Category archive

Winter 2016

Footnotes from the Field: Biochar

in 2016/Current Issue/Footnotes from the Field/Grow Organic/Standards Updates/Tools & Techniques/Winter 2016
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.

Farming on the Edge at WoodGrain Farm

in Current Issue/Farmer Focus/Grow Organic/Organic Stories/Winter 2016
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.

In Loving Memory of Mary Forstbauer

in Organic Community/Winter 2016
Mary Forstbauer

Legacy of an Organic Leader

This September, as the summer season started to wind down, the COABC video project team had the honour of spending a few hours with Mary Forstbauer on her farm, interviewing her about her life on the land, and her vision for future generations of farmers. As always, Mary was enthusiastic, eloquent, and so very determined to build a lasting organic legacy in BC. She spoke with poetry and passion about instilling a love for farming in our youth – and she surely has done her part in growing the next generation of farmers.

We never imagined that Mary would leave us so soon after that visit, and it is with heavy hearts that we say goodbye to this remarkable woman and organic legend. Mary’s heart was dedicated to furthering the organic food movement in B.C. She nurtured not just her own 12 children and 110 acres of land, but everyone she met, from her fellow farmers to the people she greeted with a smile at the farmers’ markets weekly. Mary was a passionate leader who brought a community together with her strength, integrity, passion, and love.

Mary’s accomplishments could fill volumes – to name just a few, she was a founder of both the Certified Organic Associations of BC and BC Regenerative Agriculture, a board member of the Biodynamic Agriculture Society of BC, and has been integral in growing farmers’ markets across the province. This year, she received CHFA’s Organic Achievement award, recognizing a lifetime of inspiring service.

Mary wanted nothing more than to teach children to love the land. Mary’s life, work, and spirit will live on in her family, the farmers she has grown in her fields over the years, the land she has stewarded, and the people whose lives she touched. She has planted a seed in each of us, and her legacy of land stewardship will grow and flourish. We know of no better way to pay tribute to her than to continue her work, one seed at a time.

We love you Mary Forstbauer. Thank you for the life you led. You are a gift to all of us.

Standard Revision Boot Camp: A Survival Guide

in Organic Standards/Standards Updates/Winter 2016
Canada-Organic

Rochelle Eisen

By now, hopefully, everyone has poured through the 2015 version of the Canadian Organic Standards. I hope that everyone has noted the changes most relevant to their operations. Ideally, you have either attended a webinar, or made plans to go to a COABC conference workshop or COG webinar regarding the changes. Or, maybe it’s time to sit down to read the beast – ahead of the next growing season.

The reality is, probably only a handful of producers are truly being this proactive. I bet the majority are waiting to learn about the differences while completing 2016 renewal paperwork. This could be, if I may so bold, truly organic self-sabotage.

Let’s step back from that notion for a sec, because many of you are probably wondering why there had to be any changes at all. Wasn’t the current version good enough? The fact is, changes were needed to close some gaping loopholes, as well as to address new situations and substances. Simultaneously, the entire text was edited to add clarity and to improve the overall readability.

Here is a laundry list of changes (not including new additions to the Permitted Substances Lists, or PSL):

Crop production operators will need to: reduce the risk of organic crops being contaminated by their genetically engineered counterparts; evaluate manure differently than before if it is used as a compost feedstock; revaluate “biodegradable” mulches to assure they meet the new annotation; limit installation of new fencing material to that described; ensure inoculants comply with the new GE substrate requirement; and make sure irrigation water hasn’t been treated with any prohibited pesticides.

Mushroom production operators will need to address the new growing substrate requirements.

Sprout, microgreen, and shoot production operations will need to use 100% organic seeds if crops are harvested within 30 days.

Containerized greenhouse operations will need to address new soil mixture functionality requirements, and the new container volumes requirements outlined for staked crops.

Livestock production operators will need to make sure their operations address all the animal welfare elements, as well as updated indoor and outdoor access requirements now spelled out in the standard. Organic food or feed product manufacturers need to minimize the use of non-organic ingredients and make sure incidental additives do not compromise the status of their products.

Everyone on and off farm will need to abide by the cleaning requirements, the facility pest management requirements, and the transportation requirements outlined in Section 8 of 32.310. Additional due diligence will be needed to assess the compliance of cleaning products that come in direct contact with organic products.

