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Footnotes from the Field

Footnotes from the Field: Principle of Care

in 2018/Current Issue/Footnotes from the Field/Organic Community/Organic Standards/Winter 2018

A Culture of Caring For Our Children’s Children

Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA V.O. P.Ag

This past year offered me a renewed and greater depth of understanding for the foundations of organic agriculture that are steeped in a culture of caring and concern for how the long term ramifications of today’s actions will affect tomorrow’s world.

One of my field-person positions required that I obtain a pesticide applicator’s licence. As I worked through the educational material provided through the BC government training program, I was taken aback to read that certain pesticides have been identified that have the ability to kill the soil irreversibly. I do not comprehend how any substances in this category of lethality could even be considered for agricultural use.

Soil fertility is a primary concern for organic and regenerative agriculture. To quote Rodale, “healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy people”. This quote and concept makes a lot of sense to me. The healthier the soil, the more microbes and fungi systems available to actively deliver nutrients to the plants. More nutrients help plants develop strong immune systems and robust growth that ultimately translate into more phytonutrients created per plant. These well fed, healthy plants supply those proteins, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, and species unique phytonutrients to the human dinner plate.

The culture of caring for soil fertility over the long term in organic agriculture is in stark contrast to the concept that there would be legitimate reasons to knowingly kill the soil through conventional agriculture methods. This concept was shocking and foreign to me and made me immediately more deeply thankful for the organic culture of caring for the living earth.

The basic Canada Organic Standard requires a buffer zone that can offer growers an opportunity to build in biodiversity zones. The Demeter Canada inspection forms demonstrate an example of deeper long term caring. Here, reflection on caring for, and protecting ancient forest soils and their living biodiversity, is implied in questions:

3.9 No clearing of virgin forest or high value conservation areas.

3.10 Is 10% of the productive farm area a biodiversity reserve?

The biodynamic practice of protecting undisturbed forest soils for future generations is supported by current scientific evidence, which has found that the ectomycorrhizal fungi of the forest can absorb 30% more human created carbon dioxide under low nitrogen conditions than grassland and agricultural soils dominated by arbuscular fungi.

The roots of forest plants are closely associated with their ectomycorrhizal fungi that can deliver extra atmospheric carbon dioxide directly to the plant, causing a 30% increase in growth—this is termed the ‘fertilization effect’. In a recent study into the fertilization effect, the research team analysed 83 carbon dioxide fertilization experiments, which demonstrated that a plant’s ability to take advantage of extra CO2 depended on whether the roots were associated with ectomycorrhizal or arbuscular fungi. The forest-type ectomycorrhizal won hands down every time with an extra 30% plant growth. The arbuscular fungi in the agricultural/grassland was not able to take advantage of higher carbon dioxide levels at all. (Terrer, et al., 2016)

It was determined that the arbuscular fungi need higher levels of nitrogen in the soil compared to the forest ectomycorrhizal fungi, which are able to absorb soil nitrogen even under low nitrogen conditions. The ability to absorb soil nitrogen determines how much carbon dioxide can be absorbed to fertilize the plants into extra growth. During this time of climate change concern, forests and forest soils are a real and measurable ally for their ability to sequester and reduce the increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and therefore help stabilize global temperature.

A final thought on preserving ancient soils comes to mind and that is the power of humates and fulvic acid, both formed by ancient processes that can take thousands of years. The average residence time of humic substances in undisturbed soils based on radiocarbon dating is as follows: humin, 1140 years; humic acid, 1235 years; and fulvic acid, 870 years. Conventional agricultural practices have shortened the residence time of humic substances through excessive fertilizing and by using tillage methods that expose the sod to weathering.

In this age of CRISPR genome editors (DNA editors) being put in the public marketplace for anybody to tinker with gene splicing, the reported power of fulvic acid to repair RNA/DNA is also in the news. Crop farmers tout the capacity of fulvic acid to raise crop immunities and to even repair DNA after genetic modification. Fulvic acids are also available for human consumption and list immunity boosting powers and potential nerve tissue regeneration.

While much of the evidence for fulvic acid and humates is still in anecdotal evidence, the scientific body of supporting evidence is growing. Who knows what the future holds, it may very well be that the information and memory in the ancient soils will save us from manmade DNA disruptions.

The future is in our hands, and in the choices we make day to day. An organic culture of caring for our children’s children with careful soil fertility management techniques that protect the mysteries and unknown wealth of ancient soil biodiversity is an idea and community that gets my supporting vote!

Marjorie Harris is an organophyte, agrologist, consultant, and verification officer in BC. She offers organic nutrient consulting and verification services supporting natural systems. 


Terrer, C., Vicca, S., Hungate, B.A., Phillips, R.P., Prentice, I.C. (2016). Mycorrhizal association as a primary control of the CO2 fertilization effect. Science, 353(6294):72-4. doi: 10.1126/science.aaf4610.

