Category archive

2016

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
soils.

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.

marjorieharris@telus.net

All photos: Marjorie Harris

References:
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.

Ask An Expert: Transitioning to Organic

in 2016/Ask an Expert/Fall 2016/Organic Standards
Kale with Water droplet

Rochelle Eisen, B.Sc.(Agr), P.Ag

We asked farmers transitioning to organic for burning questions they’ve been dying to ask. From paperwork to fence posts, standards junkie Rochelle Eisen has the answers they — and you — have been seeking!

Q: How much detail does my record keeping require for the inspector (crop seeding, planting, rotations, dates, etc…)?
A: The more detail the better as the inspector will try to establish if you had enough seed/transplants for the amount of the crop produced. Also, rotation plans, green manure seeding dates, and input use records are necessary to establish if good organic ag practices are in place. Sales records, crop seeding dates, and harvest dates are helpful with yield estimations, especially if plantings are staggered. Such detailed records help you to become a better farmer, as you have the necessary details at your ngertips to help you plan and identify your successes.

Q: If I need advice with paperwork can I ask my inspector?
A: Verification officers (VOs) cannot assist with paperwork except to explain the requirement/standard, as it would be considered consulting and giving you an advantage over other operators. Some certifiers offer workshops and others have someone who can answer your questions. Otherwise, provincial specialists are sometimes helpful. In the end it might be best to hire a consultant. Certifiers sometimes keep list of available consultants.

Q: Do I have to use all certified organic seed (and what if there is no organic option)?
A: Yes, organic seed is required. When you can’t find the variety you are looking for in the quantity and quality you need, you can use non-organic untreated seed. BUT (there always has to be a but, n’est ce pas?) you can’t play that card year in, year out for the same variety. Most certifiers will expect to you to explain what your plan is to help develop an organic source over the coming years, and this question will be asked annually. And just to round out this answer… as the most logical next question is “what does a commercial availability seed search look like?’ The answer is, most certifiers expect growers to contact three credible organic sources to establish the lack of supply. Such searches are to be repeated annually.

Q: Can I use saved seed, such as the garlic I saved from last year’s harvest?
A: Assuming the operation is organic or even in transition, the answer is an emphatic yes, as the seed was raised organically. This has to be tempered by the question: is it wise? It all depends on if you have clean and true to type seed. For example, garlic is one of those crops prone to seed borne diseases such as white rot. Saving your own seed if there is any level of infection may be your own undoing.

And as mentioned, transitional seed is acceptable too, as it was raised organically—it just comes from land that hasn’t met the 36 months from last prohibit substance requirement and can’t be sold as organic. See SIC Q113 for further insight:

“Does the requirement to use organic seed, tubers etc. (5.3) preclude the use of seed grown on transitional landwithin the same operation? (113) Answer: Seed grown on transitional land is acceptable as it meets the require- ment of 5.3 and as it has not been grown using prohibited substances or techniques.”

Q: I have had much discussion with other farmers, certified organic and those considering certification alike, about use and re-use of treated posts. Is a treated post that is already on your farm allowed to stay on your farm only if it remains in place, or is it acceptable to move and reuse posts within the farm as we change or rebuild fencing?
A: Good news—existing inventories can be used anywhere within your farm (see subclause 5.2.3 b of CAN/ CGSB-32.310). Be sure your certifier is aware of this existing inventory so there are no surprises when the VO does their site visit, or when your certifier reviews your Organic Plan and the VO report.

Q: What’s the difference between green manure, manure and compost?
A: Manure is animal waste. Green manures are plough down cover crops grown purposefully to build soil health. Compost can be made from animal or plant material and any combination thereof. Refer to the ‘compost’ definition (3.15 in CAN/CGSB 32.310) and the ‘compost feedstocks’, ‘compost from off-farm sources’ and the ‘compost produced on the farm’ listings in PSL Table 4.2 for complete details. Manure management requirements are outlined in 5.5 of CAN/CGSB 32.310.

Q: What’s the amount of time required between com- post application and harvest?
A: From a standards perspective, compost can be applied any time of the year, but compost containing animal waste or other risky feedstock that may contain human pathogens has to be effectively composted first. Otherwise, the material must be applied to the land 90 days before harvest when the crop doesn’t touch the soil. That would be the case with tree and cane fruits. 120 days is required pre harvest for any crops that commonly touch the soil (potatoes, lettuce, strawberries, etc…). Think about it this way—120 days is required unless the crop is obviously off the ground.

Q: What is required for mulching materials?
A: Plant materials from organic sources must be used as mulch but if organic sources are not available, then crop materials, such as straw and hay, that haven’t been treated with any prohibited substances for at least 60 days pre-harvest can be used as mulching material.

Q: Can I get animals I already own certified? (i.e. dairy cows)
A: Dairy herds and individual herd animals can be transitioned, but it takes 12 months of organic management before the milk collected can qualify as organic. None of the animals transitioned can ever qualify as organic meat animals. To qualify as organic meat, animals must have been born by an organic dam or the transitioning dam must be under organic management by the onset of the third gestation period.

Q: What’s the most appropriate way to label my transitional organic products?
A: Transitioning farms or “farms in conversion to organic” selling all their products within BC may identify their products as “transitional” or “in conversion to organics” or other similar language on all marketing materials including websites signs and labels. But they cannot refer to their operation or transitional products as “organic”, “organically grown”, “organically raised”, or “organically produced”. For products being shipped out of province the only acceptable phrases are “in transition” or “ transitional” or “in conversion”. The word “organic” cannot be included in any of these claims.

Q: What type of signage may farms in transition use?
A: A farming operation in transition or conversion is not “organic” and must not mislead consumers with false organic claims. For example, a transitioning farm, certified by a COABC regional CB, may not call itself “Joe’s Organic farm” or use the word “organic” “organically grown”, “organically raised”, “organically produced” or similar words, including abbreviations of, symbols for and phonetic renderings of those words, in any signage. The British Columbia Certified Organic Program allows “in transition/conversion to organic” claims on signs, labels, and other marketing tools to be used by transitioning operations. However, for operations shipping out of the province, this phrasing is not acceptable to the Canadian Organic Regime. Transitioning operations may not use either the provincial or national organic logos. Check with your CB if they have a transitional logo you can use.

Q: How should I market transitional organic products?
A: Label your products as transitional or in conversion and be sure to tell your story/journey to your customers. Some of the distributors, especially those who specialize in organics, may also be interested in your product if it fills a gap. Don’t hesitate to approach.

For more Organic Standards FAQs, visit COABC’s Grow Organic Toolkit.


Rochelle Eisen is a standards junkie who has been working in organics for close to 30 years, as well as with other certification systems. Like Einstein, she believes “What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right” and that assurance programs are a means to level the ecological playing field.

