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agroecology

Meat from Here

in Current Issue/Fall 2018/Grow Organic/Livestock/Organic Community

Challenges to Localizing Meat Production

Tristan Banwell

Consider for a moment the complexities of the industrial meat supply chain. Livestock could be born on one farm, sold and moved to another location for finishing, trucked to yet another premises for slaughter. The carcass will be butchered and processed at a different location, and sold at another (or many others), and could be sold and reprocessed multiple times before it ends up on a customer’s plate. The farm, feedlot, abattoir, and processing facility could be in different provinces, or they could be in different countries. It is a certainty that some of the meat imported to Canada comes from livestock that were born in Canada and exported for finishing and/or slaughter before finding their way back to a plate closer to home.

A 2005 study in Waterloo, Ontario(1) noted that beef consumed in the region racked up an average of 5,770 kilometres travelled, with most coming from Colorado, Kansas, Australia, New Zealand, and Nebraska. The author concluded that imported beef products averaged 667 times the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of local beef, and the emissions were at the top of the chart among foods studied. Meat production is low-hanging fruit for reducing pollution and improving the environmental footprint of agriculture, and not just through reducing transportation. Implementation of managed grazing and silvopasture ranked #19 and #9 respectively in terms of their potential impact on climate by Project Drawdown, in the same neighbourhood as other exciting forestry and agricultural innovations, family planning, and renewable energy projects.(2) Organic methods further reduce negative externalities by nearly eliminating inputs such as antibiotics and pesticides, which are used heavily in conventional settings.

Much of the agricultural land in our province is also well suited to livestock according to the Land Capability Classification for Agriculture in BC. In fact, 44% of BC’s ALR lands are categorized in Class 5 & 6, meaning the soil and climate make them suitable primarily for perennial forage production. Looking beyond the ALR boundaries, 76% of all classified arable land in BC is in Class 5 & 6.(3) Of course, there is land in Class 4 and better that could also be best suited to livestock production, and livestock can be beneficially integrated into other types of crop and orchard systems. As farmland prices spiral higher, aspiring farmers could be looking further down this classification system for their affordable opportunity to farm. Livestock production and direct marketing meats can be an attractive enterprise for a new entrant, especially given the exciting opportunities for regenerative organic methods and an increasingly engaged and supportive customer base.

Unfortunately, there are numerous challenges facing both new and established small-scale meat producers in their efforts to implement improved methods and supply local markets. The cost-slashing benefits of economies of scale in livestock enterprises are staggering, and even the leanest, most efficient small livestock enterprise will incur disproportionately high production costs. Sources of breeding stock, feeder stock, chicks, and other outsourced portions of the life cycle chain can be distant, and finding appropriate genetics for a pasture based or grass finishing operation can be next to impossible. Given the geographic fragmentation of the province, managing the logistics of other inputs like feed, minerals, equipment, and supplies can be a Sisyphean task.

The regulations around raising livestock, traceability, slaughter, butchery, and meat processing are complex and span from the federal level (Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Canadian Cattle Identification Agency, Canadian Pork Council) through provincial bodies (BC Ministry of Agriculture Food Safety & Inspection Branch, Ministry of Health, supply management marketing boards), regional groups (regional health authorities, regional district governments) and right down to municipal government bylaws. The tables are definitely tipped in favour of large-scale commodity producers, who have the scale to hire consultants and meet more expensive requirements, and who are beholden to regulators for only one product or species. For a small scale diversified livestock operation, compliance becomes expensive and time consuming as a producer navigates the rules, requirements, and permits for multiple species.

Should a farmer manage to jump some hurdles and establish an enterprise in compliance with regulations, they may find that their growth is capped not by the capacity of their land base or even their markets, but rather by regulatory factors and supply chain limitations. There are particularly low annual production limits in supply-managed poultry categories—2000 broilers, 300 turkeys, 400 layers per year—and that is after applying as a quota-exempt small-lot producer. There is currently no path to becoming a quota holder for small pastured poultry operations. The sole quota-holding pastured poultry producer in BC is currently under threat from the BC Chicken Marketing Board, which requires a set production per six week cycle year round, rather than the seasonal production necessitated by outdoor poultry systems. The BC Hog Marketing Scheme allows a more generous 300 pigs finished per year, and there is no production regulation for beef cattle nor for other species like ducks, sheep, and goats.

Regardless of what livestock species a farmer raises, eventually they must go to market. For most commodity cow-calf operations and some other livestock enterprises, this can mean selling livestock through an auction such as the BC Livestock Producers Cooperative. However, many small scale producers prefer to maintain control of their livestock, finishing them on the farm, arranging for slaughter, and wholesaling or direct marketing the meat. This can help a farm retain more of the final sales price, but adds another layer of complexity around slaughter and butchering, as well as storage, marketing, and distribution.

In BC, there are five classes of licensed abattoirs in operation, including 13 federally-inspected plants, 63 provincially-inspected facilities (Class A & B), and 66 licensed Rural Slaughter Establishments (Class D & E).(4) Federally inspected plants are under jurisdiction of the CFIA and produce meat that can be sold across provincial and international borders. The two classes of provincially licenced plants include inspected and non-inspected facilities. Class A and B facilities are administered by the Ministry of Agriculture Meat Inspection Program, have a government inspector present for slaughter, and are able to slaughter an unlimited number of animals for unrestricted sale within BC. Class A facilities can cut and wrap meat, whereas Class B facilities are slaughter-only with no cut/wrap capacity.

Class D and E slaughter facilities, also known as Rural Slaughter Establishments, are able to slaughter a limited number of animals per year without an inspector present after completing some training, submitting water samples and food safety plans, and having the facility inspected by a regional health authority. A Class D facility is limited to 25,000 lbs live weight per year, can slaughter their own or other farms’ animals, and can sell within their regional district only, including to processors and retailers for resale. This class of licence is limited to 10 regional districts that are underserved by Class A and B facilities. Class E licenses are available throughout the province at the discretion of Environmental Health Officers. This type of licence allows slaughter of up to 10,000 lbs live weight of animals from the licensed farm only, and allows direct to consumer sales within the regional district, but not for further processing or resale.

Despite multiple options for abattoir licensing, small farms are underserved and slaughter capacity is currently lacking in BC. Running an abattoir is a difficult business, with significant overhead costs and strong seasonality, and there is a shortage of qualified staff in most areas of the province. On-farm slaughter options may sound appealing, but the costs associated and low limits on the number of animals per year make small on-farm facilities a difficult proposition. Producers will find it difficult or impossible to have their livestock slaughtered throughout the fall, which is busy season for abattoirs for exactly the reasons producers need their services at that time. Some poultry processors are beginning to set batch minimums above the small lot authorization numbers to eliminate the hassle of servicing small scale producers.

Clearly, improvements can be made to increase the viability of local and regional meat production in BC. This year, meat producers throughout the province came together to form the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association (SSMPA) with an aim toward creating a network to share resources and to speak with a common voice to move systems forward in support of producers raising meat outside of the conventional industrial system.

The BC provincial government has reconvened the Select Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fish & Food, and the first task of this group is to make recommendations on local meat production capacity.(5) The SSMPA has been active in these discussions, as well as earlier consultations regarding Rural Slaughter Establishments, and looks forward to encouraging a more localized, place-based meat supply in BC.

To learn more or join in the discussion, visit smallscalemeat.ca or facebook.com/smallscalemeat.