Footnotes from the Field: Ecological Biomimicry

in Fall 2017/Footnotes from the Field

The Art and Science of Organic Agriculture

Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA V.O. P.Ag

The Principle of Health: Organic Agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible.

The Principle of Health, as stated by IFOAM, is the original premise that modern organic agriculture is based on. This Principle of Health was inspired by Lady Eve Balfour’s words from her 1943 publication The Living Soil. Here she writes, “the health of soil, plant, animal, and man is one and indivisible.” Lady Eve Balfour went on to become co-founder and first president of the Soil Association.

Preceding Lady Balfour’s work, in 1940, Sir Albert Howard wrote An Agricultural Testament. Sir Albert’s work was based on his keen observations while living and studying agricultural methods in India from 1905–1924. He was sent as an agricultural advisor on assignment by the British Crown. What Sir Albert discovered was that the Indian method of farming had much more to teach him then he had to teach them. He observed that all waste plant and animal matter was gathered for composting and then returned to the garden as a rich humus substance.

Preceding both Lady Balfour and Sir Howard, Rudolph Steiner gave a series of lectures in 1924 that became the foundation for the organic Biodynamic Agriculture movement. Early on in the 20th century many observers were noticing that chemical based agriculture was depleting the life of the soils and became increasingly concerned. In response to these growing concerns a group of farmers approached Rudolph Steiner as the founder of Anthroposophy for help and guidance. Steiner had established Anthroposophy as a formal educational, therapeutic, and creative system that sought to use mainly natural means to optimize health in all realms of well being.

Mark Gibeau and his compost tea process. Photo credit: Marjorie Harris

The inspiration and reason for the emergence of organic agriculture is the Principle of Health in that healthy soils grow healthy plants that support healthy people. So, how has this played out in the organic standards as we know them today? Are we achieving our goals for health from the ground up?

In Sir Albert’s later book, The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture, he says, “the first duty of the agriculturalist must always be to understand that he is a part of Nature and cannot escape from his environment. He must therefore obey Nature’s rules.”

Following the rules of nature leads us to another pioneering concept, “biomimetics,” first articulated in the 1950s by American biophysicist and polymath Otto Schmitt. Ecological Biomimicry is a method for creating solutions for perceived problems by emulating designs and ideas found in nature. This is the point where organic agriculture blurs the lines between art and science and we chase the gold at the end of the rainbow. Because agriculture is a man made artifice placed on natures’ landscape, we need to find natural examples for ecological biomimicry that bring in natural health balances into our farming practices.

How do we preserve or enhance the natural integrity of a forest or prairie soil while growing foods for human purposes? As an example, consider soil fertility management just from the basis of adding waste plant and animal matter and how the following organic standard is interpreted and implemented by the individual operator.

COR CAN/CGSB 32.310 General Principles and Management Standards Section

Soil amendments including liquid manure, slurries, compost tea, solid manure, raw manure, compost and other substances listed in Table 4.2 of CAN/CGSB-32.311, shall be applied to land in accordance with good nutrient management practices.

Mark Gibeau and his compost tea process. Photo credit: Marjorie Harris

A simple overview of employed organic methods:

  • Raw manure, solid manure, liquid manure, and slurries are simply incorporated into the soil according to the timing specified by the standard. Soil organisms are left the task of capturing the nutrients. This method is the least effective for retaining nutrients in the root zone of the intended crop or for developing a good humus body.
  • The Biodynamic approach employs techniques that call into play some esoteric health principles that go beyond the local environment to also consider the cosmic forces that affect the entire planet. A cosmic calendar is followed and the Biodynamic preparations foster fungi and other factors that improve compost production dramatically according to practitioners. Field sprays and teas vitalize the soils along with the compost applications. The resulting plant growth achieved has greater immunity and perhaps a greater concentration of phytonutrients. The soil fertility is measurably enhanced by these methods, the nutrients are stabilized for slow release to crops, and humus and organic matter are increased in the crop root zone.
  • The underlying concept for the Soil Food Web soil health method is based on the concept that Comprehensive Soil Analysis samples demonstrate that the majority of soils around the planet have all of the mineral nutrients a plant needs, it is just a matter of releasing those minerals to the plant in a bioavailable form. Compost teas are cultured in such a way that when applied to the soil the microorganisms released are capable of transforming the minerals into plant bioavailable forms. Composts are also applied. The outcomes are dependent on the qualities of the individual compost teas. The addition of composts measurably enhance the nutrients that are stabilized for slow release to crops, and humus and organic matter are increased in the crop root zone.
  • Standard composting according to time, temperature, and turning produces a product that when applied to the soil, measurably enhances fertility, the nutrients are stabilized for slow release to crops, and humus and organic matter are increased in the crop root zone.

