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Ask an Expert: Organic Agriculture 3.0

in 2020/Ask an Expert/Current Issue/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Organic Standards/Standards Updates/Winter 2020

History of the Debate About the Future of Agriculture

Thorsten Arnold

This article was first published by the Organic Council of Ontario on January 18, 2019, and is reprinted here with gratitude.

The organic farm and food industry is facing major challenges. IFOAM, the international federation of organic agriculture movements, is spearheading a debate on how the organic movement can tackle these in the future. This blog summarizes the history of this debate and some questions of interest for Canada.

In 2015, Europe’s major organic farmer associations identified major challenges, with ongoing relevance for the present. Most importantly, the growth in organic production has been slow and farm conversion to organic practices are stagnating. Even if the current growth of 5% per year is sustained until 2050, the organizations concluded that the impacts of organic agriculture would remain insignificant with respect to the movement’s goal of reducing the adverse impacts of agriculture on the planet’s ecosystem and resource base. The organizations also identified several structural barriers within and outside of the organic sector, and posed the question, what could the next development phase of organic agriculture, coined Organic 3.0, look like?

Organic agriculture is classified into three development stages. Organic 1.0 describes the early period, when farmers responded to the industrialization of farming with a call to respect natural cycles and soil health, and retain a lifestyle that is in tune with nature. This early phase was inspired by Rudolf Steiner’s agricultural courses but also with the warning about “Limits of Growth” by the Club of Rome. Organic 1.0 was characterized by a colorful and incoherent movement that was innovative but failed to link into the mainstream food system. Around 1970, a growing number of unsubstantiated organic/biological/ecological claims increasingly confused consumers and retail traders, highlighting the need for harmonizing the “organic trademark”. European farmer associations reacted by defining a number of guidelines and private organic standards (e.g. Demeter, Bioland, Naturland, BioSwiss, BioAustria), many of which are popular today. During the early 90s, governments throughout the world adopted national organic standards and equivalence agreements between these. This global harmonization enabled international trade in organic goods and also opened retailers to organic products. The successful shift from ideology to standard-driven production is subsumed as Organic 2.0. Today, private and national standards co-exist in many European countries, with private standards being widely recognized by consumers as more stringent and small-scale, whereas national standards cater to industrial organic production and processing.

IFOAM International did not favour a two-tier system, as many member countries do not share Europe’s history of successful private premium organic standards. In a follow-up paper (Nigli et al., 2015), the authors of Biofach 2015 re-formulate the five challenges of organic agriculture as (1) weak growth in agricultural production, (2) the potential of organic agriculture to provide food security, (3) competition from other sustainability initiatives including greenwashing, (4) transparency and safety in value chains, and (5) the need to improve consumer communication. While authors agree that a two-tier system is not necessary, they voice concern about the organic label losing its leadership claim amongst a multitude of emerging sustainability labels. Authors see the current stagnation of organic growth, and the slow speed of innovation in national standards, as a fundamental threat to the organic movement and its goals.

In 2016, IFOAM responded in a paper that gives direction to Organic 3.0. In recognition that “promoting diversity that lies at the heart of organic and recognizing there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach”, IFOAM identified six features that Organic 3.0 should address (IFOAM 2016, p3).

Fig.2 Toward six features of organic agriculture for true sustainability (Source Arbenz et al., 2016)
  • Feature #1: A culture of innovation where traditional and new technologies are regularly re-assessed for their benefits and risk.
  • Feature #2: Continuous improvement towards best practice, for operators along the whole value chain covering the broader dimensions of sustainability.
  • Feature #3: Diverse ways to ensure transparency and integrity, to broaden the uptake of organic agriculture beyond third-party certification;
  • Feature #4: Inclusiveness of wider sustainability interests through alliances with movements that truly aspire for sustainable food and farming while avoiding ‘greenwashing’;
  • Feature #5: Empowerment from the farm to the final consumer, to recognize the interdependence along the value chain and also on a territorial basis; and
  • Feature #6: True value and cost accounting, to internalize costs and benefits and encourage transparency for consumers and policy-makers.

With some further guidance to different players in the organic movement, IFOAM called upon national and regional associations to fill these features with meaning. Since then, organizations across the globe have engaged in a more focused discussion about the future of organic agriculture.

Fig.3 IFOAM proposes changes to how the organic movement operates (Source Arbenz et al., 2016)

What Does the Future of Organic Look Like?

North America’s organic associations remain sceptical about a two-tier approach to the organic label. Still, farmers who strongly exceed the national standards feel insufficiently represented by the organic associations and unable to compete with some of the largest organic production corporations. Next to the Demeter biodynamic certification, there are at least two recent private initiatives that promote premium organic certification. Currently in its piloting phase, the Rodale Institute’s Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) integrates animal welfare and labour fairness requirements and uses three tiers to reward leadership. Secondly, the Real Organic Project is an “add-on label to USDA certified organic to provide more transparency on these farming practices”. USDA organic certification is a prerequisite to participate in this add-on program. This family farmer-driven project embraces centuries-old organic farming practices along with new scientific knowledge of ecological farming.

In the face of these international developments, Ontario’s organic organizations must respond to the grassroots emergence of a de-facto two-tier system. This is not only driven by farmers who feel insufficiently represented by the “mainstream” national organic standards, but also by consumer understanding of the organic label. Organic-critical mainstream articles play a major role in consumer perception, such as a recent Toronto Star article “Milked”, which found less-than-expected differences between the milk from a large certified organic brand and conventional milk. Even though the article’s findings were based on misleading and unscientific grounds, it still points to a growing concern from consumers about the differences across the organic sector. How can consumers learn about these differences? And how do we, as part of Ontario’s organic movement, promote the national organic standard without abandoning those innovators that exceed the COS requirements, and strive for further recognition?

Organic 3.0 aspires to build leadership within the organic sector as well as bridges with mainstream agriculture. This means innovating beyond the COS requirements and sharing experiences with the entire agriculture sector. As Prof. Caradonna, U of Victoria, reports, many non-organic farmers are already taking up some of organic’s proven practices: cover cropping, reduced tillage, and smarter crop rotations. How can we strengthen this cross-over to maximize benefits for our shared planet? And, what can the organic sector learn from the innovative non-organic producers, e.g. for no-till field crops? How can the farming sector better generate, accumulate and pass on knowledge that is independent from input vendors, whose advice is biased by self-interest? How can farmers learn from each other to sustain farm profits, healthy people, and our beautiful planet?


Thorsten Arnold is a member of the Organic 3.0 Task Force of the Organic Value Chain Roundtable. Thorsten also serves on the board of the Organic Council of Ontario and currently works with EFAO as strategic initiatives & fundraising coordinator. Together with his wife Kristine, Thorsten owns Persephone Market Garden.

Feature image: Fig.1 Evolution of the organic movement (Source Arbenz et al., 2016)

Further reading:
OCO’S response to Toronto Star’s article Milked.
Organic agriculture is going mainstream, but not the way you think it is.

References
1. Niggli, U., et al. (2015). Towards modern sustainable agriculture with organic farming as the leading model. A discussion document on Organic: 3. Jg., S. 36.
2. Arbenz, M., Gould, D., & Stopes, C. (2016). Organic 3.0 for truly sustainable farming & consumption. 2ndupdated edition: IFOAM Organics International: ifoam.bio/sites/default/files/organic3.0_v.2_web_0.pdf.