To reach the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association (SSMPA), get in touch at smallscalemeat@gmail.com.


Tristan Banwell is a founding director of both the BC Small-Scale Meat Producers Association and the Lillooet Agriculture & Food Society, and represents NOOA on the COABC Board. In his spare time, he manages Spray Creek Ranch in Lillooet, operating a Class D abattoir and direct marketing organic beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and eggs. farmer@spraycreek.ca

References
(1) Xuereb, Mark. (2005). Food Miles: Environmental Implications of Food Imports to Waterloo Region. Region of Waterloo Public Health. https://bit.ly/2nh4B37
(2) Project Drawdown. https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/food/managed-grazing
(3) Agricultural Land Commission. (2013). Agricultural Capability Classification in BC. https://bit.ly/2vl3SC8
(4) Government of BC. Meat Inspection & Licensing. https://bit.ly/2uIcNgJ
(5) Ministry of Agriculture. (2018). Discussion Paper prepared for the Select Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fish and Food. https://bit.ly/2J1x9Kc

An Ode to the Farmer

in 2018/Current Issue/Fall 2018/Grow Organic/Organic Community

Josh Brown

…It was a few days ago at around 7 am when the sun peered over Fairview Mountain to kindly balance a rude 40 km/h south wind. It happened while I was neurotically leaning over the hood of my van trying to pick out a slightly different noise in the engine (of all things) hoping to hear something different each time, hoping to disprove Einstein’s basic philosophy of insanity. After about 20 minutes, I didn’t even know what I was looking for anymore, or if anything was even there in the first place. I’ll have to keep an eye on it. At around 8 pm later that day, the sun was falling behind K Mountain, finally offering slight relief from a 30 degree (spring!?) day. The wind soothed new sun burns and the cooling soil felt nice in my hands. It happened when I went to check the water and gopher traps in the apple tree nursery and garlic crop. My new low emitter overhead sprinklers are a head scratcher right now as I try to develop a schedule with the new irrigation system. And after opening up a fallow field for the expansion of the nursery, gopher trapping has been relentless…

This all started with a fallow field, for most of us here. As someone who is still very close to that moment, I can speak to what it’s been like to take that leap, and how special it has been to share the experience with likeminded people doing the same thing. I own a small-scale organic tree nursery in Cawston, a village nestled in the Similkameen Valley, and just outside the industrial fortitude of the Okanagan. Over the last 10 years farming for others, as well as investing in my own project here, this community has come alive in a most remarkable way, through compounded experiences with people who share a passion for designing a good life, and by people who quite literally design as a profession. This is an attempt to understand the mechanism by which I and likely many other organic farmers ended up living here and doing something we truly find meaningful, and why we stayed.

Perhaps if we stop and smell the roses a little more, we may be able to break pattern and follow a different path. That this narrative is like a little red thread that weaves its way, inductively, moment to moment, rose to rose, through disjointed chaos, and that we can surprise ourselves with how far we can actually go. There are moments we cherish, whose substantive merit eludes us less that moment in time when we stopped to notice it. But I’m beginning to think those moments do not drift far. The first time opening up a piece of land like a blank canvas and feeling liberated by it. An evening with close friends whose intimacy is built on innumerable shared experiences over years, and feeling at home. Trying to erect multiple freestanding cold frame tunnels in the middle of a field in the windiest place on earth, and through constant repair and correction realizing how passionate and focused you are.

These moments and their respective rewards are fleeting, though they help us refine exactly what we are seeking and what feeds us, and over time they define and become us. I’m beginning to think that we don’t actually make many long winded choices—you know, the big ones: where to live, who to love, who we are. Rather, if we slightly untether ourselves from those plans and expectations that we can gear toward so eagerly, and give ourselves the freedom to take notice to the moments we are in from time to time, letting them inspire us to deviate course a little, we may find ourselves doing something we truly find meaningful. And that is how I would describe the process of somehow starting out in Toronto 10 years ago, running a scooter business and living downtown, to now finding myself farming in the Similkameen.

This is not just my story. I live in a community whose members’ stories have grown, and continue to grow, unrestrained by fear of discomfort or by doing things differently. This is a sentiment I feel often, and is confirmed by the reaction I get from people who come here and experience the work in the fields, and who may have had the opportunity to join us at one of our potlucks, filled with fresh ingredients cooked by the local farmers whose hard work that day grew them.

There is something that happens when all the farmers get together here, where friendship, profession, and community are indistinguishable. Sometimes I feel that we have replaced a few of our older patterns, some of which did not feel organic, with others that do—for example, the nature of the work/life balance here, as well as the nature of the work itself.

…It was a few days ago at around 2 pm, around the time when the heat of the day can make you irritable, that I needed to borrow a T-post pounder to build a deer fence for the nursery. The heat we have been getting so early in the year had pushed the buds from my newly grafted trees a lot quicker than I was expecting, and so I really needed to build that fence before all the new growth was a fawn’s snack. Emilie Thoueille, who runs an extraordinary small scale organic market garden down the road from me, had one so I stopped in to pick it up. She invited me in for a coffee in the shade of her tiny home container conversion that she built herself. My roommate, David Arthur, who also runs a small organic market garden on a shared lease with me, was over helping build a cooler out of another converted container, which they will be sharing to store their veggies. Our mutual neighbours across the road, Paul and Lauren, who have been unbelievably helpful over the years to all three of us, stopped in to say hi as well. Community is quite literally woven into the fabric of our lives and careers here, and I believe we farm to feed it. The deer fence could wait 15 minutes, because this was a special moment in the shade…

Life here really is quite unbelievable, and my goal and that of so many other farmers I know is really just to be able to keep doing this. I recall a conversation I was recently having with Corey Brown from Blackbird Organics, a friend and mentor, about this valley and what makes life and farming in this small town so unique. He was describing how “we are essentially a community of entrepreneurs.”

And yet our homes and communities are a little more entangled into the mix of business and pleasure, so it is all being designed to work harmoniously. This is where the work/life balance disintegrates, when your work is your home as well, and your local economy is also your community.

“It returns to something that actually feels more comfortable and natural, yet needs to be relearned,” added Melissa Marr at Vialo Orchards, owner of one of the oldest organic orchards in the area. That level of interdependence, ownership, and accountability is pervasive, and it shows in the quality of the product and lifestyle experienced here.

In some ways I feel that what we are doing here in Cawston builds on an experience as old as time. That from rose to rose, moment to moment, we have come to find ourselves farming here. Though as off the beaten path as it has felt for some of us, it has in many ways reconnected us to a personal and social archetype, a self and a community, whose fire has been burning for a long time, and which feels more honest, organic, and sustainable.

I still see it in the passion and pride held by those who found themselves in a similar moment to the one I’m experiencing years ago, in the generation before us. Farmers whose wisdom in both how to farm, and how to be, have been tantamount to our success, and the continuation of this movement, just as we hope to be for those who we will have the privilege of sharing this with in the future. These are farmers whose passion and story are cellared in the true nature of this lifestyle, in both its romance and its hardship. Those who have been here long enough to experience crop successes and failure, the strength to work 12 hours a day in 30 degree heat as well as those who have sustained togetherness, and union in the community, as well as prohibitive injury, fragmentation, and loneliness, the perfect apple year followed by a flooded orchard the next. Someone so in tune with those cycles, that they almost become predictable, thus inhabiting a trust in its continued ability to provide.