The health principle emphasises that the healthy farming eco-systems is dependent and built on the foundation of healthy soils and cannot be separated from the soil health. The health of plants, animals, and people are interdependent on the health of the soil and plant and animal matter being returned to the soil fertility in a manner respecting Ecological Biomimicry. “How would Mother Nature do it?” Is a relevant question to ask when evaluating our farming and soil fertility practices. The more we can quantify our current practices and have the conversation on sharing the best ecological biomimicry practices across the board, the more we’ll be able to benefit every level of planet health.

Marjorie Harris is an agrologist, consultant, and verification officer in BC. She offers organic nutrient consulting and verification services supporting natural systems.

Footnotes from the Field: the Ladybugs of Snowy Mountain

in Footnotes from the Field/Pest Management/Summer 2017

An Ecological Partnership in Biological Control

Marjorie Harris, BSC, P.Ag.

A magical event takes place each spring in Walter Harvey’s orchard. As the sun warms and thaws the landscape into frost free days, the Ladybugs that spent the winter huddled together in the cracks and crevices of Snowy Mountain’s rocky faced peak emerge in the thousands, taking flight down into the blossom filled orchards below. Along with the Ladybugs, Bumble Bees and other wild bees leave the rocky shelter to join the spring blossom feasts.The ladybugs come in such large numbers to Walter’s orchard that so far this year out of 10,000 trees he has only found a handful of black cherry aphid clusters. When clusters are found Walter cuts them out and drenches them in barrels of water to stop further spread. The Ladybugs are very aggressive at eating the aphids during all life stages from egg to larva to adult—the final result is that very seldom over 25 years has Walter had aphid problems.

During winter hikes several hundred meters above the valley floor up to the rocky faced peak of Snowy Mountain, Walter has observed the Ladybugs crowded into crevices by the hundreds, “It’s a really remarkably beautiful sight,” Walter says, speaking in tones of wonder when considering the complexity of nature. Through biodynamic practices Walter is careful not to interrupt the beneficial organisms’ ecologically balanced systems at work in the orchard and makes efforts to support their natural life cycles.

Grasshoppers sometimes nip overripe fruit and live mostly on the ground in the grass. Physical control methods are frequent mowing, occasional rototilling, and cover crop rotation. However, Walter reports that the orchard hosts a huge population of Praying Mantis who do much of the grasshopper control. The Ground Mantis is the only species native to the Okanagan Valley while the European Mantis was introduced to in the 1890s specifically to control grasshoppers. Both species are present in the South Okanagan. Walter is careful to respect and not disturb the papery egg cases hardened to stems, twigs, trees, or posts, each of which contains hundreds of eggs.

Predacious wasps control leaf roller larva, coddling moth, and nematodes. The Mud Wasp domain is in the grasses and the Yellow Jacket Wasps control the tree canopies. Walter has installed 150 Wren houses around the orchard that are filled yearly. The Wrens are insectivores that provide additional control for leaf rollers and aphids throughout the season.

Nematodes are further controlled by disrupting the soil stage of their lifecycle. In the orchard drive row, Walter rotates cover crops of rye, clover, vetch, and oats to prevent catastrophic nematode populations from emerging. A large flock of free range ducks are run through the orchard after harvest is complete; they eat insect larva, eggs, and nematodes before the winter freeze.

Walter finds that most years his insect allies outnumber his insect pests and his experience echoes that of ancient farmers. Natural enemies were first recorded to be actively employed as biological controls in plant protection in China in 304 AD where large black predacious ants were gathered up and carried to citrus trees to control tree pests. The historical evidence is clear that biological controls have played an important role in plant protection since ancient times and the knowledge and use of these farming tools spread to Yemen and Egypt relatively quickly.

The main groupings of biological controls are: predators, parasitoids, and pathogens. Predatory insects eat pest insects; parasitic insects lay their eggs inside pests and the larvae develop within the host, killing it; and pathogens such as fungi or bacteria consume the pests.

How can these biological controls be encouraged to move into your garden?

First is food: many predatory insects dine on pollen when insect pests are in short supply. Keep a healthy supply of some of these favorite pollen rich producers growing in abundance: Angelica, Calendula, Caraway, Chives, Cilantro, Coreopsis, Cosmos, Dandelions, Dill, Fennel, Feverfew, Marigold, Scented Geraniums, Sweet Alyssum, Tansy, and Yarrow.

Second is water: provide water features throughout the garden containing fresh non-stagnant water.

Third is shelter: Vegetated buffers or clumps of natural flora and fauna that give thick cover provide good homes to beetles, birds, and amphibians.

Fourth is respect to lifecycle: know where the eggs for next year’s progeny will be and carefully sustain them. Protect beneficials from management disturbances, pesticides, and adverse environmental conditions as much as possible.