Organic Stories: Covert Farms, Oliver, BC

in 2019/Climate Change/Crop Production/Fall 2019/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Organic Stories/Water Management
Covert Family Farm - Portrait proud family vintners in vineyard

Fighting Drought through Complex Ecosystems

By Emma Holmes

Irecently had the pleasure of visiting Covert Farms Family Estate in Oliver, where Gene Covert, a third-generation farmer, gave me a tour of his family’s 650 acre organic farm, vineyard, and winery. Gene’s grandpa George Covert bought the desert-like piece of land back in 1959, and although some laughed, thinking the land would not be suitable for agriculture, he, his son, and eventually grandson, Gene, have built the farm into a robust, flourishing, certified organic farm that embraces biodynamic, permaculture, and regenerative farming methods.

Gene studied ecosystem complexity as a Physical Geography student at UBC and has carried this learning through to his farming career, approaching it with a high level of curiosity for the natural world and experimentation. His wife, Shelly Covert, a holistic nutritionist, has been co-managing the family farm and in 2010 they were awarded the Outsanding Young Farmer Award BC/Yukon. Gene and Shelley are deeply connected to their land: “The relationships of our land are complex and most have yet to be discovered. As we learn more we find interest, intrigue, and humility.”

Like many places in BC, Oliver is expected to face increasing warmer and drier conditions. Already a drought prone desert, it is more important than ever to find ways to slow the water down, trap it at the surface, give it time to infiltrate, and store it in the soil.

The secret to storing more water lies in soil organic matter. Soil organic matter holds, on average, 10 times more water than its weight. A 1 percent increase in soil organic matter helps soil hold approximately 20,000 gallons more water per acre.1

The Covert’s guiding philosophy is that “only by creating and fostering complexity can we hope to grow food with complex and persistent flavours. Flavours are the ultimate expression of the mineralization brought about by healthy soil microbial ecosystems.” To increase the organic matter content of his sandy soil, Gene took inspiration from organic and regenerative farmers in other agricultural sectors and began experimenting with cover crop cocktails, reduced tillage, and integrating livestock into his system.

Cover crop cocktails. Credit: Covert Farms

Cover Crop Cocktails

Cover crop cocktails are mixtures of three or more cover crop species that allow producers to diversify the number of benefits and management goals they can meet using cover crops. Farmers like Gabe Brown are leading the way and driving the excitement around cover crop cocktails, and research is following suit, with universities starting research programs such as Penn’s State Cover Crop Cocktail for Organic Systems lab.2

To help him in meeting the right mix for his system, Gene uses the Smartmix calculator, made by farmers for farmers3. He has found that seven or more species affords the most drought tolerance. He uses a combination of warm and cool season grasses, lentils, and brassicas. Some of the species in his blend include guargum, a drought tolerant N-fixing bean, radish to break up soil at lower depths, and mustards as a cutworm control.

Gene plants Morton lentils right under the vine to fix N and suppress downy brome. This type of lentil was developed by Washington State University for fall planting in minimum tillage systems. Crop establishment is in the fall and early spring, which is when evapo-transpiration demand is minimal, thus improving water-use efficiency.

The diverse benefits of his cover crop include N fixation, increase in soil organic matter, weed control, pest control, and increased system resilience in a changing climate.

Gene Covert. Credit: Covert Farms

Low-Till

Frequent tillage can negatively impact soil organic matter levels and water-holding capacity. Regular tillage over a long-time period can have a severe negative impact on soil quality, structure, and biological health.

The challenge for organic systems is that tillage is often used for weed control, seedbed preparation, soil aeration, turning in cover crops, and incorporating soil amendment. Thus, new management strategies need to be adopted in place of tillage. Cover cropping, roller crimping, rotational grazing, mowing, mulching, steaming, flaming, and horticulture vinegars are cultural weed control practices that can be used in organic systems as an alternative to tillage. The most successful organic systems embrace and build on the complexity of their system, and utilize several solutions for best results.

Gene used to cultivate five to six times a year, mostly for weed control, but now cultivates just once a year to incorporate cover crop seeds under the vines. Instead of regular tilling to control weeds, he uses cover crops that will compete with weeds but that won’t devigorate the crop and that can be controlled through non-tillage management strategies like roller crimping and rotational grazing. For cover crop seeds between the rows, he uses a no-till seeder.

Intensive Rotational Grazing

Integrated grazing sheep or cattle in vineyards is not a new concept, but it became much less common since the rise in modern fertilizers. It has been increasingly gaining steam in recent years due to the myriad benefits it provides. The animals act as cover crop terminators, lawn mowers, and weed eaters while also improving the overall soil fertility and biological health4. The appropriate presence of animals increases soil organic matter, and some on-farm demonstration research out of Australia showed significant reductions in irrigation use, reduced reliance on machinery, fuels, and fertilizers, and increased soil organic matter.5

Incorporating livestock into a horticultural system adds a completely new management challenge and thus level of complexity. It comes with the risk of compaction and over grazing if not managed properly. The key is to move herds frequently, controlling their access to different sections and never letting them stay too long in one area. As well, the grazing window needs to be limited to after harvest and before bud-break to prevent damage to the cash crop

Grapevines and mountains. Credit: Covert Farms

Increased Resiliency

Since experimenting with and adopting these management practices, Gene has found his cost of inputs has dropped and he has noticed a significant increase in soil organic matter and reduced irrigation requirements. Based on his success so far, he has a goal of eventually dryland farming. No small feat on a sandy, gravelly, glacio-fluvial soil in a desert climate facing increasing droughty conditions!

On-Farm Demonstration Research

A farmer’s experience and observations are critical in problem solving and the development of new management practices. Increasing farmer-led on-farm research is fundamental to improving the resiliency of producers in the face of ongoing climate change impacts, such as drought and unpredictable precipitation.

Farmer-led on-farm research compliments and builds experience by allowing a farmer to use a small portion of their land to test and identify ways to better manage their resources in order to achieve any farming goal they have, including climate adaptation strategies such as increasing soil organic matter to reduce irrigation requirements. The beauty of on-farm demonstration research is that it is farmer directed, it can be carried out independently, and it uses the resources a typical farmer would have on hand.

If you’re inspired by an idea, or a practice you have seen used in another agricultural system and are interested in conducting your own field trials, I highly recommend the BC Forage Council Guide to On-Farm Demonstration Research: How to Plan, Prepare, and Conduct Your Own On-Farm Trials.6 It is an accessible guide that covers the foundations of planning and conducting research, allowing you to achieve the best results. While it was created for the forage industry, the guide covers the basics of research and is applicable to farmers in any sector.

My highest gratitude and praise for the farmers who are finding the overlaps at the edges of agricultural models, where one becomes another—and leading the way into the new fertile and diverse opportunities for sustainable food production in a changing climate.

Thank you to Gene Covert and Lisa Wambold for their knowledge, passion, and insights.


Emma Holmes has a BSc in Sustainable Agriculture and an MSc in Soil Science, both from UBC. She farmed on Orcas Island and Salt Spring Island and is now the Organics Industry Specialist at the BC Ministry of Agriculture. She can be reached at: Emma.Holmes@gov.bc.ca

References and Resources:

1. Bryant, Lara. Organic Matter Can Improve Your Soil’s Water Holding Capacity. nrdc.org/experts/lara-bryant/organic-matter-can-improve-your-soils-water-holding-capacity
2. agsci.psu.edu/organic/research-and-extension/cover-crop-cocktails/project-summary
3. greencoverseed.com
4. Niles, M.T., Garrett, R., and Walsh, D. (2018). Ecological and economic benefits of integrating sheep into viticulture production. Agronomy and Sustainable Development. 38(1). link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13593-017-0478-y
5. Mulville, Kelly. Holistic Approach to Vineyard Grazing. grazingvineyards.blogspot.com
6. BC Forage Council. (2017). A Guide to On-Farm Demonstration Research. Farmwest.com. farmwest.com/node/1623

Adapting at Fraser Common Farm Cooperative

in 2019/Climate Change/Crop Production/Fall 2019/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Organic Community/Pest Management/Seeds/Soil/Tools & Techniques/Water Management

Photos and text by Michael Marrapese

In 2018 Fraser Common Farm Co-operative—home of Glorious Organics—undertook a year long on-farm research project to explore how small farms could adapt to climate change. Seeing the changes in seasonal rainfall, climate predictions by Environment Canada, and new ground water regulations from the provincial government, the cooperative could see that water availability would eventually become a significant limiting factor in farming operations. 