As a matter of fact, sometimes I think the hard work and resilience of the organic farmers I know in Cawston would stand to bear that the pain is manageable when compared to the reward, and the rewards are unquestionably rich.


Josh Brown owns and operates Joshua’s Trees, a certified organic tree fruit nursery in Cawston, BC, where he grows trees for orchardists as well as the retail hobbyist and backyard market. joshuastrees.organics@gmail.com

Photos by Sara Dent | farmlove.org

Growing the Local Food Economy in the North Okanagan

in 2018/Current Issue/Fall 2018/Farmers' Markets/Grow Organic/Marketing/Organic Community

Eva-Lena Lang

Growing up on a family farm in the Mabel Lake Valley, in the North Okanagan, I experienced the many rewards and challenges that farmers can face. I left the region for several years, but whenever I returned for visits, I would notice new struggles confronting the farming community. Certain challenges stand out in my memory: the BSE or “mad cow disease” crisis in 2003, BC’s enactment of the new Meat Inspection Regulation, which came into effect in 2007, other policy and regulation issues, the impact of droughts and wildfires, and more.

I moved back to the North Okanagan in 2015 to work with COABC, with the hope of returning to farming as well as putting roots back down in the wider community. I became concerned about the long term health and sustainability of our communities, which have become increasingly disconnected from their farmers. I believed there was a need to rebuild the relationships between not only the farmers and their communities, but between all the different components of the regional food system: from farmers, to processors, distributors, retailers, chefs, and ultimately, consumers.

In 2015 I was taking a course in a community economic development (CED) program through SFU. I had learned about the concept of collective impact: “the commitment of a group of actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem.” Collective impact follows five conditions: providing backbone support, facilitating communication, identifying a common agenda, embarking upon mutually reinforcing activities, and monitoring success (Kania & Kramer, 2011).

I also learned about the Farm to Plate (F2P) Network in Vermont, which has been one of the most impressive examples of how to successfully apply the collective impact approach to make a “viable, sustainable, and resilient food system.” The Vermont F2P Network is an inspiring example of how a collective impact network has transformed Vermont’s food system, resulting in significant improvements over 10 years (2003-2013). Notable improvements include doubling local food production, increasing local food jobs by 10% and businesses by 15%, halting land loss in agriculture, and improving access to healthy food for all Vermonters.

Gathering around a kitchen table, a few community members and I, all food systems experts as well as from farming families in the region, discussed the Vermont F2P Network for one of my CED projects. We ended the discussion with the decision that it could, and should, happen in the North Okanagan.

In November 2016 we convened a meeting of 15 key North Okanagan food system stakeholders, to discuss the potential and explore the interest for building the region’s food system through collective impact. Recommendations from the November meeting led to the following actions in 2017:

  • We formed a working committee, under the guidance of the above stakeholders
  • We selected Community Futures as our host organization
  • We created a background report compiling and summarizing the recommendations of agriculture, food system, and food security plans that have been generated in the region over the past 10 years. This report was completed in December 2017 and was useful in planning a forum the following year.
  • We hosted a forum in January of 2018, titled “Growing the Local Food Economy in the North Okanagan”.

The forum began with our keynote speaker, Curtis Ogden of the Interaction Institute for Social Change in Boston, USA, presenting his work on regional food systems in Northwestern USA, including on the VF2PN. In particular, Curtis talked about the importance of working through networks, building authentic connection and increasing capacity, leading to increased strengths. Networks are beneficial as they produce outcomes through collaboration that organizations may not produce on their own.

The forum was attended by 85 participants, including the direct food system stakeholders, as well as supporting members from government, non-profit, and academic organizations. We presented the opportunities, challenges and recommended actions from the background report and used this as the basis for discussion in the forum working groups (i.e. Sustain Farmers, Support Processors, Develop the Middle, Engage Consumers, and Build the Network). Through conversations, each working group determined their priorities for short, medium, and long term actions focused on growing the local food economy.

The conversations at the forum were incredibly important and filled with great ideas for action. It was becoming apparent to us, however, that the best way to make these actions happen was through the development of a well connected, aligned, and coordinated network in the North Okanagan, operating through a collective impact approach. Since the forum, we have continued to ride the momentum, working on two parallel efforts: 1. Following up on the priority actions determined at the forum, and 2. Building a collective impact network across the food system, called the North Okanagan Food System Initiative (NOFSI) Network.

The interim vision of NOFSI is a regional food system where farmland is protected and productive, farmers have access to land, regional farms and other food system enterprises are thriving, our food system is environmentally sustainable and resilient to climate change, more local food is produced and sold, and everyone has access to healthy good food. The goal of the North Okanagan Food System Initiative is to develop a collective impact network to achieve this vision.

NOFSI consists of a steering committee, a newly hired coordinator, and a network of food system stakeholders. Community Futures North Okanagan (CFNO) continues to act as our host organization. Currently, steering committee members represent key partner organizations such as Interior Health (IH), BC Ministry of Agriculture, University of British Columbia, Okanagan campus (UBCO), Food Action Society North Okanagan (FASNO), and the Regional District of North Okanagan (RDNO).

In May and June 2018, Liz Blakeway, the NOFSI coordinator, convened four working group meetings to follow up on the priority actions identified at the January forum. In the second half of these meetings, I facilitated a network mapping exercise to depict the current state of food system network in the North Okanagan. I also convened an overarching working group (the former Build the Network working group from the forum) to map, analyze, and make recommendations for building the NOFSI network. This work is a part of my Masters research at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, working closely with supervisors Mary Stockdale and Jon Corbett as well as other expert advisors from the community.

  1. The information obtained from this research and the priority actions identified at the follow up meetings will inform our transition to the next phase of our initiative. Starting in September, and with funding from the Real Estate Foundation as well as the Regional District of the North Okanagan, NOFSI will be working on:
    • Organizing annual forums and completing follow-up actions that focus on the following themes:
      Growing the local food economy (this is underway, beginning at the January 2018 forum);
    • Promoting environmental sustainability across the food system (to begin at the planned January 2019 forum); and
    • Securing access to healthy local food (anticipated to begin at a January 2020 forum).
  2. Building a network that functions to support and facilitate setting a shared agenda, initiates constructive communication, coordinates and supports working groups, and creates an environment that builds trust, alignment, and the ability to collaborate effectively.

During the first study group meeting in 2015, I discovered that there are other people in the North Okanagan who share my values and my understanding of what needs to be done to support a stronger regional food system. The conversation has continued, and it has been incredibly inspiring to see more and more passionate individuals became involved, building the momentum to implement this idea.

Each NOFSI member has their own story and reason as to why they want to see change. Many individuals who recognize the strong potential for profitable, diversified agricultural production in the North Okanagan, also want to support sustainable agriculture, the successful entrance of young farmers, and improved access to healthy local food for all our citizens. The success to date has been due to the commitment of members actively engaging in the network and a few very committed individuals putting countless hours of work into the development of NOFSI.

My study circle conversation in 2015 was a small way to try to make change happen, but it was a start. Inspired by Vermont’s story, I continue to believe that we can make collective impact happen here, with the “collective” being our NOFSI network, and the “impact,” a regional food system that is economically prosperous, environmentally sustainable, and socially accessible to all.


Eva-Lena Lang grew up on a family farm, and has farmed all around the world. She is currently pursuing a Masters at UBCO to further her capacity to support the regional food system and small-scale farmers. Before starting her Master’s, she worked with the Certified Organic Associations of BC.  

Photos by Maylies Lang.