Table 1: Common Natural Enemies of Crop and Garden Pests of the Pacific Northwest

Marjorie Harris, BSC, P.Ag. IOIA V.O.; EcoAudit Ag-Grow Service; Email:

Photo credit: Marjorie Harris

Footnotes from the Field: Root Cellar Art

in Footnotes from the Field/Organic Community/Spring 2017

Editor’s note: We’re taking a detour from the usual Organic Standards focus of Footnotes to explore the inspiration that can strike while working in the field. A farmer’s life is more than physical labour and paperwork—spending so much time in the natural world opens a window into art for many, including Cathie Allen, who wrote about her art for this issue.

Cathie Allen

“Stored away in the root cellar of my mind” is how Cathie Allen begins to discuss the subjects of her watercolour paintings. Like all full-time organic market gardeners, Cathie’s summer life is consumed by cauliflower, chickens, meals for the crew, and everything else that makes up a farm. Yet, these seasonal images linger, and are “stored away” (and sometimes reinforced with photographs) until winter, when they come back to life with brush and paper.

For the most part self-taught, Cathie acknowledges the inspiration she received from her Mom, who at 90 still paints; she was also strongly influenced by Karen Muntean, who provided instruction at the Island Mountain School of Arts in Wells, BC. Cathie’s work has been described as “fresh”, “keenly sensitive to detail”, with an “earthiness” that saturates it all.

Her recent works, the root series, are filled with good examples. “With these paintings, I wanted to expose some of the beautiful vegetables which mostly grow underground, often unnoticed. Especially nowadays with the huge disconnect between people and their food sources, much more than flavour and nutrition stand to be lost.” Her root series consists of 10 original watercolour paintings, featuring beets, summer turnips, leeks, potatoes, shallots, radishes, garlic, parsnips, carrots, and onions.

The painting with the horses, the one she calls “family portrait”, depicts the four black percheron horses working abreast, pulling a disc. It was these four horses who broke the five-acre market garden, half an acre a year. “Sadly, these four horses are now all buried here, but we have a replacement team to carry on with the farm work and provide me with future inspiration”, adds Cathie.

Cathie’s work has been displayed in Cariboo and Central Interior galleries, as well as being selected for display by the BC Festival of the Arts. She also painted the cover and chapter illustrations for a children’s historical novel, Moses, Me, and Murder.

Cathie Allen has been a life-long painter. She lives and farms with her partner Rob Borsato at Mackin Creek, on the west side of the Fraser River, about 45 kms north of Williams Lake, BC. They have operated Mackin Creek Farm, a five acre, horse-powered market garden, since 1988.

Footnotes from the Field: Organic Nutrient Management

in Crop Production/Footnotes from the Field/Tools & Techniques/Winter 2017

Marjorie Harris, BSc, IOIA VO, P.Ag.

New Techniques for Organic Nutrient Management

As the International Year of Pulses draws to a close it is nice to give a tip of the hat to pulses, the peas and beans, and to their leguminous cousins, alfalfa and the clovers. Research has demonstrated that legumes in symbiotic relationship with Rhizobacteriums biofertilize the cropping system by fixing prodigious amounts of nitrogen from the air. Able to deliver hundreds of pounds of nitrogen per acre, legumes are an extremely valuable green manure crop to include in crop rotations.

2016 marked the 25th anniversary for Canada’s oldest organic vs conventional comparative study conducted by the University of Manitoba at the Glenlea Research Station. The organic cropping research primarily focuses on long term crop rotations for grains and green manures.

This year Martin Entz, lead researcher, in conjunction with Joanne Thiessen Martens, and Katherine Stanley, rolled out a two year consultant training program for their new Organic Nutrient Management (ONM) system. Currently only 10 consultants from across Western Canada are enrolled in the hands-on training working directly with farmers to implement the ONM system.

The ONM program is designed to track the soluble and plant available nutrients Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P), Potassium (K), and Sulphur (S) as they move on and off the farm as imports and exports through an 8 year crop rotation plan. The ONM also includes livestock production within the system.

New nutrient monitoring techniques are employed that rely on leguminous plant tissue bioassays to understand how plant tissue nutrient concentrations relate to soil fertility conditions. Interpreting this kind of data is still quite new, although research has proven that this type of data can lend useful insight for long term soil fertility nutrient management strategies.

There are two parts to the data development. Part 1 determines the nitrogen xation and nutrient concentration rates of N, P, K, S for the legume green manure cover crops on a per acre basis. Part 2 creates a net summary balance of N, P, K, S for imports and exports over an 8 year crop rotation on a per acre and per whole field basis.


Part 1: Determine level of nitrogen biofertilization in pounds per acre and green manure nutrient uptake.