 

Young Agrarians Land Matching

in 2016/Fall 2016/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship
Farmer in field at certified organic farm, black and white

Darcy Smith

The Shifting Paradigm of Land Access in Southern BC

At Blue Heron Organic Farm on Vancouver Island, Kris Chand and his wife Maria had been farming organically for several decades. The couple was starting to think about retiring; at the same time, they saw a rising demand for organic food. Happy with the size of their own farm business but wanting to provide opportunities to young farmers and establish a succession plan, they turned to a solution that increasing numbers of farmers and land owners are adopting (1) — they leased out an unused field after attending a Young Agrarians Land Linking Workshop.

Kris had always wanted the piece of land next to their farm that they’d originally bought as a buffer to be managed organically. “By leasing it, we could ensure that the land next door to us would be consistent with our philosophy. It is something that is important to us, that we as a society increase sustainable agriculture, particularly that which practices the organic way of doing things,” Kris says. “Young agrarians have one heck of a time getting access to land. We wanted to make it possible for somebody.”

Certified Organic Fields at Halt & Harrow Farm

He’s right – the number one struggle identified by new and young farmers in southern BC is the prohibitively high cost of land. Land and housing prices are some of the highest in Canada and areas with good access to markets, such as the Lower Mainland, far exceed what a new farmer can make off the land base. Many of the younger generation, just entering the job or housing market, can scarcely afford condos, much less an acreage that will support a thriving farm business.

Yet the desire to farm, to find a piece of land and put down roots and build a successful business, keeps growing. Leasing land gives new and young farmers the opportunity to get their farm businesses off the ground without the high cost of buying land or the necessity of moving away from friends, family, and markets to find cheaper land. The majority of farmers in BC are age 55 and up, and less than 5% are 35 and younger. (2) 66% of farmers plan to retire in the next 10 years, and almost half of retiring farmers don’t have a succession plan. (3) Leasing land provides an option for farmers like Kris, who want to ensure their land continues to be farmed into the future.

Leasing land is a real, viable solution — however, it comes with its own set of unique challenges. Namely, how do farmers and land owners find each other, and how do they establish a successful land match that is beneficial in the long run for both parties and the land?

Tractor in field at Salt & Harrow Farm

Enter the Young Agrarians Land Matching Program. The program, first of its kind in BC, is adapted from Quebec’s successful Banque de Terres (Land Bank), which has been matching farmers to land for several years (most recently finding homes for a farmer growing hops andanother who makes maple syrup). Young Agrarians has teamed up with the City of Surrey to roll out the Land Matching pilot in the Lower Mainland and develop an online U-Map registry for land seekers and land owners.

In this hands-on, personalized model, a Land Matcher screens farmers and potential land opportunities, ensuring that farmers are business ready and the land is suited for agriculture. Then, much like a dating service, the Land Matcher connects farmers and land owners who have similar visions and needs. If there’s a spark, the Land Matcher facilitates a “dating” process, where the farmer and land owner get to know each other and start to map out their land agreement. From there, the farmer and land owner draw up a legal arrangement with the Land Matcher’s help, which is then reviewed by a lawyer.

For program participants, much of the especially finicky legwork has already been established, including navigating the regulatory, zoning, and other farm specific issues surrounding leasing land. Farmers and land owners make use of resources such as guides and checklists to support them through the land matching process, as well as lease templates, saving valuable time trying to figure out if, for example, a leasing farmer will be able to live on the property, how much of an investment it will be to farm there, and whose responsibility it is to manage what components of the property. This helps reduce stumbling blocks for farmers and land owners who simply don’t have hours to spend researching the ins and outs of setting up a stable land agreement.

Certified Organic Vegetable CSA at Salt & Harrow

While the program is in its pilot year and providing services in the Lower Mainland, the ultimate goal is to provide an on-going matchmaking service across Southern BC – and successfully create land matches that lead to hundreds more acres of sustainably farmed land.

Kris would love to see that happen. He successfully found a young farmer to lease his land when he connected with Sara Dent, Young Agrarians Co-Founder and BC Coordinator, who put Kris in touch with Seann Dory. The new farm business, Salt & Harrow Farm, is now mid-way through its first season, selling a dazzling array of gourmet veggies through a CSA and at markets across Vancouver Island and Vancouver. To those in his situation, Kris says “I would encourage other farmers, especially in the organic sector, who are about to retire or have existing farmland that they can’t manage, to think in terms of the barriers that motivated young agrarians have – and try to make it possible for them to do it.”

Got Land?

Farmers: Looking for land? Ready to start a farm business?
Land Owners: Have land? Want someone to farm it?
We’re looking for you! Young Agrarians is piloting a Land Matching service for 2016-2017 in the Fraser Valley – Lower Mainland and is reaching out to farmers and land owners to find viable farmland opportunities and facilitate the connection and agreement process with business-ready farmers.

If you’re interested or would like more information, please contact Darcy Smith at land@youngagrarians.org


The Young Agrarians Land Matching Program is a collaboration with Quebec’s Banque de Terres (Land Bank) and a partnership with the City of Surrey. Funding is provided by Vancity and the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia. Young Agrarians is a partnership with FarmFolk CityFolk.

Darcy Smith is the Young Agrarians Land Matcher for the Lower Mainland. A farm enthusiast and backyard gardener, she wears many hats in the farming community – in addition to her work on land matching with Young Agrarians, she is COABC’s communications officer and editor of this publication.

All photos: Salt & Harrow Farm

References:
(1) Statistics Canada. Census of Agriculture. 2011. Figure 11: Land tenure as a proportion of total farm area, Canada, 1976 to 2011.
(2) Statistics Canada. Census of Agriculture. 2011. Table 004-0017 – Census of Agriculture, number of farm operators by sex, age and paid non-farm work, Canada and provinces, every 5 years, CANSIM.
(3) CFIB, Business Succession Planning Survey, Agri-busi- ness results, Mar. – May 2011, 602 survey responses.

Passing on the Farm

in 2016/Fall 2016/Organic Community
Claremont Ranch Organics transition planning

Bob McCoubrey

A Succession Planning Story

After more than 35 years of growing tree fruits and vegetables on our small farm in Lake Country, it was time to think about retirement. Our joints were telling us to ease up on the physical work and our son and daughter had moved on to other towns and careers.

The idea of selling the property was a bit scary, as we had become attached to the land and the houses. The main house was just a year or two shy of its 100th birthday, and the “guest house” was one my father had built for a previous owner when my parents first moved to the area to take up farming, back in the late 1940’s. Both houses had heritage value for us.

The land had supported our family well over our time on the farm. Sharon and I had transitioned the land to certified organic status beginning in 1989, and we didn’t want to see new owners abandoning what we had achieved by going back to conventional farming methods. We were reluctant to list the property with a realtor, taking a chance on the intentions that new owners might have.