Footnotes from the Field: Intergenerational Soil Stewardship

in Current Issue/Fall 2018/Footnotes from the Field/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Standards/Tools & Techniques
Onions by Moss Dance at Birds and Beans

Intergenerational Soil Stewardship: Our Only Hope?

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

Soil, specifically topsoil, is the foundation of life on this earth. Earth is the only planet with healthy fertile soil on it that we know of yet, in the whole of the universe. Fertile soil is a little-understood mixture of biology and geology whose potential only exists in the topsoil layer. The topsoil layer is composed of the topsoil itself and organic matter in various stages of mineralization and humus production. Degradation and erosion of the topsoil depletes soil fertility, restricting plant growth, vitality, and micronutrient content.

The theme for this month’s BC Organic Grower is: “Bioregionalism: building place based economies.” Agricultural philosopher Wendell Berry suggests that an agrarian economy is based on local adaptation of economic activity to the capacity of the land to sustain such activity.

This is a challenging idea because history shows us that farming as practised in the past and the present always causes topsoil degradation. Through the ages, soil degradation, or erosion, has steered the fate and course of human civilizations and ultimately caused the demise of those civilizations. This story has repeated itself throughout the world and in the history of every type of farming. In the words of Sir Winston Churchill, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” No greater historical comment can be made for agriculture: learn or be doomed. All farming societies exhausted their topsoils within 800 to 1700 years.

The Canadian Organic Standards speak to soil conservation and soil fertility specifically in the following sections:
The general principles of organic production in Annex 1:
1. Protect the environment, minimize soil degradation and erosion, decrease pollution, optimize biological productivity, and promote a sound state of health.
2. Maintain long-term soil fertility by optimizing conditions for biological activity within the soil.

Clause 5.4.3 Tillage and cultivation practices shall maintain or improve the physical, chemical and biological condition of soil, and minimize damage to the structure and tilth of soil, and soil erosion.

Principle of Health

Organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plants, animals, humans and the planet as one and indivisible.

We have run out of new lands to discover on planet Earth. In 1995, Dr. David Pimental of Cornell University calculated that we had already lost 30% of the arable land we were farming to soil erosion. With the advent of chemical and mechanical agriculture the soil erosion problem has increased a hundred-fold in areas. As an example, in the past 150 years, one-half the fertile topsoil of Iowa has been lost to erosion.

Topsoil is a strategic and underappreciated resource. Soil can be conserved, made, and lost and it is the balance of these factors that determines the soils fertility. How we manage the soil resource in our generation will affect generations to come. As long as soil erosion continues to exceed soil production, it is only a matter of time before agriculture fails to support Earths humanity.

What Can We Learn from the Trials and Errors of Our Ancestors?

Çatalhöyük, Anatolia (modern Turkey) was home to a Neolithic farming civilization that lasted around a thousand years starting about 7500 BC. Scientists have studied skeletal remains which have provided a highly informative record of human health. From the skeletal health record they have been able to divide this civilization into three distinct health time periods: Early, Middle and Late. During the Middle period the civilization reached its peak in population and health, and then as soil fertility was depleted the human skeletal health parameters demonstrated decline. By the end of the Late period 52% of human births resulted in infant mortality before the age of two months. Similar skeletal health studies have been conducted on the remains of other farming civilizations globally with outcome of human health declining in parallel with topsoil and soil fertility depletion, supporting the assumption that human health is interdependent on topsoil retention and soil fertility.

Dr. David R. Montgomery succinctly identifies the problem and a potential solution in his book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations: “Sustaining our collective well being requires prioritizing society’s long term interest in soil stewardship; it is an issue of fundamental importance to our civilization. We simply cannot afford to view agriculture as just another business because the economic benefits of soil conservation can be harvested only after decades of stewardship, and the cost of soil abuse is borne by all.”

What Does a New Sustainable Agriculture Ethic Require from Us?

In Dr. David Montgomery’s more recent publication “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” he outlines solutions to soil conservation and topsoil rebuilding techniques he has witnessed applied in the field around the world. He identifies the main culprit of soil erosion in agriculture as the invention of the plow. The plow breaks the soil structure and exposes the underground community of biota to the surface. “The plow is the villain that set the seeds for soil degradation. Only deserts have bare earth and Nature tends to clothe herself in plants.”

Another challenge is that during one generation a farmer can seldom see the effects of topsoil erosion unless a dramatic natural weather event sweeps the soil away. During day to day farming it is difficult to ascertain the minimal yet additive effects of traditional tillage techniques. Fallow land tillage is a traditional technique that leads to desertification and needs to be abandoned and replaced with topsoil preserving methods. Topsoil conservation and rebuilding requires the focused consciousness of Intergenerational Soil Stewardship to guide agricultural sustainability.

Soil is in a Symbiotic Living Relationship with Plants

When plants are actively photosynthesizing they release 30% to 40% of the sugars, carbon compounds, and proteins they manufacture through their roots into the root rhizosphere. The root exudes these nutrients to feed the underground community of fungi and microbes in exchange for micronutrients from fungi and microbial metabolites that act as growth stimulators and plant health promoters.

When plants are fed synthetic N, P, K they grow big on top of the ground but do not invest in growing a big root system and do not deliver as much nutritious root exudates to feed the underground microbial and fungi communities. As a result the plant does not reap the benefits of vitality factors and micronutrients. The plants overall health is less and the plant tissue has demonstratively less micronutrient content to pass on up the food chain. Micronutrient studies demonstrate that under conventional agriculture the plants have lost between 25% to 50% of their micronutrient content in the past 50 years.

The solution to successful topsoil building Dr. Montgomery observed while touring farms around the world required three things to happen at once: no till planting techniques, cover cropping, and adding organic matter to the soil. Dr. Montgomery has coined the method Conservation Agriculture and the methods can be applied in both conventional and organic farms—because when it comes to soil conservation and restoration, everybody needs to get on board.

Principles of Conservation Agriculture:

1. Minimal or no disturbance/direct planting of seeds (e.g., no till)
2. Permanent ground cover: retain crop residues and include cover crop in rotations
3. Diverse crop rotations: to maintain soil fertility and break up pathogen carryover
4. Livestock assisting in topsoil building: mimic bison grazing, move cattle in a tight herd to intensive graze (high disturbance), and move frequently to produce low frequency grazing.

Benefits of Conservation Agriculture, after a short transition period of 2 to 3 years to allow soil organic matter to build fertility:

1. Comparable or increased yields
2. Greatly reduced fossil fuel and pesticide use
3. Increased soil carbon and crop resilience
4. Higher farmer profits

“This is not a question of low tech organic versus GMO & agro-tech….this is about ‘how to apply an understanding of soil ecology to the applied problem of increasing and sustaining crop yields in a post-oil environment’.”

“Agriculture has experienced several revolutions in historical times: the yeoman’s revolution based on relearning Roman soil husbandry and the agrochemical and green revolutions based on fertilizer and agrotechnology. Today, the growing adoption of no-till and organic methods is fostering a modern agrarian revolution based on soil conservation. Whereas past agricultural revolutions focused on increasing crop yields, the ongoing one needs to sustain them to ensure the continuity of our modern global civilization. The philosophical basis of the new agriculture lies in treating soil as a locally adapted biological system rather than a chemical system.”

Intergenerational Soil Stewardship: Society on a global scale based on an agrarian economy adapted to its bioregion dedicated to topsoil conservation and restoration and the development of soil fertility.