The discussions about adaptation were complex and multi-factored. Every operation on the farm is connected to something else and many systems interconnect in differing ways throughout the season. Changing practices can be difficult, time consuming, and sometimes risky. 

During the year-long project, funded by Vancity, Co-op members worked to evaluate farming practices and areas of opportunity and weakness in farm management. The project generated several feasible solutions to decrease the demand on groundwater, buffer water demand, harvest rain water, and use irrigation water more efficiently. Some solutions were fairly straightforward and easy to implement. Others required more expertise, better data, and further capital.

Mark Cormier: Improving Water Practices

Mark Cormier explains how Glorious Organics uses edible, nitrogen fixing peas, and Fava beans for cover crops. He’s moved away from overhead spray irrigation to drip tape for the bulk of Glorious Organics’ field crops. He puts drip tape under black plastic row mulch. The plastic mulch significantly increases water retention and suppresses weeds. After the first crop comes off the field he rolls up the plastic and plants salad greens in the same row without tilling. Glorious Organics plans to double the size of the artificial pond and and dredge out a smaller natural spring basin to provide more water for the longer, drier summers the region is experiencing. Cormier notes that this year they are selling a lot of plums, a crop that they don’t water at all. 

Mark Cormier with Fava bean cover crop.
Mark with black plastic mulch and drip tape irrigation.
Plums in the upper orchard
Artificial pond and solar powered pumping station.

David Catzel: Developing Diversity

Catzel has several plant breeding and selection projects on the go to develop populations of productive, flavourful, and marketable crops. Preserving and expanding bio-diversity on the farm is vital for long-term sustainability. With his multi-year Kale breeding project, David has been seeking to develop a denticulated white kale and in the process has seen other useful characteristics, like frost-hardiness, develop in his breeding program. He’s currently crossing varieties of watermelon in order to develop a short-season, highly productive variety. His development of seed crops has also become a significant income source. He estimates his recent batch of Winter White Kale seed alone will net $1,500 in sales. As the Co-operative diversifies its product line to include more fruit and berries, organic orchard management practices have become increasingly important. Catzel has been instrumental in incorporating sheep into orchard management. A critical component of pest management is to keep the orchards clean and to remove any fruit on the ground to reduce insect pest populations. The sheep eat a lot of the fallen fruit and keep the grass and weeds in check making it easier to keep the orchards clean. 

David Catzel and the Kale Breeding Project.
David Catzel crossing Watermelon varieties.
David Catzel with his Winter White Kale seed crop.
David tending sheep.

Barry Cole: Gathering Insect Data

With the arrival of the spotted wing drosophila fruit fly, Fraser Common Farm was facing a management crisis. There seemed to be little organic growers could do to combat the pest, which destroys fruit before is is ripe. Infestations of Coddling Moth and Apple Maggot were making it difficult to offer fruit for sale. Barry Cole set about to gather meaningful data to help understand pest life cycles and vectors of attack. He’s set up a variety of traps and tapes and monitors them regularly to determine when pests are most active and which trees they prefer. The “Bait Apples” attract a large number of Apple Coddling Moths. The yellow sticky tapes help determine which species are present at various times in the season. Since many of the fruit trees are more than 20 years old, he also monitors and records tree productivity and fruit quality to better determine which trees should be kept and which should be replaced. 

The fake apple trap.
Identifying active pests.
Inspecting Early Harvest.
Barry Cole inspecting walnuts for pests.

Michael Marrapese is the IT and Communications Manager at FarmFolk CityFolk. He lives and works at Fraser Common Farm Cooperative, one of BC’s longest running cooperative farms, and is an avid photographer, singer, and cook.

Feature image: David Catzel’s watermelon varieties.

Clockwise from left: ; the fake apple trap; identifying active pests; Barry Cole inspects walnutd for pests; Mark Cormier with fava bean cover crop; plums in the upper orchard; David Catzel with his White Winter Kale seed crop. Credit: Michael Marrapese. 

Ask An Expert: A New Agricultural Environmental Management Regulation

in 2019/Ask an Expert/Fall 2019/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Standards/Water Management
Agricultural Management code of practice BC ministry of Agriculture Farmer in a field

By the Province of British Columbia

In keeping with the respect BC’s agricultural operators have for the land, air, and water, new rules for agricultural environmental management are now in place. After years of science and evidence-based analysis, as well as conversations with agricultural operators throughout the province, a new regulation called the Code of Practice for Agricultural Environmental Management (AEM Code) came into effect on February 28, 2019. The goal of this Code is to provide more clarity for the agriculture sector while better protecting the environment for all British Columbians.

Organic farmers will see that some requirements are continued from the previous regulation, such as no direct discharges into watercourses, some have been revised to clarify expectations, and some are new, several of which are being phased in over the next decade.

Why a new regulation?

Through several consultations we heard that the old rules were too vague for operators and weren’t adequately protecting the environment. Working with farmers, we built a fair set of rules that ensure agricultural practices protect our drinking water, watercourses, and air.

The new AEM Code takes a different approach to the previous regulation. Requirements are more clearly outlined, and they’re both risk-based and science-based. For example, more protective measures now need to be taken in high-risk areas and during high-risk conditions. Also, soil samples are required to be taken to help determine what measures are necessary on specific farms.

Who does this regulation apply to?

It applies to all agricultural operations in BC, from small hobby farms to large commercial operations, including organic farms. That said, the regulation has been built with the understanding that not all agricultural operations are the same and that there are differences from one region of this province to another. Various requirements are contingent on an operation’s location, size, and type of activity. Many farms won’t need to make big changes to adjust to the new regulation.

What does this regulation include?

The new regulation includes provisions that aim to: ensure watercourses and groundwater are protected through proper storage and use of manure, other nutrient sources, and other materials, such as wood residue; prevent water quality impacts from contaminated run-off; prohibit direct discharges into watercourses; require nutrient management planning; allow for increased monitoring in high-risk areas; provide clear compliance expectations for agricultural operators for setbacks, storage, and nutrient applications; and, require record-keeping.

When is this happening?

The new rules came into effect on February 28, 2019, but some of the requirements, such as nutrient management plans, will be phased-in over the next decade. This approach will give agricultural operators time to plan for and adjust to the new rules, and for government to work collaboratively with industry to develop the necessary tools to support implementation.

What does this mean for me?

Organic farmers will need to demonstrate a basic level of environmental protection, but many are already doing what the regulation requires. This includes:

  • ensuring minimum setbacks for various activities and proper storage requirements are followed;
  • preventing contaminated runoff, leachate, solids, and air contaminants from entering watercourses, crossing property boundaries, or going below the seasonal high water table;
  • registration for boilers and heaters with greater than 0.15 MW capacity, and meeting emissions limits for opacity and particulate matter;
  • nitrogen application rates that meet the crop’s needs and not more, for applications to land and other than to land (e.g., grown in containers);
  • collecting and containing wastewater, contaminated runoff, or leachate;
  • wastewater needs to be treated prior to discharge into the environment; and
  • record-keeping to demonstrate compliance.