Step 1: Dig up legume roots to check for nodular growth and nodular activity. It is important to inoculate the legumes with the appropriate symbiotic Rhozobacterium for optimum nodular development. The root colonizing Rhizobacterium form large ball-like nodules on the roots of peas and beans, and smaller at, hand shaped nodules on clover and alfalfa roots. When the nodules are actively fixing nitrogen the inner flesh of the nodule will turn a reddish color when broken open and exposed to the oxygen in air. If the inner flesh of the nodule is brown, green or clear the nodule is not actively fixing nitrogen.

Step 2: Cut biomass samples of legumes from a predetermined number of quadrants per field. Sort the legumes from the cut vegetation to record the percentage of legume vs weeds and other plants, then send the total biomass for plant tissue nutrient analysis.

Step 3: From the same plant sampled field take soil samples at 6 and 24 inch depths and send for nutrient analysis. Phosphorous and Potassium are relatively stable in the top six inches of soil whereas Nitrogen and Sulphur are more mobile and tend to leach down through the soil profile, the 24 inch depth sample will capture this movement.

Step 4: Enter the plant tissue and soil fertility results into the specified Excel spreadsheet to calculate nitro- gen biofertilzation per acre. The plant tissue results will also demonstrate if the legumes have sufficient P, K, & S for optimum growth. Long term research has shown that many legumes only need a soil test P at 5 – 9 ppm, to produce optimum nitrogen. However, a soil test rating of 5 – 9ppm P will be reported as Low as a standard soil test interpretation. Martin Entz’s research demonstrates that 5 – 9ppm P is sufficient for good legume growth. Most other crops will require supplementary nutrients for optimum growth.

The three main supplementary forms of phosphorus are: livestock manures, rock phosphate, and animal feeds. Rock phosphate has been shown to be a very slow releaser of plant available phosphorous. The ONM general recommendation for supplying a plant bioavailable form of P is a periodic light application of livestock manure, whether composted or spread raw followed by a green manure cover crop to catch the nutrients up into the plant tissue for slower release of plant available P.

Nitrogen Fixing Nodules

Part 2: Determining the net summary balance import and export of nutrients N, P, K, S, through an 8 year crop rotation per acre and per whole field.

Step 1: Send samples of exported farm biomass, seed, plant, and livestock manure for nutrient testing. Enter results into the ONM Excel spreadsheet. The import, export, and nitrogen fixation biofertilization date is entered and automatically calculated per field per year and then summarized over the 8 year crop rotations on a Whole Field (total acreage) and Per Acre basis.

Examples of 8 year rotation: Table 1.1 is the standard crop rotation the farmer has traditionally employed. The farmer noticed that his yields were falling and that weeds were starting to encroach the crop.

Table 1.1 – Traditional Crop Rotation Plan


Table 1.2 – Modified Crop Rotation Plan


This new approach to Organic Nutrient Management over long term crop rotations employs biomass nutrient uptake monitoring and soil testing. The laboratory data generated is entered put into the ONM Excel spreadsheet for net import and export nutrient calculations. The summary results allow the operator to visualize the long term results of various combinations of crop rotations and nutrient supplementations.

Regular green manure crop rotations provide nitrogen biofertilization and assists in the building and maintenance of soil fertility. Higher seeding rates of legume and cover crop can help suppress weed pressures. Plowing down green manure cover crops, straw, and plant waste helps to increase organic matter in the soil. Overall higher soil fertility will increase crop yields and promote healthier disease resistance plants due to sufficient plant available nutrients for optimum growth conditions.

The Glenlea long term research project has proven that organic rotational cropping systems that rely on perennial forage legumes are 222% more energy ef cient than conventional farming techniques. The energy efficiency in the organic management system was attributed to the vast reduction in the use of fossil fuels and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions associated with burning them.

This is a very brief overview of the University of Manitoba’s new Organic Nutrient Management system. For more in-depth information about implementation and to develop long term nutrient management strategies using green manures and nutrient supplements contact Marjorie Harris, Organic Nutrient Management consultant, at



Footnotes from the Field: Biochar

in 2016/Fall 2016/Footnotes from the Field/Grow Organic/Standards Updates/Tools & Techniques
Making Biochar

Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA VO, P.Ag. with many thanks to Zbigniew Wierzbicki of Elderberry Lane Farm for sharing his knowledge and experience

Turning Wood into Long Term Soil Fertility

Hooray! Biochar has arrived in the new PSL Nov. 25th 2015 edition!

Biochar is considered an excellent way to increase long term soil fertility. As an early pioneer in the farm production and use of biochar, Zbigniew Wierzbicki of Elderberry Lane Farm has always been eager to share the dos and don’ts of his biochar experience. Zbigniew is a strong advocate for the appropriate on-farm use of biochar and its correct production techniques.

The first question is; what is ‘Biochar’?