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

References:
1. Montgomery, D. (2007). Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. University of California Press. Montgomery, D. (2017). Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. W. W. Norton & Company.
3. Pimental, D., Burgess, M. (2013). Soil Erosion Threatens Food Production. Agriculture, 3(3), 443-463; doi: 10.3390/agriculture3030443
4. Montgomery, D. (2014). Soil erosion and agricultural sustainability. PNAS. 104 (33) 13268-13272; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0611508104

Weeds: Don’t Shoot the Messenger

in 2018/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Standards/Pest Management/Summer 2018

(Not Until You Understand the Message)

Av Sing

This article first appeared in The Canadian Organic Grower, with thanks.

All too often when farmers start talking weeds, a common first question is “How do I get rid of a bad case of…?” when a more appropriate question is “I wonder why my field has a bad case of…?”

The subtle difference in the above question requires a surprisingly dramatic paradigm shift in your view of weeds. Weeds must shed their role as problems, pests, and sources of frustration, and instead take on the role of symptoms, storytellers, and healers. Weed advocates consider weeds as plants with a mission and look to learn what the weeds can tell us about our soil conditions (e.g. pH, drainage, compaction, etc.) or our management practices (e.g. crop rotation, row spacing, stocking rate, tillage, etc.).

Weeds Redefined

Nicolas Lampkin, in Organic Farming, stresses that it is the human activity of agriculture that generates weeds. He defines a weed as “any plant adapted to man-made habitats and interferes with human activities.” For weed spin doctors, even that definition is too harsh because it focuses too much on the negative. The first step in our weed propaganda is to begin viewing the appearance of weeds as beneficial.

We are all familiar with the saying nature abhors a vacuum. Well, cultivation essentially creates a vacuum where whole communities of plant and soil life are disrupted and/or destroyed. Nature responds with weeds. Within days, pioneer plants such as pigweed, lamb’s quarters, and purslane grow rapidly and thickly. They anchor the soil and generate organic matter that feeds the soil life. These fast-growing annuals also provide shade, hold moisture, and moderate soil temperatures that allow other plants, such as biennials and perennials (including grasses), to initiate growth. If left for another season, this land will have fewer fast-growing annuals and favour later successional plants.

In our fields, the soil is in an unnatural state of continuous disturbance and as a result we primarily deal with the early colonists. Most of these fast-growing annuals grow without associated mycorrhizal fungi (primarily because their life cycle is too short to benefit from a symbiotic partnership). Expectedly, soils rich with mycorrhizal fungi (e.g. pastures, forest floors, agricultural soils rich in organic matter, especially through the use of compost) have fewer annual weeds. Elaine Ingham of Soil Foodweb Inc. suggests that the presence of the fungi serves as a signal that keeps annual weeds from germinating.

Learning From Your Weeds

Now that we better appreciate why weeds appear in our farms and gardens, we can take a closer look at how we can use weeds as indicators for our soil conditions. It is important to note that many weeds can tolerate a wide range of conditions and therefore the appearance of a few individual weeds are not necessarily proof of an underlying soil condition. For example, both perennial sow thistle and dock indicate poor drainage, but dock prefers more acidic soils, while thistle favours a higher pH. You can however learn about the conditions if the weed population is dominated by several species that all prefer similar conditions. For example, if plantain, coltsfoot and ox-eye daisies are the predominant weeds, this could indicate that the soils are waterlogged or have poor drainage.

Agricultural practices such as cultivation, fertilization and grazing management can have a great impact on the soil and, in turn, on the appearance of particular weed species. Frequent tillage will disturb the billions of viable seeds in the soil seed bank and, with sunlight, these will germinate and occupy bare soil. Weeds such as lamb’s quarters and redroot pigweed can produce 75,000 to 130,000 seeds per plant (respectively), which can remain viable in the soil for up to 40 years.

The presence of legumes, such as vetch, medic and clover, may suggest that the soil is lacking nitrogen. In contrast, weeds growing on the same soil that appear pale yellow and/or stunted also indicate low fertility. Overgrazing of pastures may lead to compacted soils and then the presence of perennial bluegrass species and bentgrasses may predominate.

The lack or imbalance of calcium can allow soils to become compacted and without the proper biology in the soil (fungi in the case of calcium), calcium will not stay in the soil.

Soil pH

In addition to helping protect and improve the organic matter content of the soil, weeds can also indicate the acidity or alkalinity of the soil. Most agricultural crops do best in a slightly acidic soil (pH of 6 to 6.5). An increasing presence of weeds such as plantain, sorrel or dandelion may suggest that the pH is dropping below a desirable level. However, having acidic soils should not be viewed as detrimental. Much of Albrecht’s work highlighted that poor plant performance on low pH soils was in fact a consequence of low soil fertility or an imbalance of soil nutrients, rather than soil pH. For example, many alfalfa growers have witnessed a dramatic invasion of dandelions after spreading high levels of potash. Essentially, the potash had suppressed calcium levels in the soil. The deep-rooted dandelion scavenges calcium from lower depths and upon its death released the calcium at the soil surface. The appearance of dandelions may be interpreted as indicating acidic soils when in fact the ratio of calcium to potassium caused their appearance.

Extreme Weed Makeover: Look for the Positive in Weeds

  • Weeds can act as a green manure or cover crop.
  • Weeds can serve to cycle nutrients from the subsoil (e.g. deeprooted weeds such as dandelions or burdock).
  • Deep-rooted weeds can break up hard pans, thereby regulating water movement in the soil.
  • Weeds can conserve soil moisture.
  • Weeds can provide habitat for beneficial organisms.

An imbalance of magnesium relative to calcium can lead to tight soils and eventually anaerobic conditions. Calcium causes soil particles to move apart, providing good aeration and drainage; fungi help to prevent the leaching of calcium out of the soil. Magnesium makes particles stick together and if soils become too tight, oxygen becomes limited and beneficial forms of soil life disappear. In such conditions, organic residues in the soil do not decay properly, and increased carbon dioxide in the soil favours fermentation of the organic matter, resulting in byproducts such as alcohol and formaldehyde. These substances inhibit root penetration as well as create favourable conditions for soil diseases such as pythium and phytophora. Fermentation can also create methane gas which is conducive to the appearance of velvetleaf, or ethane gas which helps jimsonweed to prosper. Grasses with their fine and numerous roots attempt to break up tight soils, while the presence of many grassy weeds may indicate tight soils.

Mycorrhiza is a symbiotic association between fungi and plant roots. Most agricultural crops depend on, or benefit from, their associations with mycorrhizae. In exchange for carbon from the plant, mycorrhizal fungi make phosphorus more soluble and bring soil nutrients (N, P, K) and water to the plant. The Cruciferae family (e.g. broccoli, mustard) and the Chenopodiaceae family (e.g. lamb’s quarters, spinach, beets) do not form associations with these fungi. Frequent tillage, fungicides and high levels of N or P will inhibit root inoculation. Similarly, the practice of fallowing will reduce levels of mycorrhizae because the plants that establish following tillage usually do not form associations with the fungi.

This article is based primarily on the knowledge and observations of farmers who wanted to better understand the connection between what was growing in their soil and the various management practices they were employing.

The American poet Emerson once wrote, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered,” perhaps referring to their greatest virtue to farmers as messengers of the soil.

Recommended reading (available from the COG library): 

Pfeiffer, E.E. (1981). Weeds and what they tell. Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Assoc, USA.