Requirements will affect farms differently depending on whether they are in a high-risk area, what their current practices are, and the nature and size of the farm. In addition to the basic level of protection above, these include increased monitoring and protective measures in high-risk areas and during high-risk conditions, such as:

  • protective bases for greenhouses and storage structures in vulnerable aquifer recharge areas to ensure no leaching down into the aquifer;
  • covering temporary field-stored piles, including agricultural by-products or wood residue, and outdoor agricultural composting piles, in high precipitation areas from October 1 to April 1.

How will the regulation be enforced?

As we roll out the new regulation, we will be working with you on how to best help you comply with the new rules. Our goal is to support agricultural operators so that, working together, we can better protect the environment.

There are dedicated staff within the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy who will work with you to understand your obligations under the Environmental Management Act, which this regulation falls under. The team uses a consistent and risk-based approach for establishing compliance and enforcement priorities.

Learn more: to find out if you are in a high-risk area, or need more information on what records you need to keep, or what minimum setbacks you need to follow, please visit the following website at: gov.bc.ca/Agricultural-Environmental-Management.

Questions? Contact: AEMCoPenquiries@gov.bc.ca 

All photos: Province of British Columbia

Bringing Plants and Animals Together for Soil Health

in 2019/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Soil/Spring 2019/Tools & Techniques

Crop-Livestock Integration at Green Fire Farm

DeLisa Lewis, PhD

What do the North American Dust Bowl of the 1930s and the current global experiences of climate change have in common? Of course, both are understood as environmental disasters with humans as major contributors. But, if you answered with either ‘farmers’ or ‘soils,’ or more ideally, both, you’d be hearing a celebratory ding-ding-ding right about now.

For farmers and their soils, however, the ‘answers,’,in the form our day-to-day management are not so simple. Environmental historians have uncovered a picture of the Dust Bowl that is also less simple than the above equation, (e.g. Worster, D. 2004; Cunfer, 2004). True to the story I would like to tell here, these historians do focus on some of the challenges of long-term management of soils. Geoff Cunfer, an environmental historian of the Great Plains, found just how much ‘manure matters’ and asserted, “Through 10,000 years of farming on five continents by hundreds of diverse human cultures, only a handful of solutions to soil fertility maintenance have emerged” (Cunfer, 2004: p. 540).

What I’ve learned from reading environmental and agricultural history accounts, as well as reviewing the findings from long-term agricultural research studies1 is that careful, and regionally specific considerations of soils and climates are key nodes for fine-tuning systems. Perhaps more importantly, farming operations, including organic ones, have become increasingly specialized with livestock and manure here and vegetables over there. The lessons from history and long-term agricultural research, point towards diversity, and combined strategies for soil fertility or soil health.

I did not reach a place of digging around the archives or agriculture research station reports until I had close to 15 years of practice with soil management on certified organic vegetables farms. My farming systems experience to that point was within specialized, vegetables-only operations where I managed the soil preparation of the fields as well as windrows of compost with the front-end loader on my tractor.

When I arrived in British Columbia to learn more about the science behind soil management practices, some of the immediate lessons learned centered on the very different soil types, climate characteristics, and economic and cultural realities here. I now have just over a decade of ‘living here’ experience in the Coast-Islands region of BC, and am moving into year five operating our family-owned farm in the Cowichan Valley. That background is meant to highlight that I am still learning, and what I want to share for the purposes of this article on soil health and climate change, is my journey so far with integrating livestock with vegetables on Green Fire Farm.

Although coping with ‘too much and too little’ available water is not new to farmers in the Coast-Islands regions of BC, frequent and extreme weather events do present a new set of challenges. Faced with the demands of producing high quality product in competitive markets, and rising costs for farm inputs, we decided to pursue a number of different strategies to meet the goals of farm profitability, risk reduction, and (my personal favourite) soil health.2 The overall strategy is diversification, both in the fields and in terms of different revenue streams for the farm.

The soils and climate of our farm are well suited to a mixed farming operation, with Fairbridge silt loam soils3 and a Maritime Mediterranean climate. The soil landscape would be described as ‘ridge and swale’, with differing slopes and mixed drainage patterns interspersed through the fields. The drainage limitations of these soils and the erosion prone sloping areas are key pressure points for early spring and late fall field soil preparations. Though I have attempted to address some of these potential challenges to soil health with carefully timed tillage,4 and the use of a spader to reduce mechanical disturbance, the loss of production from one to two weeks at both ends of the growing season can be a costly hit to our farm profitability.

With that in mind, I see necessity as a driver with my decision-making around farm enterprise diversification. I did not arrive on our farm in the Cowichan with all the knowledge or skills required to integrate livestock with our vegetable production, but I did arrive with a keen interest in learning what mix of systems could optimize the opportunities and limits of our farm’s unique mix of soils, climate, and markets. Nearly five years in, we grow and sell a diverse mix of annual vegetables, perennial fruits, hay, and pastured pork. In recognition of the limits to my own management capacity, the addition of each new layer of complexity to the system is small and incremental.

I braved the unknowns of bringing in weaner piglets in the first season because we did not have enough irrigation water at that time to set up the vegetable systems that were most familiar to me. We began our learning with pastured pig systems with a total of eight piglets.

Last spring, we found another certified organic farm in our valley who were ready to sell their small herd of four lowline Angus beef cows. With their mentorship and guidance, I’ve added a system of ‘modified’5 intensive grazing to our pastures. In addition to purchasing the cows, our investments were increases to our electric fencing equipment used with the pigs, additional livestock watering tanks, and a used set of haying equipment.

This spring, I plan to set up smaller paddocks using the electric fencing where I want the cows to terminate the overwintered cover crops. This would be my ‘holy grail’6 system for putting in practice both soil health principles and climate friendly strategies, and much additional research will be needed to evaluate the return on investment and to quantify the contributions to soil health or climate impacts mitigation.

Currently, I have more questions than answers with respect to a full assessment of how this crop-livestock integration performs on our farm. As one part of our response to that, we will be expanding our record-keeping systems in an effort to learn our way towards an evaluation. Connecting our farm efforts to the work of others as recorded in the pages of this magazine, Corine Singfield7 and Tristan Banwell8 are both carrying out promising on-farm research focusing on livestock integration and MIG. Stay tuned for more details!


DeLisa has two decades of experience managing certified organic mixed vegetable production systems. She was lead instructor for the UBC Farm Practicum in Sustainable Agriculture from 2011-2014, and her teaching, research, and consulting continue with focus areas in soil nutrient management, farm planning, and new farmer training. Her volunteer service to the community of growers in British Columbia includes membership on the COABC Accreditation Board and North Cowichan Agriculture Advisory Committee.

Endnotes
1. Examples of long-term agricultural research include > 100 years at Rothamstead in the U.K., Morrow plots and Sanborn Field (USA), > 40 years at the Rodale Farming Systems trial
2. See the ‘science of soil health’ video series published by the USDA NRCS, 2014
3. See the BC Soil SIFT tool for mapped and digitized information on your soil types and agricultural capability
4. Conservation tillage is recognized as a ‘climate friendly’ and soil health promoting practice, and there are many variations on that theme as farmers and farming systems. I use the term ‘careful’ tillage to emphasize attention to monitoring soil moisture conditions to reduce soil physical and biological impacts, and as an overall effort to reduce the number of passes with machinery. Not to be missed, in a discussion of soil health and climate friendly farming practices, are two recently published growers focused books on the no-till revolution in organic and ecologically focused farming systems. See what Andrew Mefford and Gabe Brown have to say in the recent issue of ‘Growing for Market’ magazine.
5. Management Intensive Grazing defined as emphasizing ‘the manager’s understanding of the plant-soil-animal-climate interface as the basis for management decision’ in Dobb, 2013 is a promising, climate friendly practice for BC growers. I use the term ‘modified’ to signal that I have not yet achieved the daily moves or high intensity stocking numbers often associated with MIG. Our paddock rotations have evolved to reflect our immediate needs for lower labour inputs and less frequent moving of the animals with their paddocks.
6. See Erik Lehnhoff and his colleagues’ (2017) work in Montana for an interesting review of livestock integration and organic no-till in arid systems.
7. See Corine Singfield’s article on integrating pigs and chickens into crop rotations in the Winter 2016 issue of the BC Organic Grower.
8. See Tristan Banwell’s article on Managed-intensive grazing in the Winter 2018 issue of the BC Organic Grower.