We didn’t want to see new owners abandoning what we had achieved by going back to conventional farming methods”

Our Okanagan location meant we could benefit from the overheated real estate market. Land prices were high. However, that meant many of the people who might share our values and plans for the land might not be able to afford the in ated prices. After a lifetime of living here, close to family and friends, we wanted to stay in the area, which would mean buying in that same overheated real estate market, leaving us unwilling to sell for a discounted price to encourage like-minded buyers.

As we struggled with what to do, we were fortunate to meet Molly Bannerman and Matt Thurston. Recent graduates in agriculture from the University of Guelph, and fresh from a year of WWOOFing and touring in the United Kingdom, they were about to get married and were thinking of settling down on an organic farm. It seemed like a perfect match. They both found good jobs related to farming, and we began a three to four year “dance” to see if we could put a deal together.

There was a period when they leased the farm and lived in the small house, followed by a few years with us running the farm again, while they moved in to town, only to come back to rent an acre to grow some vegetables. It became clear that we all wanted to make it work for Matt and Molly to acquire the farm.

The farm had all of the basic equipment needed to grow the crops we had been producing, and we had recently built a cold storage facility, which would make it easier for the Thurstons to grow, store, and sell their crops while continuing to work off farm. The biggest challenge was to find a way to finance the sale in a way that the cash flow could handle the debt servicing requirements.

The key turned out to be rethinking how we would invest for the future.”

A paradigm shift needed to happen in our minds about how to manage our needs and our assets. I had always thought we would sell the farm, buy a retirement property, invest the remainder of the proceeds, and live happily ever after. The key turned out to be rethinking how we would invest for the future.

Financial advisors told us to avoid high risk investments as we moved into retirement in an effort to keep our assets safe. That would mean lower but stable returns from nancial products such as term deposits. We wouldn’t be making a lot of money, but we could see that we would have all we needed to enjoy life.

As we looked for a solution, we recalled the help given to us by the seller, when we bought the farm back in 1973. After scraping together a down payment and borrowing the maximum available to us on a first mortgage from Farm Credit Canada, we still needed to find 20% of the purchase price. The seller took a second mortgage on the property, with payments of only the interest for a number of years to keep our cash flow requirements low while we got ourselves established.

The real estate market had changed in the 38 years since we started farming. Interest rates were much lower, but the principal amounts were significantly higher. The financing solution we needed would have to put even more importance on keeping the cash flow required to service the debt as low as possible. In the final agreement, we took 30% of the sale price in cash, financed through a first mortgage by the Thurstons. The remaining 70% was financed through a second mortgage that we hold, with payments of only the interest, at a rate slightly higher than what low risk investments would pay us, but lower than what a second mortgage would cost on the open market. After four years, half of the second mortgage was to be paid out, leaving 35% of the sale price in the second mortgage for the full 10-year term.

All we had to do was to decide to invest in the future of organic farming by trusting and investing in the next generation of organic farmers.”

Some would suggest that we were putting ourselves in a much higher risk position than we would experience by investing in penny stocks on the Vancouver Stock Market; however, we had come to know and trust the Thurstons, and thought the risk was acceptable. Our lawyer did his job well, pointing out all of the things that could go wrong, and suggesting contract wording that would protect everyone’s interests. But, being an organic farmer himself, he understood our desire to believe in our new partners in farming.

So in 2011, we moved our belongings to a quiet property where we enjoy a bit of gardening and watching the weather on the lake. The financing arrangement met all of our needs. We never looked back and have not regretted any of our decisions.

Five years into the agreement, the Thurstons are ahead of schedule with their payments, and the farm is thriving. The transitions — into retirement for us and into farming for Matt and Molly, have been smooth and painless. All we had to do was to decide to invest in the future of organic farming by trusting and investing in the next generation of organic farmers.


Bob McCoubrey is a retired organic orchardist in the Okanagan’s Lake Country. With his wife Sharon, he farmed eight acres for 38 years before turning his efforts to mentorship, writing, volunteering, and community building.

Farming on the Edge at WoodGrain Farm

in Fall 2016/Farmer Focus/Grow Organic/Organic Stories
WWOOFers at Woodgrain

Jonathan Knight

If you walk out the back door of the little blue farmhouse at WoodGrain Farm, past the acre of market gardens and the old log outbuildings and barns, and back through the forest high along the banks of the Skeena River, there is wilderness. This is real wilderness, where one could follow ancient footpaths of the Gitxsan people and century-old telegraph trails hundreds of kilometers into the heart of the Sacred Headwaters, from where the three great salmon rivers of northern BC, the Skeena, Stikine, and Nass, flow.

I’ve always been drawn to places on the edge, interested in the transition between where one place ends and the next begins, whether a seashore or a mountainside. This valley is very much where the last patchwork of rural habitation meets the wide open wilderness of the northwest.

I wasn’t always planning on being a farmer, but knew I would one day end up on a homestead in a wild place. Yet I was aware that once you choose to live deliberately on a piece of land, you don’t do much else, and I had other lives to live first. During time spent living and travelling around Europe and India in my early twenties, I explored my relationship with food, particularly drawn to old methods of craft food production, culminating in an apprenticeship in organic bread making.

Spring Garden at Woodgrain Farm
Spring Garden at Woodgrain. Credit: Jonathan Knight

I’ve always been drawn to places on the edge. This valley is where the last patchwork of rural habitation meets the wide open wilderness of the northwest.”

The apprenticeship was followed by a couple of years cycling and WWOOFing across Canada, after which I returned to BC and opened the popular True Grain Bread in Cowichan Bay. In the second year the bakery installed a stone mill, which shortened the links between the farmer and the baker, opening up a treasure trove of heirloom grains and the opportunity to work with local farmers to get grain growing on Vancouver Island. As passionate as I am about craft bread making, I still felt the strong pull backwards, towards the very basics—the grain, or seed, and the soil. In 2008 the bakery was transitioned to its present owners, and I set off with my then-partner on another bicycle odyssey of rural Canada.

If you trace the line on the map, Highway 16 heads northwest out of Prince George where it leaves the interior plateau and passes into the broad, pastoral Bulkley Valley. Past Smithers, the Bulkley flows into the Skeena, and the highway makes an abrupt left to follow the river’s course southwest to Terrace and the coast. At this confluence of the rivers, the northernmost point on the Yellowhead, lie the villages and settlements that comprise the Hazeltons. Instead of following the highway downstream, turning right to follow the Skeena due north for 20km will bring you to the Kispiox Valley, the most northern reach of the Agricultural Land Reserve west of the Rockies and, at one point, home to the second oldest Farmers’ Institute in BC.