It seems to have appeared out of nowhere onto the COR PSL. The term Bio-char (biomass derived black carbon) was only coined in 2006 by Dr. Johannes Lehmann at Cornell University’s Crop and Soil Sciences department. Interest in biochar stems from the relatively obscure history and puzzling existence of the Terra Preta (literally ‘black soil’) or ‘dark earths’ scattered throughout the Amazon Basin which have caused much recent scholarly discussion, research and theorizing.

The current consensus is that Pre-Colombian peoples between 2500 to 500 B.P. created the Terra Preta by adding burnt agricultural wastes and pottery kiln ashes to their gardening soils. The Terra Preta soils were first reported in 1542, by the Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana, to the Spanish court about his discovery of fertile lands supporting a large civilization living in the Amazon rain forest. However, by the time further expeditions arrived, the indigenous Amazonian populations had succumbed to European diseases and the existence of their civilization along with the fertile soils drifted into myth and legend.

In 1885, Cornell University professor, Dr. Charles Hartt described the Amazonian ‘dark earths’. Finally in the
20th century research and interest in the Terra Preta took off after Dutch soil scientist Wim Sombroek reported pockets of rich soils in his 1966 book, Amazon Soils.

Amazingly, these soils created more than a thousand years ago still demonstrate sustainably fertility that support astounding growth potentials compared to their neighbouring poor quality soils. They are rich in mineral nutrients and contain high concentrations of organic matter, on average three times higher than in the surrounding

The Pyrolytic Process

The pyrolytic process involves heating the biomass materials in the absence of oxygen. This causes a chemical reaction process whereby carbon transforms into highly interlinked aromatic chains forming a very porous and absorbent product. Pyrolytic heating causes 75% loss of the original biomass while retaining 50% of the plant carbon. The highest temperature reached during pyrolysis influences the molecular structure and the nal pore size and pore distribution, factors that govern its absorptive behaviour in the environment.

The resulting biochar is highly stable and resistant against microbial decay for thousands of years. Biochar increases overall surface area in the soil that can provide niches for increased microbial populations, which aid in reducing plant diseases, such as damping off, by mechanisms that are still unclear. Studies have demonstrated that biochar treated soils mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by reducing nitrous oxide release by up to 90% and by sequestering carbon compound residence time for thousands of years. Biochar also holds nitrogen, phosphorus, and many other minerals for slow release, while increasing the cation exchange capacity (CEC) and water retention ability of the soil.

Making Biochar

Activating the Biochar

As Zbigniew notes, the fresh biochar must first be “activated” by absorbing nutrients. Scattering a light layer of biochar on the barn oor will let the biochar absorb the nutrients from the straw-manure litter while keeping the barn oor sweet and protecting livestock feet from diseases. Biochar can also be charged by soaking it for two to four weeks in any liquid nutrient (urine, plant tea, etc.). If the biochar is not properly activated before being applied to the soil it will absorb the available soil nutrients to fill its absorptive capacity, depleting the soil. Once properly activated by adsorbing the ammonia (NH3) from barn urine and manure, biochar becomes an excellent slow release fertilizer full of bioavailable nitrogen compounds lodged in the carbon pores waiting for release by microbial action. There is evidence that biochar is beneficial to arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi that develop symbiotic relationship with plant roots for greater nutrient uptake.

How to Make Your Own Biochar

1. How to stack wood: Zbigniew emphasizes that biochar burning must be a top down process. The wood stacking method is opposite from what is learned in Boy Scouts, where small kindling is placed on the bottom, Zbigniew explains. When making biochar you place the large wood pieces on the bottom in a pit or trench and pile the small wood on the top, causing the pile to burn downward. Using this stacking method causes the volatile gases that form as the biomass heats up to be consumed by the high temperatures at the top of the pile instead of being released into the air, as is the case in a normally constructed fire.

2. Dig a trench or pit: and bury all of the roots, slash, and large logs. Compact the pile, and put lighter material on top. The intensity of the fire is so incredible that there is no smoke, it creates a very clean burn, and a large amount of biochar is produced. Cover the red hot coals with dirt or if you have a burning pit, cover it to finish the process in a reduced oxygen environment. This prevents the formation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in the kiln. Regular burning creates lots of PAH’s, which contaminate the soil and air.

3. Drenching is optional: Zbigniew drenches his biochar at the very end. The caution here is that the liquid from the biochar is very alkaline and the area the liquid goes cannot be used for gardening. Zbigniew has a permanent ditch for catching the liquid.

4. Activating the biochar: After the material is cold, crush into a fine gravel size for use on the bottom of the barn to catch urine and other nutrient goodies. Poultry barns and large livestock barns can all use biochar on the oor. Biochar is like a magnet absorbing minerals. As it absorbs minerals and urine from the animal waste it becomes activated.