And just in case you are wondering – compliance to the new standard is required within one year from publication. Take my advice… if any of the above topics twigged some type of unconscious physical response (maybe twitching?) – don’t wait until you get your 2016 renewal application to find out what the details of the changes are. You may want to be a little more proactive and take in one or more of the boot camps on offer.


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.

Sky Harvest Microgreens: Small But Mighty

in Crop Production/Grow Organic/Winter 2016
Aaron Quesnel in the Sky Harvest headquarters.

Carolyn Mann

Canada’s First Certified Organic Urban Farm

Our farm is measured in feet, not fields, and our next door neighbour is a bottle return depot. Our crop rotations are counted in days rather than months, and we rely on a fleet of bicycles to get around the city.

Our farm is small, but our dream was big: to become Canada’s first truly urban Certified Organic farm.

Sky Harvest is located in the heart of East Vancouver, where we grow microgreens, the tiny, nutrient- packed greens often used as garnish in fine dining. Sky Harvest was founded by Aaron Quesnel in 2012 and is based on a vision of a more sustainable cityscape in which food is grown closer to where it’s eaten, and where chefs can meet their farmer face to face.

In order to accomplish this, Sky Harvest employs unconventional farming techniques: we grow in the lower level of a warehouse, and all of our greens are delivered by bicycle throughout Vancouver. We are located just 3km from downtown, and our greens don’t travel farther than 10km to meet our customers.

Sky Harvest microgreens
Credit: Nic West

Introducing Microgreens

Typical microgreen varieties include arugula, kale, peas, radish, sunflower, basil, cilantro and cabbage. At Sky Harvest, we grow about 15 varieties, including a few unconventional types – here you’ll find nasturtium leaves, lime basil, and micro sorrel.

Microgreens are noted for packing in 6-40 times the nutrients per weight as their full-grown counterparts, depending on the variety. Recent studies have noted the importance of the nutrients found in microgreens for fighting cancer, maintaining healthy skin and eyes, and promoting liver and bone development.

Microgreens are very different from their full grown counterparts, often boasting unique flavour profiles and a more delicate texture. Their flexibility is incredible: appetizers, entrees, drinks, and even desserts are all places that microgreens find themselves at home. When it comes to microgreens, though, Sky Harvest specializes more in the growing than in the recipe creation.

Because of their delicacy, microgreen growth requirements are extremely particular. Each crop has unique nutrient, water and light requirements, and getting the balance wrong can mean crop failure. This adds a layer of complexity to our daily tasks and makes automation of the process unfeasible.

Sky harvest purple cabbage micro greens
Credit: Nic West

A Day on the (Micro) Farm

Every day of the year, someone from the Sky Harvest team heads down to the farm, where they’re greeted by a warm, almost tropically moist atmosphere and a somewhat magical scene: shelves and shelves of tiny plants, stretching eagerly toward the light.

The day’s tasks are laid out on a whiteboard, but that doesn’t mean it’s a simple job. Each individual tray must be checked and watered by hand. Trays planted in the past few days are all examined to see if they’ve germinated yet, and then are uncovered and slotted under their own lights.

In this way, every tray is looked after by hand, so that we can be sure everything is going well. We’ve always strived to grow with care, and we have always grown organically – but getting certified was a recent step, and, given the resources involved in the process, a decision not taken lightly.

Microgreens have been exploding in popularity over the past few years, becoming staples for many different kinds of restaurants, food trucks, and the home cook. To match the growing demand, Sky Harvest greens are now found in various grocery stores around Vancouver, including Choices Markets, Spud.ca, and Pomme Natural Market.

Sky Harvest micro greens on canapes
Credit: Joey Armstrong

The Importance of Certification

While many of our chefs have visited our farm for a tour of the operations, we no longer have the opportunity to meet all of our customers face to face. Getting certified became an important way to communicate our values and practices to our expanding customer base.

The process of organic certification seemed very daunting from the outside. It was always a dream – but one whose paperwork, financial requirement, and time commitment were hard to work into an already busy day. It wasn’t until recently that we realized the benefits were beginning to out-weigh the costs and it would help illustrate our ongoing commitment to sustainability and innovation in urban farming.

There are certain aspects about our farm that made it easier to go through the certification process than it might be for others. Our farm is small and quite concentrated in only 2,000 square feet. We grow in containers, indoors, which makes it easier to control our inputs and our soil quality.