When we first pedalled through these parts, we were struck by the mountains and open spaces of the Bulkley Valley, and by the vibrant youthful community around Smithers. We returned that fall with the intent of looking for land, and people kept telling us “you have to check out the Kispiox Valley” in a way that sounded almost mystical. In a practical sense, the Kispiox enjoys a temperate coastal influence from the Skeena, which makes it noticeably warmer than Smithers just an hour to the east, but with not nearly the precipitation of Terrace two hours to the west. It felt like the right balance for making the most of the shorter but more intense northern growing season.

Red Fife Wheat at Woodgrain Farm
Red Fife Wheat. Credit: Jonathan Knight

It also fit another important criteria. I didn’t want to end up living just somewhere along a highway, where there is the tendency to drive into town whenever you need something or are feeling social. The Kispiox Valley is definitely a place unto itself, with a strong character and community. Beyond the Gitxsan village at the Kispiox River’s confluence with the Skeena, the valley is home to about 200 folks of mostly rancher/logger or back-to-the-lander origin, with a thriving community hall and annual rodeo and music festival.

The valley was first farmsteaded about a hundred years ago, and this farm was one of the original staked. It had been sitting gracefully fallow for about 30 years when we found it, and began the work of slowly bringing it back to life. A fair number of valley folk today have roots on this farm, and the support we’ve had from our neighbours since the beginning has been immeasurable. Wilfred, an old-time neighbour who tilled our first garden space for us, remembers running and hiding under the bed when the valley’s first tractor was being unloaded on the farm. That rusty W4 is here still.

When I’m asked for advice by prospective new farmers, it is not to rush into too much, too soon. That first year, we helped get a fledgling Hazelton Farmers’ Market going, planted a modest market garden on freshly tilled old pasture (with no rototiller), bought the sweetest Jersey cow named Elsie, sheep for the pasture, pigs for the tillage, and a hundred laying hens. Never mind that the buildings were all in need of serious repair, the house was decrepit, there wasn’t an intact line of fence on the place, we had no haying equipment, and I was also committed to help get a small social enterprise bakery in town off the ground. Whether the decisions we made to jump in with both feet had much of a bearing on it or not, the outcome was that by the second year I was alone on the farm.

WoodGrain Farm at sunset
WoodGrain Farm. Credit: Jolene Swain

Well, not quite alone. There were always the WWOOFers. My experiences WWOOFing have been invaluable in a lot of what I have learned how to do (and not to do!), and I am privileged to be able to offer that in return. No matter how hectic things can feel at times, I try and always keep in mind that the experience this person is having here may just well be changing their lives. It had changed mine.

More permanent help soon arrived. Andi and Ryan came fresh off a SOIL apprenticeship and partnered for a season of market gardening, where we quickly out-produced the demand in Hazelton and started to regularly attend the Bulkley Valley Farmers’ Market down the road in Smithers. Next came Angelique and Lynden, first as WWOOFers and then for two seasons as market gardeners. They, with their new daughter born on the farm, are moving on this spring. But, as with Andi and Ryan and their new twins, to another place just around the corner. The valley’s population has grown by seven.

Jonathan and his hand built grain mill
Jonathan and his hand built grain mill. Credit: Marjorie Harris

Going into this seventh season of farming, the balance between farming as a business and homesteading as a life choice feels more settled. Growing systems are figured out, perennial weeds are getting worn down, fences are keeping animals put, buildings are staying up, the farm is established at the markets, and farm earnings are forecastable. It’s now easier to make deliberate choices, about where to focus and what to cut back on. Hay needs to be brought in for the winter, but otherwise the balance can be tipped from side to side. Grow more for the markets, or work on improving self-sufficiency on the farm. Farm to earn money, or farm to reduce the money needed to be earned. Feed and nurture your community, or feed and nurture your soul.

When I manage to stand back far enough to get a good vantage point of the farm as a whole, it is neither here nor there. Not what is was in the past, and not what it will become in the future. I have incredible admiration for the work that was done by the original homesteaders, clearing the land and building the hand-hewn log house with an axe, but I wouldn’t wish to be in their shoes for a moment. My respect is not diminished for the later generation who raised cattle here because they might have sprayed Tordon, those were different times. The thistles survived it nevertheless. Nowadays, the soils are healthy and being improved with each season. The fertility of the fields is passed through the animals to the market garden. Innovations like drip irrigation, electric fences and hay balers are the envy of those who have farmed here before us.

The farm provides our vegetables and fruit, grains and bread, dairy and cheese, meat and eggs, and our livelihoods. But others will come and go, and hopefully settle close by, and this place will continue to evolve with the people who live here. The farm will remain on the edge, of what it has been and what it might become.


Jonathan Knight organically farms WoodGrain Farm with his partner Jolene Swain.

*The photo of WoodGrain farm that appeared on the cover of the Fall 2016 BC Organic Grower was taken by Jolene Swain and attributed in error to Jonathan Knight.

The BC Seed Trials

in Crop Production/Fall 2016/Seeds
BC Seed Trials Field Day in Chilliwack

Shauna MacKinnon

Scaling Up Ecological Seed Production

British Columbia is home to a vegetable industry worth $2.8 billion annually, but nearly every seed planted to grow those veggies is produced outside of Canada. While local, organic vegetable production is on the upswing, seed production is lagging. That may not appear to be a problem when browsing through a thick seed catalogue, but behind the seeming abundance of seed available there is a narrowing of diversity and neglect of varieties that perform well under organic or non-industrial agricultural practices.

The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security was initiated four years ago with a mission to conserve and advance seed biodiversity, keep seed in the public domain, and promote ecological seed production. In BC, passionate seed growers have long been at work in support of these same ideals, but the lack of commercial-scale seed production still prevented most BC farmers from using BC seed in their market operations. To fill this gap, the Bauta Initiative, carried out by FarmFolk CityFolk in BC, is focusing on increasing the quality, quantity and diversity of ecologically grown BC seed.

Inspecting golden beets at UBC Farm
Inspecting golden beets at UBC Farm Photo: Chris Thoreau

We do not need to look far for inspiration. Just over the border, Washington State has a well-established and very profitable seed production industry. Like the coastal areas of BC, Washington’s cool valleys west of the Cascades are one of the best areas in the world to grow seed for cool weather crops like spinach, beets, and brassicas.

❥ Washington state’s Brassica vegetable seed crops gross from $1,500 to over $6,500 per acre (1)
❥ Washington growers earn over $5 million on beet seed crop alone (2)
❥ The vegetable seed industry is a significant contributor to the diversity and economic viability of Washington state’s agricultural community

Going from a small number of experienced seed growers producing seed for backyard gardeners to seed production for commercial growers is not a simple transition. The BC Seed Trials project is helping to facilitate that transition by harnessing the passion and experience of BC seed growers and rising interest in diversifying local agricultural production to lay the foundation for a BC seed industry.

Beets in bins ready for evaluation. Credit: Alex Lyon.
Beets in bins ready for evaluation. Credit: Alex Lyon.

