A Report on the developing NTFP industry in Manitoba

Compiled by:
Dave Buck
Retired Manager, Non-Timber Forest Products
Northern Forest Diversification Centre

January, 2007

Non-Timber Forest Products have been used by Manitoba’s aboriginal community for thousands of years, and the first European settlers brought their own unique knowledge of forest products to Manitoba. Today there are pockets of NTFP home-based activities throughout the province, but within the past 40 years or so there has been a gradual decline in the knowledge and use of these natural products as our parents and grandparents have taken that knowledge with them as they pass on. With the creation and development of the Northern Forest Diversification Centre, the level of awareness and interest in the many facets of Non-Timber Forest Products has increased dramatically.

The development of the Northern Forest Diversification Centre (NFDC) began about seven years ago as a community development initiative of The University College of the North (formerly Keewatin Community College) based in The Pas in Northern Manitoba.  The mission of the NFDC is to work with communities and individuals who wish to develop economic opportunities that are aligned with local values and based on local resources, for the benefit of local people. The Centre has identified NTFPs as a realistic, practical, income generating opportunity that can be developed by building on local skills and knowledge. Based on a system of sustainable harvesting and use, the NFDC acts as a research, training, marketing, sales and service centre for the provincial NTFP industry.  The NFDC vision is a NTFP industry composed of a network of community based and diverse micro enterprises supported by a 21st Century packaging and marketing infrastructure.

The NFDC offers a ten-day community based training course focusing in local resources, plant identification and basic ecology, sustainable harvesting and handling practices, aboriginal issues, low-tech value added processing, and marketing. The training includes a flexible combination of classroom, field, and value-added processing exercises. Additional specialty workshops have been developed to increase local opportunities in value-added products such as soap and salve making, wreath making, antler jewelry, and birch bark weaving. An important feature of this training is that there is no age or education restriction, and the value-added processing opportunities are low tech and easily adapted by entrepreneurs residing in small communities.

This emerging Manitoba NTFP Industry is based on a sustainable and ethical wild harvest, perhaps the most important aspect of its marketing strategy. A truly sustainable NTFP Industry requires not only community-based education and training, but also the empowerment of forest communities to be able to protect and manage this resource for themselves and their children. The development of a sustainable NTFP industry, however small, brings some measure of economy, and some hope for the future. This industry brings a renewed sense of ownership and empowerment, which translates into a community-based urgency to protect and manage the forest resources that surround them. We are now seeing forest management/forest conservation at the community level, with the growing awareness of the many alternative and compatible values in the boreal forest.

Any suggestion that NTFPs replace timber harvesting as an alternate source of employment/income for communities is perhaps like trying to compare apples and oranges. From a Manitoba perspective, the people who are interested in and benefiting from the NTFP industry are certainly not those currently in the timber harvesting business.  They tend to be those who are standing on the sidelines of society, because of many different circumstances; usually lack of education or lack of opportunities within their communities. They have been raised in a culture of traditional seasonal work and do not wish to leave their communities.  Many are trapped in the false economy of social assistance, with no hope for the future and little opportunity.

 In Northern Manitoba, we have communities who have watched their forests being clear-cut, but have felt none of the economic benefits.  In contrast, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the NTFP industry will become an important part of the solution to the decades of unemployment and poverty that have plagued Northern Canada.  The NTFP Industry provides the opportunity to engage in true sustainable forest management, benefiting both forest ecosystems and the communities which rely on them.  NTFPs can be managed and harvested compatibly with timber, though more research and better communication between the various industry members is still necessary.

In 2005 and 2006 the NFDC purchased and marketed products from over 400 harvesters from 25 communities.  Included in their catalogue of over 100 products are wild tea blends, skin salves, senega root, labrador tea leaf, blue hyssop, sweet grass, sweet gale leaf, sweet flag root, bearberry leaf, black poplar buds, and high bush cranberry bark, twig and balsam wreaths, diamond willow products, and antler jewelry. The NFDC also purchases and handles bulk shipments of wild botanicals such as dried senega root, black poplar buds, and high-bush cranberry bark for sale to brokers in the USA.   In addition to providing marketing services, the NFDC assists interested community entrepreneurs to develop new products and provides help with packaging, labeling, and pricing.

During the past two years, the NFDC had also initiated discussions with Frontier Schools, the Northern Healthy Foods Initiative, and other organizations to discuss the incorporation of parts of the NTFP training program into northern schools.  There has been a growing awareness that the NTFP Industry can play an important role not only in community development and education, but also in the fight against poverty and the northern health crisis.

In 2005, the NFDC initiated meetings with OPAM (the Organic Producers Association of Manitoba) to develop a process for the organic certification of NTFPs.  This process would allow wild harvesters to maintain their practice of selective, random harvest within their traditional area, and also provide assurance that the harvest was conducted in a sustainable and ethical manner. 

Also in 2005, in consultation with the Canadian Herb, Spice, & Natural Health Products Coalition, the NFDC initiated the development of a Harvester Certification and a Product Traceability Process. This included harvester certification by species, permanent i/d numbers for harvesters, development and monitoring of permanent sample plots for each local harvesters association, and the enforcement by local associations of a cohesive harvesters code of ethics. By the end of 2006, harvester certification by species, and permanent harvester i/d numbers had been developed and became operational for several products and for several local harvester associations. The organic certification process development encountered some problems and is not yet in place. The community permanent sample plot process has also not been completed.