Soil Association. (1982). The Value of Weeds. Soil Association, UK.


Av emphasizes farmer-to-farmer knowledge exchange and works to hone farmer intuition in making management decisions. Currently, Av serves as a cannabis cultivation advisor to many Licensed Producers in North America and the Chief Science Officer with Green Gorilla (a Hemp and Cannabidiol Company). Av is also serving as the Vice-President of the Canadian Organic Growers and is proud to be a member of Slow Food Canada, Food Secure Canada, and the National Farmers’ Union. Av is also a faculty member at Earth University (Navdanya) in India where he delivers courses on agroecology and organic farming. Av can be reached for questions or comment at 902-698-0454 or av@fs-cannabis.com.

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A New Model for Integrated Habitat Development

in 2018/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Summer 2018

For Bees, Birds, and Fish (IEHD-BBF)

Saikat Kumar Basu

Global bee populations are showing an alarming decline due to a number of factors like environmental pollution, indiscriminate use and over applications of various agro-chemicals, industrial agricultural practices detrimental to nature, changes in the land use patterns, and parasitic diseases of bees as well as lack of adequate supply of nectar and pollens for different bee species due to lack of suitable of bee foraging plants and natural melliferous flora. The challenges are not just restricted to honey bees and/or native bee species, but also to other insect pollinators such as moths, butterflies, and certain species of pollinator-friendly flies and beetles. Under these circumstances it is important to conserve the endangered bee species and other pollinator insects, mollusks (snails and slugs), birds (certain humming bird species), and mammals (bats) helping in the process of natural cross pollination.

A large number of global food and industrial/commercial crops, forage crops, wildflowers, ornamentals, vegetables, and forest species are dependent on biological agents or vectors of cross pollination for their successful reproduction and survival. The yield loss due to lack of suitable pollinators for cross pollination is a serious threat to the future of global agriculture as well as for maintaining the balance of our natural ecosystems. Loss of honey bees are having detrimental socio-economic impacts on the apiculture industry; and thereby impacting the livelihood and social security of millions of individuals around the planet.

A Stratiomyid fly foraging on wild chamomile flower. Photo credit: Saikat Kumar Basu

Establishing suitable pollinator (bee) gardens or habitats or sanctuaries at suitable sites could prove to be instrumental in both bee and other pollinator insect conservation from a long term, ecological perspective. Using suitable pollinator mixes comprising of native grasses, wildflowers as well as annual, biennial, perennial forage crops (forage grasses, legumes, different Brassica family members) can help in establishing pollinator gardens, habitats, or sanctuaries in perimeters of forested areas, under used or unsuitable agronomic lands, unused and available rural locations, city and municipal parks and gardens, lawns, kitchen gardens, unused or hard to farm areas, in sites adjacent to natural or artificial waterbodies like ponds, pools, ditches, swamps, bogs, streams, or irrigation canals.

Aquatic Habitats

Freshwater wetland habitats need to be protected to conserve the aquatic ecosystems, the rich biodiversity associated with itand to protect nature for our future generations. Protecting freshwater wetlands does not necessarily require huge expertise, funding, or high levels of technology applications, but rather. simple innovation, creativity, awareness, and the desire to develop comprehensive multi-layer conservation strategy in the line of Multiple Tier Conservation Model (MTCM). A well managed and carefully planned freshwater aquatic habitat conservation strategy could be establishing Integrated Ecological Habitat Development for Bees, Birds and Fishes (IEHD-BBF). This proposed model targets multiple trophic levels within a dynamic natural or artificial freshwater ecosystem to conserve multiple species simultaneously.

Aquatic habitat integrated with pollinator conservation can provide multi level species protection for bees, birds, and fishes. Photo credit: Saikat Kumar Basu

Natural or artificial aquatic habitats like pools, ponds, ditches, swamps, bogs, lakes, canals, etc… could be targeted for ecological restoration by planting short or high grasses, salt tolerant aquatic plant species, and grasses along with pollinator mixes comprising of annual and/or perennial legumes, wildflowers, and related pollinator friendly plant species or melliferous flora around target fresh water habitats. Such mixes will not only restore aquatic habitats, but also attract small and medium sized land birds and a wide diversity of pollinator insects like honey bees, native bees, moths, butterflies, certain species of pollinator beetles, and flies for nectar foraging, nesting, and breeding purposes.

From Flora to Fauna

If the waterbodies are well stocked with indigenous fish species, well protected grassy aquatic habitats will also attract a wide diversity of aquatic birds to nest, forage, and breed in such unique environmentally restored ecosystems. An integrated Bees, Birds and Fishes Conservation Model (BBFCM) can be extremely useful in protecting multiple species at the same time and location.

Ideal pollinator foraging plants can help build sustainable pollinator sanctuaries. Photo credit: Saikat Kumar Basu

Grasses in the mixes can help in soil erosion and restoration, as well as phytoremediation, while legumes will enrich the soil with natural nitrogen resources without application of any synthetic fertilizers. Care must be taken to avoid using any pesticides in such habitats to prevent chemical pollution. Over time, such aquatic habitats will also attract local wildflowers and aquatic plants to grow and thrive in these ecosystems attractive to various species of both terrestrial and aquatic insects including active pollinators, along with small to medium sized terrestrial and aquatic birds to nest and forage in such restored aquatic habitats. Well stocked waterbodies with native fish species will promote native fish conservation and at the same time provide a stable food source for a number of aquatic birds.

Small and medium sized mammals, reptiles, and amphibians will also be able to establish in such ecosystem utilizing the growing complex food chains and food webs over time. Overall, the innovative and multi-trophic level Integrated Ecological Habitat Development for Bees, Birds and Fishes (IEHD-BBF) model has huge potential for restoration and reestablishment of natural and artificial aquatic ecosystems with minimal care, attention, management and funding. Such ecological restoration using the IEHD-BBF model can serve the needs of dwindling bees and insect pollinator populations, along with local resident and migratory birds and indigenous fishes to successfully multiply in an integrated multi-species catering dynamic ecological system.

Nevade bee foraging on Phacelia in a restored ecosystem. Photo credit: Saikat Kumar Basu

Regionally Specific Ecological Restoration

It is important however to note that plant yield and adaptation varies according to different ecosystems and agro-climatic conditions. It is also important to note that plants exhibit a strong Genotype X Environment interaction (G X E or GE effect). As a consequence, it is not advisable to use same pollinator mix at different locations and habitats for integrated habitat development. Locally adapted biodiverse pollinator mix selected through multi-location trials under varied geographical, geological, ecological, and climatic variations across different latitudes needs to be seriously evaluated for optimal results. Locally adapted pollinator mix with their unique combination of diverse species suited and adapted for individual agro-climatic and ecosystem regions has the potential to yield optimal results.

The flowering periods of the components of the pollinator mix need to be thoroughly investigated and tested against specific environment to evaluate what diversity of natural insect pollinators they are attracting and how well the plants included in the pollinator mix are adapting to the local parameters, withstanding competition against local weeds under field conditions. It will be important to identify the plant species that are performing best under natural conditions at different agro-climatic conditions with respect to establishment, regeneration, and attracting natural insect pollinators. If judicious selection of appropriate plant species is made with local adaptation to agro-climatic variability across different families; and with different flowering period; the resultant pollinator mix will be more suitable and yield optimal results in protecting and conserving pollinators as well as help is establishment or restoration of natural ecosystems.