BC Seed Trials

If your goal is to grow seed for the best performing and regionally adapted crops, it is crucial to know which existing varieties perform best under local conditions. The BC Seed Trials project is seeking to do just that by trialing numerous varieties of beets, spinach, and kale on farms throughout BC to better understand which varieties are best suited to BC seed production. The three-year project began in early 2016 through a collaboration between the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm, the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, and FarmFolk CityFolk.

The project includes variety trials, seed quality tests, and field training aimed at engaging farmers in seed development. The research is participatory, which means BC vegetable farmers will be directly involved in growing and evaluating the crops. Academics and farmers will be working together to help identify varieties that perform best in local conditions and are good candidates for local seed production.

The first year is off to a strong start with 14 farm participants primarily representing growing conditions in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island. BC Seed Trials Lead Researcher, Alexander Lyon, along with UBC Farm Seed Hub Coordinator, Mel Sylvestre, are overseeing the organic “mother” site at UBC Farm, where a full set of trial varieties (in triple replicates) will be grown, while Renee Prasad from the University of the Fraser Valley is coordinating growing efforts at Wisbey Farm in Chilliwack, the BC Seed Trials conventional “mother” site.

Mel & Alex evaluating beets at UBC Farm. Credits: Chris Thorea
Mel & Alex evaluating beets at UBC Farm. Credits: Chris Thoreau

The “baby” sites on participating farms are trialing a sub-set of beet, spinach, and kale varieties. Each participating farmer observes and records how well each variety grows (germination, vigour, presence of disease, pest damage) and the quality of the harvestable product (upright stature, uniformity, visual appeal). This information is collected and provided to the BC Seed Trials research team, which will analyze the data to determine the best performers.

At the end of three years, the BC Seed Trials will have helped to determine the best stock varieties for seed production in a number of crops that are well suited to our climate. But perhaps more importantly, a network of BC farmers will be well versed in the trial design and crop evaluation that is crucial for successful seed trials and plant breeding. These farmers will have practiced the first steps of choosing plants with the best genetics for improving varieties and growing superior seed as we work to scale up BC ecological seed production.

Golden beet evaluation. Credit: Alex Lyon.
Golden beet evaluation. Credit: Alex Lyon.

BC Eco Seed Co-op

A great complement to the BC Seed Trials in this endeavour is the BC Eco Seed Co-op. The BC Eco Seed Co-op was incorporated in 2014 in an effort to help BC seed growers scale up their seed production while marketing that seed on growers’ behalf.

The co-op allows growers to pool production and marketing resources while providing educational opportunities to growers to help them provide high-quality bulk seed to BC vegetable farmers. The BC Eco Seed Co-op represent a shift away from multiple individual seed companies selling packet seeds to backyard gardeners towards growers collectively growing bulk seed to sell to farmers.

Get Involved

If you are interested in being involved with the BC Seed Trials please get in touch as we will be expanding the number of farmers and regions involved next year. Even if you are not growing a seed trial crop you can still be a part of the research. Many of the BC Seed Trials farmers will be hosting field days this season to bring the experience and observations of the wider farming and chef communities into the research process. Join a field day and be a part of the discussion of what characteristics are most desirable for plant breeding in your area, how to select for these, and the importance of strengthening our local seed system.

Follow the research journey at the BC Seed Trials blog, on Facebook, Instagram, and Flickr.


The BC Seed Trials project is funded in part by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture through programs delivered by the Investment Agriculture Foundation of B.C. Additional funding is provided by the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm, the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, and Whole Foods Market.

Shauna MacKinnon has been working on food issues for over a decade, from running environmental campaigns to holding the position of BC outpost for the Canada Organic Trade Association. She recently joined the BC Seed Security Program, a collaboration between the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security and FarmFolk CityFolk.

Resources:

(1) http://mtvernon.wsu.edu/path_team/EM062E.pdf

(2) http://69.93.14.225/wscpr/LibraryDocs/BeetSeed2010. pdf

Organic Certification

in Fall 2016/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Organic Standards
Certified Organic farmers at Golden Ears Farm

Michelle Tsutsumi

“More than a piece of paper, organic certification comes with a remarkable community”

Community members who visit local farmers’ markets are increasingly asking food growers very pointed questions such as, “Are you organic?” We hear that at least once every market – and it’s so much simpler to be able to answer with a clear “yes!”

Once we decided to engage in the organic certification process, it was a full-on commitment from everyone at Golden Ears Farm to compile the necessary information. It was an enjoyable exercise in learning about the historical context of the land – what had been planted before, for how long, and in what capacity. It also felt like coming full circle, as the farm had been certified organic in the past and was returning to it two decades later. Going through the process has been informative and inspiring for us to better our animal husbandry, crop planning, and record keeping.

Certification doesn’t mean that we’ve made it and now we can coast. Being certified organic provides the public with a commitment to uphold the minimum standards, and doesn’t hold food growers back from going beyond that. We are always looking for ways to grow food more ethically, both for the people involved and the land that we are on. We want to take care of this land (and water!) and acknowledge all that it provides for us.

Certified Organic farmers at Golden Ears Farm

The most meaningful part of the organic certification process has been the supportive and knowledgeable community that we’ve joined. The depth and diversity of knowledge amongst organic growers and processors in BC is phenomenal. And the amazing thing is that the overall atmosphere is one of collaboration and cooperation. Our regional certifying body hosts regular meetings with information sessions and discussions, and the annual conference hosted by the COABC is both a networking haven and time to geek out about agro-ecology (a winning combination).

A comment we hear frequently is that the certification process is too expensive. The base fee that goes to our certifying body is reasonable when one considers that it covers the administration of files and an annual site visit. COABC’s sliding scale membership is also incredibly fair, being based on gross annual organic sales. Our certification fees are less than 5% of our organic income, whether you look at gross or net income.

Certified Organic farmers at Golden Ears Farm

When considering certification fees, it is also important to recognize the tireless efforts of this grassroots, non-profit organization in advocating for organics on a provincial level. The COABC has helped BC be at the forefront of organic standards in Canada and has been dedicated to educating the public about organics and non-GMO growing. Golden Ears Farm sees the fees as being a public commitment to, and investment in, the values and philosophy of organic agro-ecology: supporting sustainable health and productivity of the ecosystem, growing food in an environmentally regenerative and socially responsible way, feeding the soil and promoting biodiversity.

At the beginning of the process, three years felt like a long time to become fully certified, and yet, here we are – in year three – and it has flown by. Some of our fields were considered certified in the first year; however, having the three years to become completely certified has allowed us to really settle into organics and the community that surrounds it.

We are grateful for the learning we have enjoyed through this process (even the rough times, which is often when the best learning takes place) and love the good people and friends that we have come to know through organics. Without a doubt, the choice to certify organic was a solid and indefatigable one.


Michelle Tsutsumi is a part of Golden Ears Farm in Chase, BC, looking after the market garden, 15-week CSA Program, and events with her partner Tristan Cavers and daughter Avé.