In 2004 the NFDC initiated meetings which resulted in the formation of a Manitoba Wild Harvesters Cooperative which was incorporated in late 2005. A co-operative marketing approach was considered essential to coordinate the efforts of many small forest communities and to attract larger markets in the USA and beyond. With its three year funding contract, (The Canada/Manitoba Economic Partnership Agreement), ending as of December 31, 2006, the NFDC had hoped for a new joint venture between the Manitoba Wild Harvesters Cooperative and the new owner of the local wild rice processing plant.  This would allow the seasonal wild rice processing operations to diversify and take over the business side of the NFDC. The Harvesters Co-op, with support from the Manitoba Government would then take on the responsibility for community training and support (including certification, traceability, and community harvesters association support).  This partnership would allow private enterprise to operate the business side of the industry and also allow the harvesters a management voice in the industry. 

Unfortunately, the current NFDC funding program has ended with no further agreements in place. There are ongoing discussions taking place between the wild rice plant owner, UCN and the Manitoba Government, although it appears that the Wild Harvesters Co-op is in danger of becoming extinct as no co-op meetings have taken place for several months and the promised support and leadership from government has yet to materialize.  To their credit, the Manitoba Government, through MAFRI (Manitoba Agriculture, Food, & Rural Initiatives) has hired a development officer, Don Dunnigan, based in The Pas to take an active role in supporting the developing NTFP Industry. Don is currently working with the owner of the Wild Rice Plant to develop value added opportunities related to the NTFP Industry.

As 2007 begins, there is some concern that the progress that has been made in the past seven years will be lost and that the hundreds of retail and wholesale customers who purchase NTFPs from the NFDC, and the community harvesters who depend on the NFDC to purchase their harvest, will be without the services of the Centre.

On a more positive note, the NFDC has, to its credit, been the catalyst for a number of developing community-based businesses many of whom will continue to exist at some level without the support of the NFDC.

Brenda Gaudry, of Barrows, MB (participant in the 10 day NFDC community training program) has developed a small retail store and processing depot in her community.  Brenda produces a variety of products for her store, including herbal teas, skin salves, lip balm, twig wreaths, and other wild crafts. She also supplies ten Manitoba retail outlets with product and is developing an eco-tourism program from her base in Barrows. Brenda and her husband have built a small bunkhouse and a Tee Pee for their guests and offers herb walks into the forest from her back yard. She has a group from Texas booked for July this year. Brenda is currently working with MAFRI (Manitoba Agriculture, Foods & Rural Initiatives) to develop informational videos promoting NTFPs. She also operates her own website at www.wildernessspirit.ca

Betty Meyers, from Cormorant, MB ( participant in the 10 day NFDC community training program) continues to produce a large variety of herbal soaps and the popular mystic salve that is sold to the NFDC and several local outlets. She has also expanded her product line to lip salves and bath bombs.

The Land of the Little Sticks Boreal Harvesters in Lynn Lake, MB, with hands-on support from the towns Economic Development Officer, Mark Matiesek, has renovated an old Kinsmen Hall building with provincial funding. They are currently seeking funds to deliver a second NTFP training program and plan to use the building to not only purchase and process product, but to develop a craft centre complete with tools and space not otherwise available to many of the aboriginal residents of this community. During the fall of 2005 and 2006, this group operated a buying depot for lingonberries, which were sold frozen to markets in Minnesota and in Manitoba for the production of a wild berry fruit bar. Their members continue to produce and market unique boreal treasures, and carvings that are marketed through the NFDC and other retail outlets. Their website can be found at www.boreallinks.com

The Environmental Youth Centre (part of the Thompson Boys and Girls Club) of Thompson MB is an employment training program in resource management, designed for 18-29 year old youth-at-risk. This group has added the harvest of NTFPs to their program and delivered small amounts of product to the NFDC for the past two years. They are currently seeking funds to host a program to have their staff and clients trained and certified to harvest and process NTFPs. They also are interested in developing a buying depot/processing area and the capacity to do ground level sustainable harvest research. Melissa Branconnier is the program director and can be reached at envyouthser@mts.net .

Sandra Ross (Uske International) from Clandeboye, MB is the former Product Development and Sales Manager for the NFDC. Sandra now operates her own product development and marketing company and handles a variety of products including NTFPs such as herbal teas, and birch bark weaving. Her website is www.uskeinternational.com.

Doug Eryou of Bakers Narrows, MB is a northern entrepreneur who operates a company called Boreal Bounty. Doug operates a small steam distillation unit, and also harvests birch sap in the spring. He has developed a birch wine which is now available through the provincial liquor commission stores in Manitoba, and is now working on a lingonberry wine. Doug has a number of NTFP related projects in the works and is currently working with the Creighton (Saskatchewan) Regional Development people on several value-added processing ideas involving tree fungus and hydrosols. He is also promoting the concept of a northern winery and resort/wellness centre on the shores of Lake Athapapaskow near Flin Flon. Doug was never a client of the NFDC but did work closely with the former NFDC manager on many of his projects. Doug can be reached at doug@borealbounty.com .

Boggy Creek Cultural Arts Council in Boggy Creek, MB was started by Yvette and Wilf Bouvier, who participated in the 10 day NFDC community training program. They produce wreaths for the NFDC and in 2006 a few of their members also shipped senega root to the Centre as well. They are currently looking for a trainer and funding to host a rustic log furniture course for their members. Wilf and Yvette continue to produce birch bark bitings, antler jewelry and other craft items for the NFDC and local retail outlets. The council can be reached at lodge@mts.net and Wilf and Yvette can be reached at eccraft@mts.net

Tina Muno, a graduate of the 10 day NFDC community training program, produces and packages several wild herbal teas for the NFDC from her home based business in Powel, MB. She continues to trap in the winter and also supplies the NFDC with fresh balsam wreaths each fall. Tina can be reached at tmunro@mts.net