Sky Harvest microgreens
Credit: Nic West

However, as microgreen growers, we also face some unique challenges. Because our greens are harvested so young – some are only six days old – we face different regulations. All of our seeds must come from certified organic sources, even if organic seed is not available on the market, making suppliers’ seed shortages not just a headache, but a potential nightmare.

Overall, even though the process was complicated, it was an exciting step, especially when we officially became Canada’s first truly urban Certified Organic farm. There are still challenges, and being only a few months into our official certification, many more challenges are likely to pop up.

For now, we’re proud to have taken this step and to have become leaders in our field. We will continue to push this boundary with innovation and sustainability as our goals, all while providing the best quality product. We love eating local, healthy and organic food – and we hope that by becoming certified, we’re helping to drive this growing industry.


Carolyn Mann is Sky Harvest’s Marketing and Development Guru. She is currently working on her Master’s in Agriculture, studying soil health in organic agriculture.

Edamame: Just Add Salt

in Crop Production/Grow Organic/Winter 2016
Edamame Tohya

Sue Takarangi

North Americans are a recent converts to edamame, while our Chinese and Japanese neighbours across the Pacific have enjoyed this nutrient rich food for centuries. Edamame means “beans on a branch,” and unlike other soybeans they were adapted to be harvested when the seeds are green and plump – perfect for enjoying freshly steamed and sprinkled with salt.

This year, West Coast Seeds experimented with growing several varieties of non-GMO edamame varieties from Japan. They were direct seeded in late May at our location in Delta. The only attention the plants received was a watering once a week during our heat wave. In late August after walking past the plants many times, we finally parted the leaves and were surprised to find cascades of beans hanging from the branches.

The edamame are harvested by cutting the stalks of the plant, and they can be sold at market by the branch, much like those impressive stalks of Brussels sprouts. This makes harvesting a breeze and also ensures a fresh product for the customer.

Edamame is riding a wave of popularity in North America, driven by the popularity of sushi and a growing focus on health. Start a conversation at your Farmers Market with a table piled high with edamame stalks. After all, the frozen offerings found in grocery stores are no match for the sweet, buttery texture and flavour of the fresh beans.


Sue Takarangi is a customer service representative with West Coast Seeds. She has 15 years experience with organic growing.

Promoting Productive Pastures

in Crop Production/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Tools & Techniques/Winter 2016
Well managed pastures

Andrea Lawseth, B.Sc., M.Sc., P.Ag. AEL Agroecological Consulting

Pasture management is one of the main challenges for organic livestock producers throughout the province. In the lower mainland and on Vancouver Island, we struggle with wet climates and waterlogged grazing areas, while in the interior of the province the hot and arid climate poses other challenges that can be equally difficult to manage. Despite these difficulties, there are some techniques and tricks that you can follow to maximize the pasture that you have available and utilize your land more effectively.

Rotational and Limited Grazing

In order to maintain sales and productivity, livestock producers want to have as many animals on their land as the land can support. Sometimes we increase the numbers too much, which can result in overgrazing of pastures. Overgrazing occurs when 50% or more of the grass plant is grazed all at once. This can completely stop root growth and severely reduce grass production. Table 1 shows how grazing can affect root growth of grasses.

As the saying goes, “build your fence horse high, pig tight, and bull strong.” Fencing for rotational and limited grazing is often the best tool for reducing grazing pressure and overgrazing on your pastures. Rotational grazing involves breaking larger pastures up into smaller sections and only grazing one section at a time to allow the others to regenerate. This encourages even grazing of pastures as well as many other benefits such as: increased amount and quality of forage, increased growth of desired grass species, reduced weeds, better parasite control, better manure distribution, and more frequent animal-human contact.

As the saying goes, “build your fence horse high, pig tight, and bull strong.”

If you decide to implement rotational grazing then it is best to start by dividing a large pasture in two and grazing each of these separately. You can then divide further later on. Ideally it is best to have 4 pastures that provide enough grazing for 7 to 10 days as this gives each pasture a rest for 3 to 5 weeks. To divide pastures you can use electric fencing or tape at a height of approximately 90 cm (3 feet) or chest height of your livestock. This is a relatively inexpensive method that has proven to be highly successful. It is important to remember that you will need to monitor pasture growth at different times of the year and rotate accordingly.

Limited grazing involves turning your animals out for limited periods of time (once or twice a day, before or after work, for a few hours at a time). More supplemental feeding will be required and grass height will need to be monitored, but it provides the same benefits as rotational grazing.