All photos: Abbie Wilson

The Potential for Organics in the North Peace Region

in 2016/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Indigenous Food Systems/Organic Stories/Summer 2016
Leslie Jardine on her organic farm in the Peace Region

Sage Birley

Three years ago I returned to my family’s organic farm to help my father. I had just completed three years of schooling in Vancouver and as a young activist I was dealing with my first severe cycle of burnout. Oddly enough, it was that burnout that led me back to the farm. After learning about environmental destruction and the concerning state of the world while struggling to do anything that created any meaningful change, I began to see organic farming as one of the best examples of environmental sustainability and stewardship.

I have had the privilege of interviewing and learning from a variety of organic producers in the Peace Region. I’ve toured their farms and picked their brains learning more with every conversation. One of the most important questions I ask farmers is always “why organics?” A recent conversation with current President of the Peace River Organic Producers Association (PROPA) struck a particular chord. Jerry Kitt is a mixed operation organic farmer producing primarily meats near Goodfare, Alberta. He has been a member of PROPA since its second year in 1990, and he explained to me that, with a background in ecology and zoology, he had always believed in organics.

“Once you start going back and working with natural systems, things just flourish; I think that is what people are realizing,” he said. “You have to be connected to your soil, to the plants that grow on it, and the people that buy that product, what ever it is, because those people are in need of that connection, too. You just have to feel good about the food that you produce and you eat.” Over the years, Kitt has gained a wealth of knowledge and a sense of community from being a part of PROPA: “Knowing you are part of a bigger picture, seeing land that is being farmed in a sustainable manner while watching families continue to grow on the farm creates a really positive vibe.”

You have to be connected to your soil, to the plants, and the people that buy that product, because those people are in need of that connection too.”

Kitt has been selling organic meats at local farmers’ markets for around 24 years. He stressed that customers did far more than just support his business “I think of the people that used to come visit me 20 years ago and buy organic food. They carried their little kids up to my booth and I’d show them pictures of the farm and now 20 years later they are all adults and they are coming with their children. I feel really good about that. I’m helping that family grow, nourishing them the best I could and they come back beautiful people and continue to support what I do.”

He added, “Organic farming has made my whole life really worthwhile. If I was on my deathbed and I looked back at what I’ve done, I would feel good about what I did, all the families that I fed and that have grown up healthy and wiser. For me, organic farming was the wisest choice that I ever made in my life.”

Leslie Jardine on her organic farm in  the Peace Region

New Organic Farmers in the Peace Region

The recent downturn in the fossil fuels industry has been extremely difficult for many people throughout the BC and Alberta Peace. Meanwhile, food prices continue to rise and farmers continue to age out, threatening food security further. In considering the opportunity he saw for young people in organics Kitt stated, “I think that it offers long term security, it offers a sustainable source of income, and organic farming creates community. I think there are a lot of young families out there that live on farms who are looking towards organic production as a means to be able to generate an income, and feed good people. For them, their whole future is based on organics.”

Recently I have been working with a community of young market gardeners whose futures are tied to organic farming – but in the BC Peace Region that future is under threat. Leslee Jardine and Colin Meek are first year organic farmers working hard to demonstrate what the Peace River Valley is capable of. Jardine is operating a small one acre market garden while Meek grows organic sunflowers and hemp.
Jardine, age 24, has been gardening since she was three, and has been operating her own garden for the past four years. After selling extra produce to coworkers, she got the push from supportive community members to take the plunge into fulltime market gardening.

Jardine explained that she and Meek “were both in the oil and gas industry for a while and decided that we just didn’t like the way that was going and what our government was doing. Then the whole decision about Site C being approved pushed both of us to change.” Jardine went onto explain that Meek is a third generation organic farmer and had been planning on taking on the family farm but the Site C approval “made us want to go hard and show everybody what the Peace River Valley can do and what is at stake.”

With the construction of the Site C Dam looming in the distance many farmers including Jardine and Meek’s operation are currently under threat of being flooded.

Canoes along the Peace River in the fertile Peace River Valley

Saying “Yes” to Food Security

According to Wendy Holm, a professional agrologist who looked at the agricultural impacts of the Site C Dam, the Peace River Valley could feed one million people annually. Jardine, Meek and others are determined to demonstrate that. “I want the Peace Valley to be saved, preserved, and thanked I guess. I just don’t think people appreciate what you can get from this valley, and what is at stake. This valley is one in a million.”

Jardine is happy to be a part of a small community of growers banding together to demonstrate the alternative future that could be grown in the Northern BC Peace Region. “I don’t believe there will ever be a loss of jobs when it comes to farming. Food is one of the only things that people really need. You can survive without so many things but you can’t survive without food. We can only grow this market, just imagine if all the farmland in the Peace region was utilized to its full potential,” said Jardine.

The unique micro climate of the east to west valley, the rich alluvial soils, and abundant irrigation opportunities means that the Peace River Valley is capable of producing crops that cannot be easily produced elsewhere in North Eastern BC. Jardine along with other market gardeners in the river valley have successfully grown various melons, squash, and corn along with a wide variety of heritage vegetables that cannot be found in a typical grocery store. So far the community has been extremely supportive. Jardine is constantly bombarded with encouragement and questions about where to buy her vegetables and already began signing up her first customers for vegetable boxes last August.

I’m honored to be a part of a community of young growers that is fighting to preserve an incredible valley with their hands in the soil and their arguments on display on farmers market tables. “Farming is a way to create change and this summer is going to be an eye opener for so many people who just don’t know what we can grow in this valley. This valley is priceless and you just can’t replace what it can provide,” stressed Jardine.

Blossoms on organic farm in Peace Region

Jardine and others aren’t saying no to Site C. They are saying yes to a future where young people can make a living while turning the Peace River Valley into a leader of Northern food security. Jardine echoes a sentiment of many young growers when she said “before, we weren’t doing anything, we weren’t making any change, or having an impact, but I feel like with farming and young people getting into farming we are deciding that we aren’t sticking with the norm, we are helping people and we are feeding people by using what we have around us in nature.”

At one time the Peace River region was largely self sufficient and now I’m thrilled to see people taking the lead in demonstrating that it could be a reality again. As I write this in my cabin at my garden, seven kilometers down river from the Site C construction site I can hear equipment working in the valley. My thoughts go to Leslee Jardine and Colin Meek who currently have equipment doing test drilling for BC Hydro on their property, a few meters from their field and home. At times I feel hopeless, but then I think of them and other growers around the world and I am comforted to know that soon they will be waking up and getting to work doing their little part to grow a brighter future.

Learn More


Sage Birley is an agricultural journalist, 4th generation farmer, and 2nd year market gardener living on his family’s 101 year old, now certified organic, farm in North Eastern BC’s Peace River Region. As an activist and a community developer, he sees sustainable agriculture as the ultimate way to grow the change the world needs.