References
Badgery, W., et al. (2017). Better management of intensive rotational grazing systems maintains pastures and improves animal performance. Crop and Pasture Science.68: 1131-1140. dx.doi.org/10.1071/CP16396
Bunemann, E.K., et al. (2018). Soil quality – a critical review. Soil Biology and Biochemistry. 120:105-125. doi.org/10.1016/j.soilbio.2018.01.030
Cunfer, G. (2004). Manure Matters on the Great Plains Frontier. Journal of Interdisciplinary History. 34: 4 (539-567).
Dobb, A. (2013). BC Farm Practices and Climate Change Adaptation: Management-intensive grazing. BC Agriculture and Food Climate Action Initiative. deslibris-ca.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/ID/244548
Lehnhoff, E., et al. (2017). Organic agriculture and the quest for the holy grail in water-limited ecosystems: Managing weeds and reducing tillage intensity. Agriculture. 7:33. doi:10.3390/agriculture7040033
Pan, W.L., et al. (2017). Integrating historic agronomic and policy lessons with new technologies to drive farmer decisions for farm and climate: The case of inland Pacific Northwestern U.S. Frontiers in Environmental Science. 5:76. doi:10.3389/fenvs.2017.00076
Richards, M.B., Wollenberg, E. and D. van Vuuren. (2018). National contributions to climate change mitigation from agriculture: Allocating a global target, Climate Policy. 18:10, 1271-1285, doi:10.1080/14693062.2018.1430018
Telford, L. and A. Macey. (2000). Organic Livestock Handbook. Ontario: Canadian Organic Growers.
Worster, D. (2004). Dust Bowl: The southern Plains in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press.
Province of British Columbia, Environment, M. O. (2018, May 09). BC Soil Information Finder Tool. gov.bc.ca/gov/content/environment/air-land-water/land/soil/soil-information-finder
Explore the Science of Soil Health. (2014). USDA National Resources Conservation Service. nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/soils/health/?cid=stelprdb1245890
Singfield, C. (2016). Integrating Livestock into Farm Rotations. BC Organic Grower. bcorganicgrower.ca/2016/01/integrating-livestock -in-the-farm-rotations/
Banwell, T., Tsutsumi, M. (2018). Organic Stories: Spray Creek Ranch. BC Organic Grower. bcorganicgrower.ca/2018/01/organic-stories-spray-creek-ranch/

Ask an Expert: Soil Testing

in 2019/Ask an Expert/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Soil/Spring 2019

Tools for your Nutrient Management Toolkit

Amy Norgaard, Dru Yates, & Emma Holmes

Every year farmers align countless variables to produce healthy crops that make it to market. Crop planning. Bed prep. Transplanting. Irrigation. Weed management. Pest management. Harvest. Storage and transport. Typically, there is a sweet spot in terms of either quantity or timing for each of these, and there are indicators or measures to stay in that ideal range. For example, the weather forecast and local temperatures highlight best times for transplanting, thermometers track temperatures in storage facilities, and in-field insect traps help monitor pest pressures. Nutrient management is another one of these farm management components that we can stack in our favour—and soil sampling is an essential tool to make informed decisions in this area.

The main reason for soil sampling in agriculture is to assess soil fertility and related properties like pH and texture. Results not only inform management practices for the current season but can also act as a report card for past decisions. Just like we can feel or measure the soil to make irrigation decisions, we can use soil tests to provide us with a snapshot of fertility status and amend accordingly. Being able to apply the right nutrients in the right quantities is just another opportunity to add another piece to the puzzle on the way to our yield, quality, and/or productivity goals.

Best Practices for Taking a Soil Sample

When collecting soil for analysis, the goal is to obtain a sample that is representative of the area you are interested in. Since soil properties vary across fields, there are several steps to ensuring the most reasonable average possible.

1. Take several sub-samples from your area of interest and mix them together to get a composite sample:

  • If your garden plot is small (100 – 200 sq. ft), take 4 – 5 samples.
  • If your garden is larger (500 – 10,000 sq. ft.), take 9 – ­ 10 samples.
  • If you are measuring a larger area (i.e. 1 – 25 acres) and that area is relatively uniform in cropping and management history, take about 15 – 30 samples to make your composite sample.
  • If your sample area is larger than 25 acres, try to arrange your sampling areas so that a single composite sample does not represent more than 25 acres.

2. Avoid spots that look different from the rest, or that have been managed differently. For example:

  • Wet spots in an otherwise well drained field.
  • Areas where plants are growing exceptionally well, or exceptionally poorly compared to the rest of the field.
  • Greenhouses that are left covered over winter.
  • If you are curious about an area that is different from the rest, sample it separately.

3. Make sure each sub-sample is the same volume and is taken to the same rooting depth (usually 6 inches for most nutrient tests).

4. Collect samples randomly from the entire field area. A soil probe is the ideal tool as it is fast and ensures consistency among depth and volume of samples, but if you don’t have one readily available, a trowel or garden spade works well. You will also need a bucket and plastic bags. It helps to pre-label the bags with the sample name using a sharpie so that samples don’t get mixed up! Clean any equipment that comes into contact with the sample (eg. shovel and bucket) with clean potable water and dilute soap.

5. Start collecting samples from the sampling area and add into the bucket. Remove any bits of vegetation, pebbles, or fauna with a gloved hand. Once you have all your sub-samples for your area in a bucket, mix them together and take a ½ cup of soil and put into the prelabeled ziplock bag.

6. Repeat for other samples, making sure to clean your tools between sites.

For more details on taking a soil sample, please refer to this factsheet, which can be accessed by searching for ‘Soil Sampling for Nutrient Management’ on the BC Ministry of Agriculture website

Due to inherent variability in analytical methods, two labs can provide different values for the same nutrient of interest because labs use different extraction methods and equipment. Even when using the same method there is lab to lab variability. Therefore, it is important to use the same lab consistently to monitor trends over time. It is also important to take into consideration the methods used when analyzing the results.

On Testing Compost and Amendments (It’s a Good Idea)

Composts are commonly used in organic agriculture as a source of organic matter and plant nutrients. However, these amendments vary widely in their composition depending on many factors, such as feed-stock, composting process, and storage conditions. These not only affect the initial nutrient content, but also influence nutrient loss prior to spreading, as well as the soil nutrient dynamics (release and availability to crops) when the amendment is spread in the field. Therefore, testing a compost pile shortly before spreading gives us the best snapshot of its composition and represents another tool in our toolkit when making site-specific nutrient management decisions in systems using these products.

Composts can be tested for a variety of properties, including both macro- and micro-nutrient content, carbon to nitrogen ratio (C:N), pH, electrical conductivity (EC), organic matter content, etc. Together, these provide an overall picture of compost quality and can help predict the subsequent effects on soil quality and nutrient supply to crops. The specific parameters to test for depend on the goals for using the product, and any specific concerns or goals. For example, farms that already have salinity issues may want to test potential soil amendment sources for EC as an indicator of salt content to avoid exacerbating this pre-existing situation.