IMGP2911

Pasture Renovation

Most pastures in BC are in need of some repair due to overgrazing, wet winters, alkaline or acidic soil types, or dry summers. Grass that is lacking density with 50% weed growth or more will need to be renovated to some degree. Management strategies could include a combination of improved pasture drainage, fertilizing, harrowing, liming, and re-seeding depending on budget constraints.

The first step in dealing with an overgrazed or mismanaged pasture is to evaluate what you have to work with. Find a good weed guide to help you identify which weeds exist on your property and take some samples of your pasture soils to send them to a lab for analysis. Your lab of choice will be able to guide you on their most desired sampling technique and will be able to determine the full composition of your soil and nutrient needs.

Improving drainage through the use of surface or subsurface methods such as French drain tiles can eliminate standing water and ideal conditions for weed growth. Aerating the soil will also help water to penetrate below surface soil layers. Additionally, fertilizing with well composted manure will greatly improve soil structure and drainage. Spreading a thin layer of compost will help soil to increase its water holding capacity and will provide a great medium for spreading grass seed. It is recommended to spread once in the spring and again in the fall. Furthermore, harrowing with either a chain harrow or a tractor will also help to improve drainage and break up any clumps of manure compost you have spread.

Liming is an excellent technique for areas with very acidic soil. Weeds such as buttercup (Ranunculus spp.) or field horsetail (Equisetum arvense) are good indicators of acidic soil as they are well-adapted to these conditions. Liming should be carried out in the spring and fall and more often if needed. Again, a soil test will help to determine the pH of your soil.

Finally, re-seeding with an appropriate seed mixture for your property will help to out-compete weeds and maintain good forage production. The key to choosing a mixture is diversity. The varying grass species in a mix will grow in their respective microclimates within your pastures, which will lead to lower vulnerability to disease and pest outbreaks. However, it is still important to tailor your grass mix to the type of soil on your property and the expected use of the pasture (i.e. grazing, sacrifice area, or hay).

Make sure you mention the topography of your pastures and soil characteristics (gained from a soil analysis) to your seed retailer so that they can help identify the right mix for you. The best time to broadcast overseed your pastures is in late September to early October after you have spread your manure compost. Seeding rates will vary with grass species so check with your retailer before seeding.

Before allowing livestock onto the pasture to graze you should allow newly seeded pasture grass to reach a height of 15 to 20 cm (6 to 8 in) and remove your animals when they have grazed the grass down to 8 to 10 cm (3 to 4 in). This will ensure that the grasses have enough food reserves to permit rapid re-growth. Re-growth can take up to 2 to 6 weeks, depending on the time of year, so it is important to keep animals off wet, overgrazed pastures. Wet pastures can also lead to health problems such as foot rot and parasite infestation.

Keeping pastures mowed to a uniform height of 3 inches will help to stimulate equal growth of your grass plants. This will also help to control perennial weeds that do not respond well to mechanical control methods.

Properly managing pastures generally requires a shift in thinking from viewing the crop as a way to feed the animals to viewing the animals as a way of managing the pasture. As a grass farmer, your main goal is to ensure that the grass on your pasture is healthy enough to outcompete the weeds. Through rotational grazing and prevention of overstocking pastures, you will create the right environment to allow your grass to thrive and the soil to remain healthy and productive.


Andrea is the Principal/Owner of AEL Agroecological Consulting and a Professional Agrologist with over 11 years of experience in food system and agricultural land use planning, sustainable agricultural promtion, organic certification, and food security. AEL Agroecological Consulting provides agri-environmental consulting services to all levels of government, non-profit organizations and individuals.

Farmers’ Markets Go Festive!

in Farmers' Markets/Marketing/Organic Community/Winter 2016
Sam at the Market

Chris Quinlan

What’s food without a nice glass of BC Pinot to pair with it? The sale and sampling of beer, wine, and spirits at BC Farmers’ Markets brings the market experience one step closer to maturity.

In 2014, the Whistler Farmers’ Market became the first to have a liquor producer approved for the sale and sampling of liquor at a market. The first producer was Pemberton Distillery, producers of Shramm Vodka amongst other spirits.

In 2015, the Whistler Farmers’ Market had 15 initial applications from liquor producers to vend at the market. There are currently three or four producers sampling and selling their products at both the Sunday and Wednesday markets. It is not unusual for a winery to sell out at a Whistler market.