All photos: Sage Birley

Return of the Salmon

in Indigenous Food Systems/Living with Wildlife/Summer 2016
Pauline Terbasket, Executive Director of the Okanagan Nation Alliance releases Okanagan Sockeye Fry into Shingle Creek as part of a ceremony to restore salmon.

Pauline Terbasket

We have, like the salmon, remained resilient, persistent and determined to be leaders in this work by feeding our peoples and lands.”

In January 2016, I had the opportunity to present to the Young Agrarians 3rd Okanagan Winter Mixer conference. I presented on our Syilx Salmon Recovery efforts and shared our successes and yet constant challenges respecting Indigenous Peoples and food security.

There are so many angles from which this story can be told, so I briefly and humbly shared mine, both personally and as an executive director of a Tribal Organization. It is our Chiefs’ office that is the primary driver of all our work “for the Peoples, lands, and resources”, collectively. I also want to acknowledge and respect the presentation that preceded mine by Nicholas Peterson, a Nlaka’pamux farmer of Nicola Valley Produce and leader of his community regarding the work his family is undertaking to grow their own foods so they are able to have a sustainable livelihood and future in the Nicola Valley Region.

Scwin, Nsyilxcen for Okanagan Sockeye salmon, have been a primary food mainstay of the Syilx Peoples and central to our cultural and trading traditions between Indigenous Peoples throughout the Interior of British Columbia and Northwest United States. These salmon annually migrate up the mighty Columbia River to spawn in the Okanagan watershed, where they are a cornerstone species, feeding humans, bears, birds, among others. After spawning, they turn brick red, decompose and further fertilize the river and lands, contributing to the terroir of the region.

Fraught with negative consequences rooted in our shared history of colonization and the reeling impacts of being alienated from our lands and resources, Indigenous Peoples have overall suffered immensely – as have their foods. In addition to this common past shared by all Indigenous Peoples, by the early thirties International Water Agreements had been launched leading to the building and expanse of hydro-electric developments on the Columbia River over our territories.

Over the course of the 20th century these developments garnered for the Columbia the dubious designation as one of the most dammed river systems in the world. Along with a host of other environmental disruptions and damages, these dams made it impossible for fish passage, devastating the annual Sockeye salmon runs to near extinction, and as such deeply undermining regional Indigenous food sovereignty and food systems.

The recovery of our salmon story mostly has been framed as a “negotiation of salmon mitigation and re-introduction to the Okanagan sub-basin” which has entailed over the course of the last 20 years a process of initiatives undertaken by the leadership of the Syilx Peoples in partnership with governments and numerous other agencies including projects that involve: research, modeling, brood stock assessment, habitat restoration, and water and temperature ow monitoring of this system, etc.
No one spoke outright of it being about “Indigenous food sovereignty and food security.” However, the underlying cause for our people was the ability to access and protect our traditional food source. Because of our plight, First Nations in Canada have legal protections to address injustices through the court system and now have legally entrenched rights for the use of our salmon for food, social and ceremonial purposes.

This is readily understood but not outwardly spoken because we know as Indigenous Peoples it is fundamental to our cultural, social, economic, and political way of being. It should not have to be explained. Our inherent knowing of our connection to our food systems is needed in addressing the underlying issues impacting Indigenous Peoples. Like the salmon, it is our responsibility to respond to our own needs for healthy, culturally adapted Indigenous foods. We have, like the salmon, remained resilient, persistent, and determined to be leaders in this work by feeding our peoples and lands.

An Elder prepares to cook fish on an open fire

Return of Salmon, Rebirth of Culture

While this work moved forward, so did the revitalization of our language, ceremonies, and customs:
kt cp’elk’ stim’ is an Nsyilxcen term that roughly translates as “to cause to come back.” With the guidance of our elders and sacred teachings, all seven Okanagan Nation’s member communities and the Colville Confederated Tribes have great conviction in their determination to have the Sockeye salmon return.

In 1996-1997 the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), under the long standing leadership of the Chiefs and Councils of our member communities and the Colville Confederated Tribe Business Council (CCTBC), formally undertook their responsibilities and obligations to their lands, waters, and peoples to restore the Okanagan Sockeye salmon back to the Columbia River systems. In 2014, more than 600,000 Sockeye salmon returned, of which a fraction is carefully harvested to feed the people. Our leadership remains resolved to continue the work and commitment required to return salmon to the reaches of the Upper Columbia.

As Scwin journey back to the Okanagan to spawn we not only see the rejuvenation of a fish species, but the revitalization of Indigenous food sovereignty. A myriad of Syilx cultural practices, including the Salmon Feast, enable snxa?l’iwlem (honouring the sacredness of the river) while reinforcing strong cultural-spiritual ties between Syilx communities and the Sockeye salmon.

During fish harvest certain parts of the salmon are returned to the river of origin, with the backbones/fish heads distributed to the community for fish soup. Portions of fish are given as offerings to eagles and owls, again reinforcing strong reciprocal bonds within the broader ecosystem. As such, these salmon are central to a wide range of connections between generations, communities, humans & non-humans, terrestrial and aquatic species, and transboundary watersheds within Canadian and American sovereigns including Indigenous Tribes along the Columbia River systems.

This brief encapsulation and acknowledgement of centuries old cycles of nature, sacred worldview, intertwined with human interaction, pattern, intelligence, adaptability, and wisdom must continue if we are to sustain our life on this planet.

Last year our Scwin felt the direct impact of climate change. The 2015 salmon run incurred devastation with increased water temperature and lower water levels inhibiting the vast majority of Scwin returning to spawn. We know this will become more frequent as our world evolves. So as our Scwin have taught us, we must like never before not let these challenges deter us (like the dams) from our responsibilities to each other as neigh- bors, farmers, harvesters, sowers of seed, hunters, inno- vators, and relations.

Like the salmon we will persevere, be resilient, and be determined to overcome adversity.


Pauline Terbasket is a member of the Syilx Nation, and registered member of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band. She has led her community and her Nation as a council member of her local band and most recently as the Executive Director of the Okanagan Nation Alliance. A strong advocate for social change and food sovereignty, she has committed herself to tackling difficult issues confronting the prosperity and wellness of Indigenous People.

Collective Marketing for Veggie Farmers

in 2016/Marketing/Organic Community/Spring 2016
Merville Organics Farmer Co-operative

Moss Dance

Get Your Produce in a Pile!

I was lucky to witness the flourishing of the Saanich Organics farming (and marketing!) co-operative when I lived and farmed on southern Vancouver Island. In their book All the Dirt: Reflections on Organic Farming, Saanich Organics farmers Robin Tunnicliffe, Heather Stretch, and Rachel Fisher describe an amusing scene—it may be familiar to you, too. Picture three stressed out, overworked farmers, hauling produce in small, worse-for-wear pick-ups—all of them headed to make deliveries to the same restaurants!