5. Neutralizing the biochar: Remove from the barns when saturated and put into the compost with other crop and farm waste. The composting process helps neutralize it before spreading into the garden soil. The microbes of the garden soils will release the minerals from the biochar as they are needed. Because of this microbial release action the biochar will release mineral nutrients for a very long time.

6. Cautionary note: Zbigniew emphasizes that because biochar is so alkaline and so very long acting, it is very important to test your soils pH first. Although composting does move the biochar pH toward neutral you need to check your soil pH to manage it properly for long term changes.

All photos: Marjorie Harris

Clough, T.J., Condron, L.M., Kamman, C., Müller, C. (2013). A Review of Biochar and Soil Nitrogen Dynamics. Agronomy, 3, 275-293; doi:10.3390/agronomy3020275.
Lehmann, J. (2012). Integrated biochar systems for soil fertility management. Cornell University, Mar 26.

The Two Faces of the Vegetated Buffer

in Footnotes from the Field/Land Stewardship/Organic Standards/Spring 2016/Tools & Techniques

By Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA VO, P.Ag.

CAN/CGSB 32.310-2015
5.2.1 Measures shall be taken to minimize the phsyical movement of prohibited substances onto organic land and crops from:
a) adjacent areas
If unintended contact with prohibited substances is possible, distinct buffer zones or other features suf cient to prevent contamination are required:
Clause 5.2 Environmental Factors
Clause 5.2.2
Buffer zones shall be at least 8 m (26 ft 3 in) wide;
Permanent hedgerows or windbreaks, articial windbreaks, permanent roads or other physical barriers may be used instead of buffer zones;


Recent studies by the BC Ministry of Agriculture show that pesticide air blaster applicators create a pesticide residue burden of 10% concentration in the spray drift 30 feet from the application site! A vegetated buffer can be a multi-functional operational bonus for the organic enterprise, in addition to meeting the COR standard requirements for preventing unintended contamination by prohibited substances via air flows.The primary function of the vegetated buffer is to stop dust particulates and spray drift. Seven key features are considered in the design plan: height, density, orientation, length, width, continuity/uniformity, and cross-sectional shape. As such, trees and shrubs are layered to either trap and capture air flow by dense foliage porosity or to modify air flow into a chimney to cause dispersion and dilution.

The outer vegetated buffer face can work to shield and reduce pollution from incoming spray drift, dust, and odours, while the inner vegetated buffer face can provide habitat for sacrificial crops and beneficial organisms. Windbreaks, shelterbelts, and vine covered trellis/fencing can all be designed as effective vegetative buffers to address environmental interface pollution issues.

Conifer trees, especially the wild-type Excelsa Cedar, have been found to have the best type of density for providing air flow porosity, and year round protection from interface pollution of all kinds. In dry areas like the Southern Okanagan these moisture dependent hedges will require some drip irrigation and that cost needs to be balanced with the overall value to the organic operation.

The inner facing surface of the vegetated buffer can be companion planted with flowering plants and shrubs to increase overall biodiversity, and to provide food sources and habitats for beneficial, birds, insects, amphibians and native pollinators. A healthy population of beneficial organisms can go a long way to increasing crop yields and controlling garden pests.

A flower packed habitat will attract nectar-feeding insects such as bumbles bees, butterflies and hoverflies, which lay their eggs where there is an abundant supply of aphids for their larvae to feed on. Studies have demonstrated that alfalfa, mustard, yarrow, coriander, cosmos, French marigold, and nasturtium all attract an increase in a wide variety of predatory ladybugs.

Also, consider planting native flowers, plants, and herbs to boost the habitat biodiversity for native pollinators. Often, hybrid plants with large, showy flowers have little or no pollen.

One of the best plants for attracting native pollinators is hyssop. Hyssop’s strong aerosol aroma also helps to protect brassicas by masking their scent from white cabbage butterflies. Members of the mint family are favorites of Tachinid flies, hoverflies, and parasitic wasps; try planting mint, lemon balm, catnip, and pennyroyal.

Todd Carnahan, author of Gardening with Native Plants, recommends the drought tolerant ocean spray brush, nodding onions, and kinnikinnick, which doubles as a great ground cover and produces red berries in the fall.

The vegetated buffer will provide nesting areas for solitary bees and many other beneficial organisms. Remember to construct some rocky areas, puddles and muddy patches too catch fresh water to meet their daily water needs.

Buffer Benefits:

  • Enhances crop yields
  • Provides habitat for biodiverse beneficials (birds, insects, amphibians)
  • Reduces wind erosion
  • Shelters livestock, crops and structures 
(homes outbuildings, roads)
  • Captures water runoff, nutrients, increase moisture resilience
  • Filters and reduces spray drift, dust and help control odors
  • Provides wildlife travel corridors and habitat
  • Increases moisture capture
  • Reduces light and noise pollution

The good news for those who would like to explore the value in establishing vegetated buffers is that funding is available through the Environmental Farm Plan Program to offset some of the major costs associated with risk assessment, design, and planting, making the application process all the more worthwhile.

The Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) Program BMP funding is managed through ARDCORP as follows:

Whole farm initial risk assessment is free and completed with the help of an EFP Planning Advisor. The vegetative buffer design and plan is required to implement a vegetative buffer and is covered up to $2000. This can be completed by an EFP Planning Advisor or qualified professional.

Once the plan is approved, under the EFP BMP program, producers can apply for a cost share incentive of 60% up to $15,000 for installing a vegetative buffer. A guidebook entitled Vegetative Buffers for Intensive Agricultural Operations in British Columbia will be published later in 2016.

For further information about the funding program and the soon to be released guidebook please contact: David Trotter, M.Sc., P.Ag. | Agroforestry | Sector Development Branch, BC Ministry of Agriculture | p: 604-556-3148| cell: 778-549-6641 | david.trotter@

“Create a Bee Friendly Garden”. David Suzuki Foundation.
Todd Carnahan, Gardening with Native Plants. Diagram Credit Ministry of Agriculture.
[] Accessed 18-03-2016
Boisclair, J., Lefrançois, E.. Leblanc, M., Stewart, K., Cloutier, D., et al. (2012). Preliminary observations on the potential of owering strips to attract bene cial insects. Canadian Organic Science Conference.
Todd Carnahan, Gardening with Native Plants.

Species at Risk

in Footnotes from the Field/Winter 2016

Marjorie Harris

Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands and Critical Habitat Protection

Good News! Environment Canada has rolled out a new initiative aimed at protecting critical habitat for endangered species on commercially farmed agricultural lands. This is great for those species that took eons to adaptively evolve for just those particular critical habitats that are being threatened. The Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands (or SARPAL, since that’s a bit of a mouthful) initiative may also help to support organic farmers who are conscientiously implementing the Environmental Guidelines in British Columbia Certified Organic Production Operation Policies and Management Standards Section 7, Book 2 Version 10: Environmental Protection Guidance:

Organic operators should adhere to the strictest possible management program in order to protect and enhance soil and water quality in the environment. Organic farmers, and others in the trade, have a commitment to environmental protection.

This is a basic principle of the organic movement and must be respected before all other considerations.

The theory of evolution developed by the 19th century English naturalist Charles Darwin was based on the premise of natural selection. Organisms are naturally selected for survival, competition, and reproduction by acquiring small, inherited adaptations over many gen- erations spanning millenia.

In today’s world, organisms are faced with a succession of environmental challenges from habitat loss to fatal and mutagenic toxins as they grow and develop.

With the rapid pace of current imposed environmental challenges, the adaptive plasticity of most organisms becomes overwhelmed and they are placed on a path to extinction. SARPAL may help to restore breeding habitat by assisting with costs associated with developing and implementing species at risk protection on agricultural lands.

The new initiative to protect critical habitat is funded by the federal government through the National Conservation Plan under the SARPAL umbrella program. The species being targeted have to be listed on the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). SARPAL will include two phases:

  • A 5 year pilot/‘proof-of-concept’
  • An on-going implementation phase

The on-going implementation phase will focus on achieving protection of the species at risk on agricultural lands in ways that will ideally benefit both species and producers.

Currently, demonstration projects have been set out with the assistance of the BC Cattleman’s Association. The demonstration projects are focusing on two ranch land habitat species: the Yellow-breasted Chat and Lewis’s Woodpecker. The recovery strategy includes identifying critical habitat geographically and assessing the environmental features such as plants, water, and needs of the species to live and reproduce.

Funding is available to pay for the infrastructure to establish Best Management Practices (BMP) that protect the endangered species’ critical habitat and a Stewardship Agreement may be entered into that benefits the landowner and the species at risk.

The Yellow-breasted Chat
Scientific Name: Icteria virens auricollis

Only 40 breeding pairs are currently known of in the Okanagan/Similkameen region. The Yellow-breasted Chat prefers woodland riparian zones composed of dense tickets of wild rose and ooded oxbows.

Recovery Plan Best Management Practices:

  • Protect nesting area by improving fencing and adding cross fencing to exclude livestock from accessing the riparian zone
  • On-going maintenance for fencing
  • Restore some water ow to marsh lands and re-flood oxbows
  • Control invasive plants
  • Install alternative watering facilities for livestock (troughs)
  • Develop public education material.
  • Reduce livestock grazing in riparian zones known to have Yellow-breasted Chat

If you are interested in this program or want more information on SARPAL, contact Danielle Prevost, Environment Canada:

Marjorie Harris, BSc, IOIA V.O., P. Ag. Email: mar-

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – attributed to Hippocrates

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