This is a win for markets, producers, and customers. Regional producers gain access and exposure to customers who are tuned into their product. Customers are able to meet and talk to producers about how their product is made. And Farmers’ Markets come closer to meeting their mandate of providing a complete regional shopping experience.

Moving Away from Teetotaling

How can markets and producers take advantage of this opportunity? That requires understanding how we got here.

Before 1986, if you wanted a drink on a Sunday, outside of your home, you either went to a restaurant, few of which were open on “the day of rest”, or you had to go to a private “sports club.” Arguably, this was a large part of the business plan for many of the racquet clubs that flourished in my hometown of Nanaimo. We definitely smashed more Caesars than volleys as members of the Quarterway Racquet Club.

Then came Expo 86 and the beginning of the evolution of liquor laws in British Columbia. It all began as an experiment to ensure that the international tourists who visited Expo 86 did not have to endure the trauma of not being able to get a drink on a Sunday. Fortunately for the hospitality industry, the experiment became the norm and Sunday liquor sales opened up a whole new business opportunity.

Fast forward to 2013. As a result of the long-awaited provincial liquor review, and possibly an Okanagan MLA making his seat available for a seat-less Premier Clark, consultations began with industry and the BC Association of Farmers’ Markets with the aim of enabling the sampling and sale of BC-produced beer, wine and spirits at Farmers’ Markets.

Quinny at the Market

Overcoming Fears

While the move to bring the Farmers’ Market experience in line with that of markets around the world was met with great enthusiasm by the majority of markets and municipalities, it was amazing how many of these organizations still feared this move would somehow result in rampant liquor consumption and public inebriation at Farmers’ Markets. At one consultation meeting a local market manager expressed the fear that the proposed legislation might result in “non traditional” customers attending the market to purchase a bottle of wine and then heading over to the neighboring park to drink it out of a brown paper bag.

One year after the legislation came into effect many markets are still struggling to obtain zoning from their municipal governments that would allow them to host liquor vendors. Much of this is because most municipalities were unaware of the legislation themselves. They were, and some still are, scrambling to enact the necessary zoning and business regulation bylaws.

Whistler Seizes the Moment

How did Whistler become the first to have vendors approved under the new legislation? We were fortunate to be part of the initial consultations with the province and as a result had some insight and input into what was coming. As a former municipal councilor I understood the need to keep the municipality informed as to what was coming down the pipe. By working with municipal staff we were able to ensure that the required business regulation and zoning bylaws were in place when the legislation came into effect, just in time for the Canada Day long weekend market. Pemberton Distillery was already a member of our market, selling their line of non-alcoholic elixirs and syrups. We made certain that we kept each other informed. So when the legislation came in, I called them and they had their application filed within the hour. They were the first, and they continue to be regular vendors at the Whistler Farmers’ Market.

Wine Sampling

Over the past year I have walked many producers through the process of obtaining their permit to sell at Farmers’ Markets, in addition to consulting with Farmers’ Markets on specific liquor vendor policies and municipal relations. From these experiences, and observing liquor vendors at the market, I offer the following:

For a Farmers’ Market, this is one of the greatest opportunities to gain not only excellent revenue from a new vendor category, but also to draw in new customers, as well as retain existing ones with a new product offering.

For the producers, whether you are making beer, wine, spirits, or even Honey Meade (that was a new one this year) it is critical that you go beyond “sending a rep” to sample and sell at a Farmers’ Market. As a rule, we are “make, bake, or grow”, so sending “staff” to cover the market is not acceptable.

Farmers’ Market customers are very specific in what they are looking for. They are educated consumers and can be demanding of producers. The reason they come to a Farmers’ Market is to connect with their farmer, their artist, and their crafter. They want to know and trust the product they are taking the time to purchase. Respect their investment in time away from a big box retailer by investing in the best representation of your product and you will be successful.


Chris Quinlan is a former Business Operator and Municipal Councillor who found his a way to satisfy his passions managing the Whistler Farmers’ Market. Innovating and pushing the boundaries of conventional market management, Chris has grown the Whistler market into one of the largest animist successful in British Columbia. He has worked as a project facilitator and coordinator for the BC Association of Farmers’ Markets, Strengthening Farmers’ Markets’ program and recently launched Marketwurks.com, an online Vendors Application and Management program for Farmers’ and Artisan markets.

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