Canada geese family in restored habitat. Photo credit: Saikat Kumar Basu
Bee foraging on sainfoin flower. Photo credit: Saikat Kumar Basu

Saikat Kumar Basu has a Masters in Plant Sciences and Agricultural Studies. He loves writing, traveling, and photography during his leisure time and is passionate about nature and conservation.

Feature photo: Pollinator sanctuaries can help establish small ecological units over time. Credit: Saikat Kumar Basu

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Ask an Expert: Biodiversity and the Organic Standards

in 2018/Ask an Expert/Land Stewardship/Summer 2018
Stuart McMillan

An Inspector’s View

Stuart McMillan

This story originally appeared in The Canadian Organic Grower, Spring 2018, with thanks.

There are a number of great reasons to be an organic inspector. For myself, the primary one is getting to meet so many fantastic farmers, ranchers, and operators of organic operations across the diverse regions of Canada. Being able to ask people their reasons for decisions and directions on their operations is part of the job, and having them open up the entirety of their farms and facilities is an added perk. I have seen some stunningly beautiful corners of the country in my work. One element that stands out is the diversity of approaches taken in different regions of the country to achieve a common goal.

One of the strengths of the Canadian organic standard is that it recognizes the climatic and ecological diversity of the country and that the approaches taken in one region may not be suitable for another one. This approach is written right into the standards: “In the development of the standard, it was recognized that differences between Canada’s agricultural regions require varying practices to meet production needs” (CAN/CGSB-32.310, Introduction).

But this leads to one of the challenges I have encountered. Various goals and outcomes are mandatory across these regions. For example, it is expected that all organic products will come from a production system that “provides weed, pest, and disease control through enhancement of biodiversity, recycling of plant and animal residues, crop selection and rotation, water management, tillage, and cultivation” (CAN/CGSB-32.310, 1.2b).

This creates some curious challenges while trying to conduct an inspection in an efficient and expedient manner.How does one assess the enhancement of biodiversity? Some farms I have been to have a deep understanding of their region’s ecology and have implemented various practices to promote biodiversity, while other farms appear to not even know this is a requirement.

In recent years, the US organic standards have tried to strengthen their promotion of biodiversity with linkages with other agricultural conservation organization like the Natural Resources Conservation Society (NRCS) to promote best land use practices by farmers. NRCS has developed a focused organic program called “Conservation for Organic Farmers & Ranchers”.

To date, Canada has been slower to have extensive federal support to promote on farm biodiversity. With the reduction in provincial extension services, especially services that can provide organic expertise, farmers find their support networks limited. Without sound guidance on how to improve biodiversity in a meaningful manner, many farmers are uncertain how to move forward. As a result, we continue to find this discrepancy of ecological practices on organic (and non-organic) farms in Canada.

While the flexibility of the organic standards can be an advantage, they are also at times ambiguous. Ambiguity leads to confusion, confusion leads to inaction. Inaction, when it comes to promoting biodiversity on organic farms, leads to erosion of the goals and outcomes of the organic system.


Stuart McMillan is the manager of Legends Organic Farm. He inspected organic farms, ranches, and processors across North America for over 10 years.

Ecological Farm Internships and the Law

in 2018/Organic Community/Winter 2018

Charles Z Levkoe and Michael Ekers

Originally published by Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario in “Ecological Farming in Ontario”. This is part 4 of a 4 part series on research into unpaid farm labour. While the research was conducted with farms in Ontario, much of the findings likely carry over to BC. In 2017, the authors published a workshop report on Ecological Farm Internships that is available for download here: www.foodandlabour.ca/results-and-reflections.

This article is the fourth in a series that describes the increasing trend of non-waged interns working on ecological farms across Ontario. In this article we explore some of the legal implications of these practices and the ensuing concerns from farmers and interns across the province. This article should not, under any circumstances, be considered legal advice and we recommend that the appropriate government departments or legal specialists be contacted regarding specific questions. Also, the laws surrounding farm internships in Ontario are extremely vague. We do not try to determine whether these internships are legal or not, as we are ill-equipped to do so as non-lawyers, but we do attempt to highlight the legal landscape as we understand it and the gaps and ambiguities that deserve further legal research

In previous articles, we established that ecological farm internships offer many things to trainees (e.g., knowledge and skill training), farmers (e.g., support for ecological food production) and the broader food movement. However, the legality of these labour arrangements in Ontario remains uncertain, especially after cases have been settled elsewhere in which unpaid interns were awarded back-wages. For example, in 2013, two farm interns in British Columbia claimed their work arrangement did not meet provincial employment standards and settled out of court for several months’ worth of back-wages. This case caused significant concern for farmers across the country using non-waged interns.

There have been increasing government crackdowns on (non-agricultural) internship programs throughout North America. According to the Ontario Ministry of Labour, between September and December 2015 employment standards officers found that of 77 workplaces that had interns, almost a quarter did not meet legal requirements under the Employment Standards Act (ESA). As a result, many Ontario farmers have been deeply concerned that their use of non-wage interns could be judged in contravention of the law. One farmer commented, “I worry sometimes because there are some farms who aren’t doing things properly with payroll and that’s the type of thing that could end with crackdowns that affect all of us”. A farmer and non-profit director explained, “Some farmers are surprised when I suggest that there’s a risk because they are technically breaking labour rules and relying on the good will of the intern and the internship going well to avoid litigation down the line”.

In Ontario, there are two main areas of legislation that impact farm internships. First, the ESA sets out the rights and responsibilities of both employees and employers and contains fairly clear guidelines to what makes an internship. In short, if you perform work that is of benefit to another person or business, you are considered an employee and therefore entitled to rights under the ESA such as minimum wage. One exception to these rules is for trainees; however, these cases have very restrictive conditions. According to the Ministry of Labour, if an intern receives training used by employees, they would also be considered an employee unless the following six conditions are met:

  • The training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school.
  • The training is for the benefit of the intern. You receive some benefit from the training, such as new knowledge or skills.
  • The employer derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the intern while he or she is being trained.
  • Your training doesn’t take someone else’s job.
  • Your employer isn’t promising you a job at the end of your training.
  • You have been told that you will not be paid for your time.(www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/es/pubs/internships.php)

In addition, farmers taking on interns should be clear on whether they meet regulatory compliance guidelines in Ontario. Aside from the ESA, employers must be in compliance with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act (WSIA) and the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). As operators will know, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) administers the WSIA and delivers no-fault workplace insurance and all agricultural employers must provide coverage to their employees. The OHSA also sets out a number of rights and duties for employers and workers. Compliance includes providing mandatory information about health and safety on the farm and the right to refuse work if it is believed to be dangerous.

The second area of legislation is the agricultural exemptions to the ESA. In general, farm workers involved in primary production (e.g., planting crops, cultivating, pruning, feeding, and caring for livestock) are not covered by some employment standards including minimum wage, hours of work, overtime, general pay with holidays and vacation (of note, this is different for harvest workers and landscape gardeners). However, one farmer noted that when interns do anything other than primary production, they may be on shaky legal ground: “If they’re going to a farmers’ market and manning a stall and working independently, it gets murky”. According to the Ministry of Labour, anyone whose work is related to the harvesting, canning, processing, or packing of fresh vegetables or fruits, or their distribution is entitled to all minimum ESA standards (www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/es/pubs/factsheets/fs_agri.php).