Back in 2012, they might as well have been describing me. At my new farm in the Comox Valley, I was spending four and a half hours every Tuesday delivering 25 CSA shares to members’ doorsteps after a morning of frantic harvesting and packing shares.

But that all changed when I met Arzeena Hamir and Neil Turner at Amara Farm in 2013.

As soon as we met, Arzeena and I started hatching plans for a growers’ co-operative. Thanks to those clever Saanich Organics farmers, I was feeling pretty excited about the idea of collective marketing by this time. The only issue was, we needed three members to start a co-op! So we began with a two-farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. We also took turns at the local farmers’ market where we sold each others’ produce under the Merville Organics banner. By uniting under Merville Organics, our marketing efforts could be more concise and targeted.

By 2015, several of our apprentices graduated onto their own farms, and some new young farmers were setting up shop in town. We finally had our founding member quorum and took the initial steps towards “inco-operating” through the BC Co-operative Association.

Merville Organics Farmer's Co-op

Why Collaborate?

I’m not going to lie: collaboration takes a lot of extra work at the beginning. Setting up tracking systems, establishing effective group dynamics, and doing the legwork of starting up a shared business is a huge commitment. It took many long meetings and volunteer hours from our members to get started. As we begin our second year, our co-operative still relies mostly on volunteer labour from our grower members to keep things running. For many farmers, co-operative or not, marketing comes at the end of a long list of things that just can’t wait, like thinning the carrots. Still, in our view, the benefits outweigh the challenges.

Despite the volunteer hours we spend running the co-op, our goal is to lessen the marketing workload on our members so they can spend more time farming. Here are a few of the best results of our work together:

Increased Marketing Reach

People power is real when it comes to marketing a farm—we’ve seen this time and again when our seven grower members combine their contacts in the community to spread the word about our products.

For example, when we post about our CSA on our co-op Facebook page, we can reach a portion of our 800 followers (thanks to Facebook’s limiting algorithms we can’t reach them all at once for free). If each member shares that post, we exponentially increase our online reach. Friends, family members, and co-workers who know us personally take an interest and spread the word for us. This kind of grassroots marketing is essential in small communities.

Abundance & Visual Appeal

Working together, we not only increase our marketing reach, we also increase the variety and consistency of the products we supply to our markets. A three-farm market table overflows with produce. This in turn revs up interest in our market stall—the more variety you’ve got, the more people you’re going to attract to your table!

Shared Infrastructure

Thanks to our marketing co-op, our new grower members are saving on farm start-up costs by sharing essential equipment such as a walk-in cooler, wash station, delivery vehicle, harvest totes, packaging materials, and co-op office. We hire a bookkeeper for the co-op which means financial record-keeping is much simpler for all of our members. As well, we share marketing resources—everything from printed materials to social advertising, thus reducing the cost and the workload for all.

Grower Member Specialization

Sharing in the larger tasks of operating a farm business means our grower members can specialize in roles that they enjoy and excel at such as customer relations, farmers’ markets, marketing, or sales tracking. The increased number of growers also enables each farmer to specialize in growing crops they have success with instead of trying to grow a full array of crops to ll their own CSA program. Several of our members have expertise in marketing and the co-operative as a whole gets to reap the benefits!

Merville Organics CSA

Harvesting Grassroots Media

We use three social media platforms and one in-person platform to get the word out about our CSA programs and our annual spring plant sale. During CSA season, we post our weekly blog to all of our social media platforms.

Facebook

Facebook is definitely the workhorse in our social media strategy. All of our members have active personal Facebook accounts, and this has definitely helped us to gain a good following on our Merville Organics Facebook page. It’s not all free, but it’s not expensive either. The reality is, Facebook doesn’t want you to get much exposure for free, especially if you’re running a business. That’s why we “boost” posts strategically to increase our reach at key times in the season.

Boosting Posts on Facebook

We boost Facebook posts 5-7 times per year, usually with a budget of $14-25 per boost. Here’s the break- down of our strategy:

  • Spring CSA launch
  • #CSADay
  • Spring CSA – one week before the sign up deadline
  • Spring plant sale announcement
  • Spring plant sale reminder (2-3 days before the event)
  • Fall CSA launch
  • Fall CSA – one week before the sign up deadline

Twitter

Developing a good following on Twitter can take a long time, and a bit more strategic thinking. If you really want to drive traffic to your Twitter feed, it’s important to re-tweet, post relevant content, and not just plug your sales. In our experience, Twitter isn’t a popular social media platform in our community—so it means our reach is a bit more far-flung and therefore doesn’t help much when we are selling CSA shares.

Instagram

Instagram is great for farms! We live in image-rich en- vironments—whether we’re growing microgreens or raising sheep—and people LOVE farm pictures. We use Instagram to build a story about our farms, who we are and what we are offering to our community. It’s not so much about hard sales with Instagram, it’s more about the slow process of relationship building.

“Like” Each Other

Our philosophy as a co-op is that there is no competi- tion, only more room for collaboration. We take this approach in social media too. When that amazing local yoghurt company is launching a new avour, or a new locally-owned feed & supply store is opening in town, share that news on your social media feeds!

Building this network of businesses who support each other’s work means we are creating fantastic new local economies where community members can clearly see where to redirect their dollars. Think of it as over-throwing the stodgy, competive capitalist system, one “Like” at a time.

In Person at Farmers’ Markets

If you’re running a CSA, potential members really appreciate the chance to talk to a real person and ask questions about the program. It also helps that we have solid weekly face-to-face connections with people at the market—that kind of trust helps people to take the leap to try something new. The marketing tactic on this one is so simple: put up a sign at your booth that says, “Ask us about our CSA program!”

Co-ops Love Co-ops!

Don’t be shy about reaching out to the co-ops in your community if you’re starting your own collective venture! The beauty of co-ops is that they are creating a culture of collaboration, and what could be more exciting than more people joining in?

Suggestions for Starting Your Own Marketing Co-operative

If you are interested in starting your own marketing co-op, here are a few suggestions:

  • Get together and host a meeting with farmers in your community who you think you would enjoy working with (liking each other IS essential)
  • Look for common ground: What challenges are growers facing? Do you have shared goals & values?
  • Brainstorm opportunities: What could you do together that you can’t do alone?
  • List needs & resources: What do you have that you can share? What do folks need to improve their farm businesses?
  • Start small: collaborate on something simple & manageable in the beginning and expand on your successes

Moss Dance is an organic farmer & founding member of the Merville Organics Growers’ Co-operative. She also works with the Young Agrarians on Vancouver Island.

Photo credit: Boomer Merritt

Facebook: MervilleOrganics
Twitter: @MervilleOrgCoop
Instagram: @mervilleorganics

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