From a broad nutrient management perspective, testing for C:N, nitrogen (N), and phosphorous (P) are valuable first steps in balancing these nutrients, as compost products are often used to supply all or at least part of the N and P needs in organic farming systems. Additionally, these nutrients are important to consider because they are not only needed in significant quantities, but are also environmentally damaging when lost to surrounding ecosystems. In general, applying compost to target crop N requirements results in the over-application of P, and over time we see excess P levels in soils where this management practice is common (Sullivan & Poon, 2012). This highlights the advantage of implementing soil and compost testing, where we can not only monitor our soil P levels over time, but also be aware of the quantity we are applying by testing our amendments.

Finally, while N and P are two important plant macronutrients, compost provides a variety of other plant nutrients that can be important considerations, depending on the crop we are amending, soil test values, and any other farm-specific considerations. Implementing compost testing as a tool to be more informed about the properties of these amendments allows for more specific, targeted use and more efficient, environmentally-friendly farming systems overall.

How to Calculate Amendment Needs

While compost and soil tests answer the question “What’s there?”, there are still a few steps to go from these values to a target amendment application rate in the field. This can often be the most intimidating element and involves a few calculations. However, there are several online or downloadable calculators and resources for this process. The two nutrient calculators listed below are good starting points, and are accompanied by several resource pages and/or documents to get oriented to how they work. The BC Ministry of Agriculture’s Nutrient Management Calculator allows you to pick your lab when inputting your values, and will assist you in choosing the right rate and nutrient source for your crops.

Amendment Calculators:
Organic Cover Crop and Fertilizer Calculator (OSU Extension)
BC Ministry of Agriculture Nutrient Management Calculator

Additional Nutrient Management Resources:
Fertilizing with Manure and Other Organic Amendments (PNW)
Nutrient Management for Sustainable Vegetable Cropping Systems in Western Oregon (OSU)

Soil Fertility in Organic Systems – A guide for gardeners and small acreage farmers (PNW)

Post-harvest Nitrate Testing

The post-harvest nitrate test (PHNT) is a soil test performed in the late-summer to early-fall to evaluate nitrogen (N) management, and is another soil test to add to your nutrient management toolkit. This test measures the amount of nitrate-N remaining in the soil following harvest, and represents the plant-available N that was not used by the crop during the growing season.

Nitrate is highly mobile within the soil system and so is highly susceptible to leaching during winter months. For example, in coastal BC, effectively all soil nitrate is assumed to be lost from the root zone (in absence of an established cover crop) due to high winter rainfall. As such, it is:
1. common for spring nitrate-N soil test values to be minimally informative, and
2. important to manage soil N in ways that keep PHNT values low.

The PHNT is often referred to as a “report card” assessment of N management as it is used in retrospect—an evaluation of the impacts of nutrient management decisions that were made for the previous season. It provides a way for growers to assess and adjust their N management, to both get the most effective use out of the fertilizer inputs they are paying for, and to reduce environmental impacts of excess nitrates entering waterways.

Rating General Interpretation PHNT (kg/ha)

0-30 cm

Low Continue present N management < 50
Medium Adjust N management to improve plant uptake efficiency 50-99
High Reduce N inputs, implement strategy to reduce N leaching (e.g. cover crop) 100-199
Very High >200

Table 1. Post-Harvest Nitrate Test (PHNT) ratings developed for corn and grass in the B.C. Lower Mainland (taken from Kowalenko et al. 2007).

To take a sample for PHNT, follow the general instructions for a taking a soil sample (see above in ‘Best Practices for Taking a Soil Sample’), plus the following modifications. Note that PHNT sampling protocols are somewhat crop and region specific. The following are generalized tips:

Timing: the general guideline is to sample after harvest, and before cover crop seeding, soil amending, and significant rainfall. For example, sampling before 125mm cumulative rainfall in south coastal BC on fine to medium textured soils is ideal.

Depth: sample to a minimum of 30cm. This is deeper than standard nutrient sampling recommendations.

Adjust for volume: take the nitrate-N value that you get from the soil lab and multiply by depth (0.3m), multiply by the bulk density of the soil (kg/m^3), and divide by 100 to get PHNT value in kg/ha. Soil bulk density will vary by soil type, and farm-specific values can be attained by paying for a bulk density test at a soil lab. The finer the texture, the denser the soil – many commonly used book-values fall between 1150 to 1300 kg/m^3.

For certain forage crops in coastal BC, such as silage corn and grass, target PHNT values have been developed to indicate whether N inputs should be managed differently in the following season. Under these rating systems (Table 1), higher ratings mean lower N-use efficiency and greater risk for leaching loss of nitrate-N.

The typical, potential reasons for inefficient N-uptake are:

  • N applications were in excess of total crop needs;
  • N was not applied at the optimal time(s) for crop uptake; or,
  • N was not applied where it was accessible to plant roots, or that other growing conditions (e.g. moisture, temperature, other nutrients) were limiting to crop uptake of N.

Relative differences in PHNT values are a useful tool in N management decisions, regardless of crop-specific target PHNT values. If you can identify a field or crop with high PHNT relative to your other fields, this is something to note, adjust nutrient management, and evaluate how that impacts your PHNT values the following season. This PHNT approach to N testing will provide much more insight into your N management than the N values you will receive from your spring soil tests. To address the need for more PHNT information in other field vegetable crops besides silage corn and grass, work is ongoing in BC to better understand PHNT testing and its implications.

Further detail on taking samples and interpreting PHNT values is available through the OSU Extension Catalog, search ‘Post-Harvest Soil Nitrate Testing’.

Assistance can also be found by contacting your Organics Specialist, Emma Holmes (Emma.Holmes@gov.bc.ca) at the BC Ministry of Agriculture.

Soil Labs 

AGAT Laboratories
120 – 8600 Glenlyon Parkway, Burnaby, BC V5J 0B6
Phone: (778) 452-4000

Exova (formerly Bodycote/Norwest)
#104, 19575 – 55A Avenue, Surrey, BC V3S 8P8
Phone: (604) 514-3322 Fax: (604) 514-3323
Toll free: (800) 889-1433

Maxxam Analytics (formerly Cantest Ltd.)
4606 Canada Way, Burnaby BC V5G 1K5
Phone: 604-734-7276 Toll-free: 1 (800) 665-8566
Email : info@maxxamanalytics.com

Ministry of Environment Analytical Laboratory
4300 North Road
PO BOX 9536 Stn Prov Govt Victoria, BC
Phone: 250-952-4134
Email: NRlab@gov.bc.ca

MB Laboratories Ltd.
By Courier: 4 – 2062 West Henry Ave, Sidney BC V8L 5Y1
By Mail: PO Box 2103, Sidney BC V8L 3S6
Phone: (250) 656-1334
Email: mblabs@pacificcoast.net

Pacific Soil Analysis Inc.
5 – 11720 Voyageur Way, Richmond BC V6X 3G9
Phone: (604) 273-8226
Email: cedora19@telus.net

Plant Science Lab (affiliated with TerraLink Horticulture Inc.)
464 Riverside Road, Abbotsford, BC V2S 7M1
Phone: (604) 864-9044 x1602
Email: pwarren@terralink-horticulture.com


Amy Norgaard: Amy has a BSc in Agroecology and is now working on a MSc in Soil Science in the Sustainable Agricultural Landscapes lab at UBC. She has worked on several small-scale organic farms and is an Articling Agrologist with the BCIA. Her research is focused on nutrient management on organic vegetable farms. She can be reached at: amynorgaard@alumni.ubc.ca

Dru Yates: Dru has a M.Sc. in Soil Science from UBC, is an Articling Agrologist with the BCIA, and currently works as a consultant with E.S. Cropconsult Ltd. Her work includes providing integrated pest management (IPM) services to vegetable and blueberry growers throughout the Fraser Valley, as well as performing sampling and local research trials related to nutrient management. She can be reached at: dru@escrop.com

Emma Holmes: Emma Holmes has a B.Sc. in Sustainable Agriculture and a M.Sc. in Soil Science, both from UBC. She farmed on Orcas Island and Salt Spring Island and is now the Organics Industry Specialist at the BC Ministry of Agriculture. She can be reached at: Emma.Holmes@gov.bc.ca

References

Kowalenko, C.G., Schmidt, O., and Hughes-Games, G. (2007). Fraser Valley Soil Nutrient Study 2005. A Survey Of The Nitrogen, Phosphorus And Potassium Contents Of Lower Fraser Valley Agricultural Soils In Relation To Environmental And Agronomic Concerns.