The legislation varies slightly in each province. In Alberta farm owners and related family members are excluded from occupational health and safety laws, but not waged workers. In British Columbia, all agricultural workers are entitled to minimum wage and vacation time. It should be stressed that there is a considerable uncertainty around internship law and agriculture exemptions to labour standards and at this time there is no detailed account of how these areas of law intersect.

Surrounding these legal details, there is an ethical question that many farmers and interns have raised about the value of labour and fair compensation. A labour lawyer noted, “There’s quite a tension there. How do you ensure protection, because, say somebody dies or gets seriously injured on one of these farms? [Employment laws] came in the early part of the late 19th Century as a means to protect vulnerable workers from exploitation and set a floor so people could live”. While there are many benefits that emerge from ecological farming, most farms are businesses and farmers derive various benefits as owners. Anyone doing work on a farm is contributing to the value of that business and deserves compensation. This is especially important for new farmers building the skills, knowledge, and financial (or other) capital to eventually start their own farm business. The best advice we have heard is to always pay minimum wage and ensure employers and interns are adhering to all provincial legislation.

There are a number of government programs farmers can access to help support new farmer training and internships. The following are three good options:

Green Farm Internships (Agriculture and Agri-food Canada): Part of the Agricultural Youth Green Jobs Initiative, this program offers up to 50% of the cost of hiring young workers (up to $16,000 per intern) for environmental activities, services, or research that will benefit the agriculture sector.

Career Focus Program (Service Canada): This program supports 4-12 month agricultural internships for recent graduates of a qualified post secondary program.

Rural Summer Jobs Service (OMAFRA): The program provides wage subsidies for rural and agri-food businesses that employ summer students ages 14-30.

If you would like more information on this research project, to comment on these issues or contact us, please visit our website:

foodandlabour.ca


Dr. Michael Ekers is an Assistant Professor in Human Geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His work mobilizes social and political theory and political economic approaches to understand the making of different environments and the cultures of labour in environmental spaces. 

Dr. Charles Levkoe is the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems and an Assistant Professor in Health Sciences at Lakehead University. He has been involved in food sovereignty work for over 15 years in both the community and academic sectors. His ongoing community-based research focuses on the opportunities for building more socially just and ecologically sustainable food systems through collaboration and social mobilization.

Holistic Management

in Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Summer 2017/Tools & Techniques

Blain Hjertaas

Holistic Management is a decision making system that helps us make better decisions. It teaches us to make decisions that are simultaneously sociologically, environmentally, and economically sound. The end result is happy people, healthy profits, and regenerating soils.

Holistic Management emphasizes principles of regenerating the soil. Our modern industrial approach to agriculture has been a disaster leading to declining nutrient density in food. We consume just over a half tonne of food per year, in the process of producing this food 10 tonnes of soil are lost. Clearly a system of agriculture like this cannot continue.

Holistic Management teaches us the basic principles of regenerative agriculture. How each of us uses these principles is what makes holistic management so unique, as each uses their own creativity to make it work in their own situation.

Principle #1 Solar Capture

To be successful we have to capture sunlight. It is free and non-limiting. There are only three things we can do to increase solar capture: we can make solar panels larger, put more panels up, and leave them turned on longer. On the farm, plant spacing and diversity will largely determine the size and density of the leaves—and in turn how much solar capture is available. We have the potential to capture solar energy from snowmelt to snow arrival (in Saskatchewan, that’s approximately 220 to 250 days). Most annual cropping systems capture solar energy for 70 days of the year. If we are not capturing energy, our soil health is declining. The purpose of solar capture is to send energy to the soil. We need to look at inter cropping, winter crops, poly cropping, etc to increase our harvest of solar energy.

Principle #2 Water Cycle

To make crops grow we need moisture. We have no control as farmers as to how much or when it rains but we have total control as to whether the rainfall is effective (goes into the soil) or not effective (runs off). To make the water cycle effective we need to keep our land covered in litter (green or dead plant material). This absorbs the physical effect of the raindrops and allows them to enter the soil slowly. You can think of the litter layer like the skin on your body. If you have a major burn the consequences can be catastrophic. Litter provides a similar role for the earth. It keeps it warmer in cool times, cooler in warm times, and it allows the moisture to enter and prevents it from evaporating. Moisture is critical for life; to capture and hold it is critical for our success. One of our goals should be to capture every raindrop where it falls.

Principle #3 Mineral Cycle

To have a functioning mineral cycle we need active biology. This occurs when we have solar capture to send sugar down the roots which becomes root exudates. This exudate is the food for the bacteria and fungi. The mycorrhizal fungi physically attach themselves to the root hairs of the plant. In return for the sugar, the fungi get minerals for the plant. These minerals are generally not available to plant; however the mycorrhizal fungi can remove minerals from the soil particles and transport it directly to the plant. This is a synergistic relationship where the plant feeds the fungi and the fungi feeds the plant. This is how nutrient dense food is produced. To have an effective functioning mineral cycle in place, we need to feed the workers below the ground (solar capture) and keep them warm and moist (litter layer and effective water cycle). The bacteria provide many diverse roles from producing enzymes required to being food for the predators which in turn releases nitrogen for the plants. It is wonderfully complex. All we need to do as managers is to foster and enhance and it will continue to get better. All of the living and dying of these billions of organisms is what ultimately sequesters carbon.[DS1]

Principle #4 Community Dynamics

Diversity is wonderful: the more the better. Diversity is not limited to what you plant. Look around; diversity is found in birds, insects, people, animals, and plants. There are synergies between species we do not fully understand. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts: 1+1>2. The challenge becomes how we grow crops that we can harvest mechanically. Poly cropping and inter cropping are becoming new words to farmers as they learn how to put different types of rotations together to harvest the power of this diversity.

How these four principles come together on your farm is up to your creativity. As the four principles are enhanced good things begin to happen. Carbon sequestration begins in the soil. 1 gram of carbon holds 8 grams of water. Increase carbon storage, your farm becomes better able to withstand drought or extreme wet conditions. As carbon increases along with solar capture more life can live below ground. This life below ground increases the nutrient density of the food which is critical for our health. Our requirement for purchased inputs declines and yields go up which certainly helps profitability.

Society will benefit by more nutrient dense food, less infrastructure damage in severe weather events, and carbon being removed from the atmosphere. On my operation in South Eastern Saskatchewan, I have been monitoring soil carbon levels since 2011. I am averaging 22.88 tonnes of CO2 sequestered per hectare per year on a grazing operation. Each Canadian has a carbon footprint of 18.9 tonnes/person/year. Every hectare I operate more than sequesters one Canadian’s carbon footprint.

Regenerative farms provide tremendous value in ecological goods and services to all of society that we are not recognized for. On my 1000 acre operation at a value of $20/ton for CO2, my sequestration value is worth $175,000 per year to society. More water holding and more nutrient dense food and better diversity with endangered grassland birds returning—what value is encompassed there that cannot be quantified?

Holistic Management helps you to make better decisions to achieve the goals that you have for yourself and your family. Along the way your operation should become more profitable and your ecosystem more resilient.

Learn more: holisticmanagement.org


Blain Hjertaas is a Certified Holistic Educator with Holistic Management International. He has 15 years of practical experience using Holistic Management running a 1000 acre grass operation in Saskatchewan, where they also raise lamb, custom graze cows, and poultry. Blain has a passion for carbon sequestration and offers consultations and education on Holistic Management and how the environment functions and how our actions will ultimately influence the ecosystem.

Photo credit: Sandy Black

bhjer@sasktel.net

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.

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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.

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