign Soil viewers, especially city-dwellers, might be surprised to learn about the variety of crops in the area, Curtis notes that there is precedent.


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“There was a fair bit of agriculture going on during the (Klondike) Gold Rush (1896-99),” he said. “But that died out as the population decreased. Then when the highway went in processed foods became more readily available. It wasn’t until the ‘70s and the back-to-the-land movement that the first market garden was established.”

The region gets more daylight per annum than California, he says. “Things grow like crazy here. The summers are short but really intense.”

And getting more so.

“Winters have gotten less severe, and the summers have become more humid and cooler” since he moved there. “When I first arrived it wasn’t uncommon for the temperature to go down to minus 40 or 50, for a week or even two. Now it rarely gets down to 40. A lot of the elders talk about the change in terms of wind — we’re getting a lot more, and more extreme.”

For some farmers, the weather might be the least of their worries. Lenart and Melton, for instance, grow enough apples to take the surplus to the Dawson City market in the fall. Getting them there is the problem.

“They have to cross two channels of the river and then hand-load all the produce over an island before they can get to the highway,” Curtis said. “They’re in a very remote place.”

Sovereign Soil

When: Until July 10

Tickets: $9.99 (for five days)


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