Sullivan, C. S., & Poon, D. (2012). Fraser Valley Soil Nutrient Survey 2012.

Feature Image: Amy Norgaard sampling soil. Credit: Teresa Porter

Footnotes from the Field: Climate Change

in Footnotes from the Field/Spring 2019

Are We on the Brink of an Ecological Armageddon?

Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA V.O.

The United Nations’ 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report identified that “biodiversity is an essential prerequisite for the maintenance of ecosystem services providing manifold benefits to human well-being.”

How is Climate Change Impacting the Biodiversity of our Planet’s Ecosystem?

Regional climate change hot spots have begun to undergo dramatic biodiversity reductions and, in some cases, ecosystem collapse due to temperature related food chain disruptions. Scientists in the field of phenology, the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena relating to climate, plant, and animal life have found that rapid climate change is causing a decoupling of once synchronized light-sensitive cycles from temperature-sensitive cycles.

Slower shifts in climate over geological time frames are well recognized natural and cyclic phenomena. Climate studies have demonstrated that a climate shift 6,000 years ago in northern Africa converted the Sahara grassland savannahs to desert sands. Archeological evidence has found cave paintings in the desert showing mermaids and swimmers in the now-dry local lakes.

How Can We Know that Human Activities are Actually Contributing to an Increase in Global Temperatures?

As the Industrial Revolution was being propelled forward by the burning of fossil fuels, the Greenhouse Effect began building as those fossil fuels released greenhouse gases. The Industrial Revolution began in the 1760’s in Europe and had rooted in North America by the 1820’s.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have risen by 39 percent and methane levels have risen to the highest concentrations in at least 650,000 years. These greenhouse gases prevent thermal radiation from leaving the Earth’s surface atmosphere with the ocean acting as a heat sink. The upper ocean layer’s heat content has increased significantly more in recent decades. As the ocean absorbs heat, waves, tides, and currents, move  that heat from warmer to cooler latitudes, and to deeper levels. Eventually this heat energy re-enters the land systems by melting ice shelves, evaporated water (rain), or by directly reheating the atmosphere. Heat energy stored in the ocean has a long life span—it can warm the planet for decades after it was absorbed.

Early oceanographers recorded ocean temperature data from 1872 to 1876 aboard the HMS Challenger. The ship sailed 69,000 nautical miles, recording 300 ocean temperature profiles at several depths. Fast forward to today’s Argo Project headed up by oceanographer Dr. Dean Roemmich. The Argo Project uses 3,000 free-drifting floats for long-term monitoring of global ocean temperatures and salinity every 10 days. In a recent scientific paper Dr. Roemmich reported the results, comparing today’s ocean temperatures to those taken by HMS Challenger’s crew. The study revealed an overall average temperature increase of 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit (0.59 degrees Celsius) at the ocean’s surface over the past 135 years.

Rising Ocean Surface Temperatures Directly Influence Global Weather Patterns

NASA scientists have developed computer simulations of historical weather data. These data described the ocean temperatures that created the weather conditions leading to the North American Dust Bowl from 1931 to 1939, considered to be the most significant meteorological event of the 20th century. NASA scientists found that the Atlantic Ocean surface temperature had risen by 1 degree Farenheit, and that the Pacific Ocean had experienced a cooling La Niña cycle. The combination triggered the drought weather patterns for the America Plains.

The Dust Bowl eroded 100 million acres into stripped and lacerated wastelands spanning Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico, with dust storms severely affecting a total of 27 states. Farms in the Dust Bowl lost an average of 480 tons of topsoil per acre. By 1940, the Dust Bowl conditions had prompted the relocation of 2.5 million people. The infamous Black Sunday storm on April 14, 1935 measured 200 miles across by 2,000 feet high with winds at 65 mph. The dust blocked the sunlight causing temperatures to drop 25 degrees Farenheit in one hour. During one severe two-hour period on Black Sunday, the violent storm stripped away twice as much soil as had been dug out over seven years to build the Panama Canal.

Hugh Hammond Bennett became known as the father of soil conservation in his work as founder and head of the US Soil Conservation Service. Bennett identified poor farming practices, deep plowing, denuded soil, removal of trees, and drought as the main causes of the Dust Bowl.

Under Bennett’s leadership, the US Soil Conservation Service initiated a 30-year program to restore and mitigate the damages of the Dust Bowl, including the replanting of denuded land. Bennett also set up programs to teach farmers better land management techniques such as leaving crop stubble in the field after harvest. Additionally, in the 1930’s, the US government purchased 11.3 million acres and replanted native grasslands. However, damage to the land was so severe, that by the year 2,000 some areas were still barren of growth and blowing dust.

Light and Temperature-Sensitive Ecosystem Cycles

Bennet stated, “the Kingdom of Nature is not a democracy; we cannot repeal natural laws when they become irksome. We have got to learn to conform to those laws or suffer severer consequences than we have already brought upon ourselves.”5

Here we are some 80 years after Bennett’s warning, and status updates report that climate change is moving forward unabated. An important factor in climate change is the disruption of ecosystem relationships by decoupling synchronized light-sensitive cycles from temperature-sensitive cycles.

Farmers are familiar with counting heat units to time the application of pest controls. This is because many insects—as well as reptiles, and amphibians—use temperature-sensitive cycles as cues for hatching emergence. Sex selection for some reptiles, such as crocodiles, is temperature based—the temperature of incubation will determine the sex of the offspring. This leaves many reptiles at-risk: an entire sex can be removed from the reproductive landscape in a few breeding seasons.

Phytoplankton communities are losing biodiversity in the face of higher ocean temperatures as natural selection is for more heat-tolerant groups. Phytoplankton make up only 0.2 percent of global primary producer biomass, yet they are responsible for about 50 percent of the world’s primary food production. In addition, phytoplankton are key components in the global carbon cycle. Reduction in the biodiversity of phytoplankton communities changes the primary producer profiles and reduces the resilience of the ocean ecosystem.

The concept of an Ecological Armageddon is emerging — Dr. CA Hallmann reports an 82 percent decline in flying insects at 63 protected sites in Germany, over a 27-year study period. Hallmann notes, “loss of insects is certain to have adverse effects on ecosystem functioning, as insects play a central role in a variety of processes, including pollination, herbivory and detrivory, nutrient cycling, and providing a food source for higher trophic levels such as birds, mammals, and amphibians. For example, 80 percent of wild plants are estimated to depend on insects for pollination, while 60 percent of birds rely on insects as a food source.”

In Puerto Rico’s Luquillo rainforest, researcher Bradford C. Lister found that biomass loss  increased from 10 to 60 times over the 30-year study period. Lister’s analysis revealed a synchronous decline in lizards, frogs, and birds that eat insects. Lister determined that the forest temperature had risen 2.0 degrees Celcius over the study period—a temperature change that prevented insect eggs from hatching, and reducing food supply for animals higher up the food chain.

