Jason Cardinal, Manager of the Flying Dust Market Garden, leads expansion of food systems and skills development

April 2024

Jason Cardinal, an alumnus of the Industrial Mechanics certificate program returned to Saskatchewan Polytechnic and completed the intensive Lighthouse Labs Data Science Bootcamp providing him with the right combination of skills to turn the market garden around on the Flying Dust First Nation. Cardinal has successfully transformed the 170-acre garden into a thriving enterprise that provides sustenance for the First Nation community.

Since its inception in 2009, the Flying Dust Market Garden, nestled in the heart of Meadow Lake on the picturesque Flying Dust Reserve, has become a symbol of sustainable agriculture and community development. The not-for-profit 170-acre farm is dedicated to nurturing the land and fostering growth. It supplies food to a total band population of 1,939. The garden’s major outputs include honey, potatoes, vegetables, fruits, and bison meat. “With funding support from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Farm Credit Canada (FCC), Northern Lights Community Development Corporation (NLCDC), and Makeway, we were able to expand our current food systems, infrastructure and complete some much-needed repairs on equipment and facilities,” says Cardinal.

As Cardinal explored economic development opportunities, he secured funding that helped establish a community butcher shop to manage the processing of bison meat from the community herd and other livestock. “I worked with my team in the Lands & Resources department to get the funding for this project. Our team lead Kole Norman was instrumental in setting up the butcher shop. This facility will enhance the community’s access to healthy, local, and culturally appropriate food, as well as increase their knowledge and skills in meat processing and preservation,” says Cardinal. The project also aims to create more jobs and potential revenue for the market garden and strengthen the relationships among community members and with the land.

Cardinal also worked with the community to purchase a new potato seeder, freeze-dryers, greenhouse equipment, beehive colonies, honey extractors and specialized packaging equipment and supplies. “Our honey harvest was extremely successful. We produced twenty 55-gallon drums of honey,” he says. The honey, derived primarily from alfalfa, along with fruits, berries, wildflowers, clovers, and some canola, supports pollination efforts and the rejuvenation of local ecosystems, benefiting wildlife and the community alike. Over 18 tons of potato seeds were planted in the market garden last year. “The harvest was something we had never seen before. We pulled in 120 tons of potatoes, mountains and mountains out of the ground with manual harvesting efforts.”

At 33, Cardinal’s success has not come easily. Originally from Slave Lake, he was placed into foster care at a young age after his father passed away. His mother, also very young at the time, could not look after him. Fortunately for Cardinal, he was able to bond with two families that provided some needed stability, family life, cultural connection, and career skills. One foster family, which Cardinal remains close to, lives within the Flying Dust Reserve.

At the age of 18, Cardinal found work at the NorSask Forest Product Ltd. lumber mill in Meadow Lake. The mill had recently added a state-of-the-art finishing end that dealt with automated equipment for grading, sorting, and stacking. “I was very tech-savvy and good with computers as a kid and was able to troubleshoot the production line. Also having a mechanical background helped in my job,” he says. Cardinal earned enough hours and was able to complete his Apprenticeship Level 1 in the Industrial Mechanics program in 2016. “The training is something I use to this day. I can troubleshoot different machines, belts, bearings, hydraulics, and chain-driven systems,” he explains. The educational structure at Sask Polytech resonated with Cardinal. “It assesses your knowledge fairly and doesn’t limit your access to programs like other institutions.”

In the years that followed, Cardinal’s career and academic experiences continued to be diverse. At one employer, Cardinal noticed there were no healthy food options for workers, so he put in a food fridge catering service that served pre-packaged prepared meals and offered home delivery during COVID. To expand on skills he had previously developed on his own, Cardinal signed up for the Lighthouse Labs courses in data science offered through Sask Polytech’s School of Continuing Education. “I know how to make programs, apps, websites, scripts, and data dashboards. Anything you can think of with charts, graphs, and maps,” he adds. “This opened a huge door for me, and I helped start several clothing companies in the province. I assisted with building apps, setting up the e-commerce and online delivery side of the operations as well as drop shipments and creating clothing designs. I was a partner in an indigenous clothing brand,” Cardinal adds.

The Flying Dust First Nation recognized Cardinal’s remarkably diverse skill set and tapped him to become the community navigator. The market garden has now become a center of community well-being and skills development in the agricultural sector for the Flying Dust First Nation. “We hire University of Saskatchewan students to help with research and development of creating a brand of food products produced at the market garden, and we’re using drones and LIDAR mapping to provide 3D modeling of the land and forest management,“ says Cardinal. “The market garden is important for our community members, and to our school division, as a place to learn traditional practices of food sustainability, growth, and harvest, while also incorporating technology in our food systems.”

What’s next for the market garden? “We are in the process of setting up an office at Innovation Place near the U of S campus and hope to be soon creating innovative food products from honey, potatoes, vegetables, and bison” Cardinal concludes.