Light-sensitive activities for mammals and birds include migration, breeding, and predation. As well, some plants are reliant on light-sensitive cues for growth stimulation.

For example, caribou populations in the Artic are in decline due to the decoupling of temperature and light-sensitive cycles. Pregnant caribou migrate to birthing grounds based on light cues to time their arrival with the emergence of nutrient-rich plant growth. However, due to rising artic temperatures, the plants are germinating earlier. When the pregnant caribou arrive to their feeding grounds, plant nutrition has already decreased—resulting in malnourished caribou mothers producing fewer calves. Another light-sensitive lifecycle example is the change in the Arctic mosquito cycle. Migrating birds rely on the larval Arctic mosquitos as a rich food source, but the mosquitos are hatching earlier under warmer temperatures. When birds arrive, the mosquitos are in their adult form, and the birds are without a source of food. The now unchecked mosquito population impacts the caribou lifecycle when caribou calves are predated to death by unusually gigantic swarms of blood-sucking adult mosquitos.

The butterfly effects of climate change on the intricacies of the planetary food web are only just emerging. Hopefully, we can adapt before an Ecological Armageddon occurs.


Marjorie Harris (BSc, IOIA VO) is an organophyte, consultant, and verification officer in BC. She offers organic nutrient consulting and verification services supporting natural systems.

References:
Roemmich, D, Gould WJ, Gilson J. 2012. 135 years of global ocean warming between the Challenger expedition and the Argo Programme. Nature Climate Change. 2:425-428.  10.1038/nclimate1461
NASA Explains the Dust Bowl Drought: nasa.gov/centers/goddard/news/topstory/2004/0319dustbowl.html
Handy Dandy Dust Bowl Facts: kinsleylibrary.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Handi-facts.pdf
The Dust Bowl: u-s-history.com/pages/h1583.html
The Dust Bowl, an illustrated history, Duncan & Burns, 2012 (pages 160 – 162)
Climate Change: Ocean Heat Content: climate.gov/news-features/      understanding-climate/climate-change-ocean-heat-content
Temperature and species richness effects in phytoplankton communities. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3548109/
Lister, B.C. Department of Biological Sciences, Rensselaer Polytechnic University, Troy, NY 12180 pnas.org/content/115/44/E10397.short
More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas: journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0185809
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005: was called for by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2000 in his report to the UN General Assembly, We the Peoples: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century.

Organic Stories: UBC Farm, Vancouver, BC

in 2019/Climate Change/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Stories/Past Issues/Seeds/Winter 2019

Cultivating Climate Resilience in a Living Laboratory

Constance Wylie

Surrounded by forest and sea, the University of British Columbia is a quick 30 minute bus ride west of downtown Vancouver. A city unto itself, more than 55,800 students and close to 15,000 faculty and staff study, work, live, and play there. A small but growing number also farms. Countless hands-on educational opportunities are offered at the UBC Farm: from internships and research placements for university students, to day camps and field trips for school children, to workshops and lectures for interested community members. There is something for everyone, including bountiful amounts of fresh organic produce.

Globally, agriculture accounts for 25% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Half of that is from land use changes such as deforestation, while the other half is attributed to on-farm management practices and livestock. Moreover, our food systems are contributing massive amounts to our ecological footprint. Food accounts for about 50% of Vancouver’s footprint, according to UBC Professor Emeritus William Rees. Evidently, food can, and must, be an agent of change. In our rapidly changing world where the future of yesterday is uncertain, farmers are on the front line.

The folk at UBC’s Centre for Sustainable Food Systems are digging into these challenges using their very own “living laboratory,” aka UBC Farm, as a testing ground. It is a hotbed of leading agricultural research with “aims to understand and transform local and global food systems towards a more sustainable food secure future,” according to the farm website. It is also a green oasis where everyone is welcome to find a quiet moment to connect with nature; the hustle and bustle of campus dissipates on the wings of beneficial insects and chirping birds.

At 24 hectares, this certified organic production farm makes for a unique academic environment. As Melanie Sylvestre, the Perennial, Biodiversity, and Seed Hub Coordinator, puts it, “having a farm that does research in organic production is unique in BC and vital for the future of organic agriculture” in the province.

We can all whet our farming practices by reviewing some of the 30 ongoing research projects at UBC Farm. It should come as no surprise that many of the projects relate coping with the effects climactic changes have on agriculture, locally and globally.

UBC Farm. Credit Constance Wylie

Organic Soil Amendments

One such project is Organic Systems Nutrient Dynamics led by Dr. Sean Smukler and Dr. Gabriel Maltais-Landy. Their research compares the performance of typical organic soil amendments: chicken and horse manure, blood meal, and municipal compost. Depending on the type and amounts of organic soil amendment applied, crop yield will vary, and so too will the environmental impact. They found that often the highest yields result from over fertilization of Nitrogen and Phosphorus, which leads to greater GHG emissions. For example, chicken manure releases potent levels of GHG emissions.

It is a challenging trade-off to negotiate. This information is critically important for the organic grower trying to decrease their environmental impact. Another topic of study was the value of rain protection for on-farm manure storage: for long-term storage, it is always best to cover your manure pile!

Climate Smart

Were you aware that the application of black or clear plastic mulch with low longwave transmissivity can increase soil temperatures by about 40%? Conversely, a high reflective plastic mulch can reduce soil temperatures by about 20%. These are some of the findings of the Climate Smart Agriculture research team, composed of Dr. Andrew Black, Dr. Paul Jassal, and PhD student and research assistant Hughie Jones. In an interview for his researcher profile, Hughie explains that through his work he is “trying to get direct measurements … so that people have access to hard, reliable data” for enhancing crop productivity with mulches and low tunnels for season extension. “By increasing the amount of knowledge available we can reduce the amount of guessing involved for farmers, increasing their predictive power.” When it comes to getting the most out of a growing season, less time spent with trial and error can make a huge difference to your yields and income.

Fields of curcubits at UBC Farm. Credit Sara Dent @saradentfarmlove

Seed Savers

With the fall frost of 2018, the first phase of the BC Seed Trials drew to a close. The collaboration between UBC Farm, FarmFolk CityFolk, and The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security kicked off in 2016 to run these trials. Lead scientist and project manager Dr. Alexandra Lyon explained that the first phase asked, “What are the most hardy, resilient, well adapted varieties that we already have access to?”

More than 20 farms from across the province were involved in trialing seeds including kale, beets, leeks, and spinach. These varieties were chosen as crops that are already known to perform well in BC. The seeds in question are all open-pollinated varieties which boast “higher resilience then hybrid varieties in the face of climate change,” says Sylvestre, who has also been a leading figure in the seed trials.

While farmers may choose hybrid seed for their higher yields and other selected traits, Sylvestre explains that they lack “horizontal resistance, the concept of having diversity within a population allowing it to withstand various climatic changes. Through our selection process, we try to achieve horizontal resistance and therefore offer new varieties that would be better suited in various growing scenarios. It is important to understand that goal of horizontal resistance is among multiple other goals to reach varieties with agronomic traits that will be desirable to farmers and customers.”

“Community building around our local seed systems has been significant through this research project,” Sylvestre adds. The seed trials are also contributing to community building at UBC Farm itself. Rather than compost the crops grown for the seed trials, they are harvested and sold at the weekly farmers market.

With new funding secured from the federal government, the BC Seed trials will continue for at least another five years. Going ahead, the “role of UBC Farm is to train and connect farmers for farmer led plant breeding” says Lyon. While institutional academic research will play a significant role in seed selection and adaptation, “lots of types of seed trialing will be really important.” This means that farmers across the province “supported with tools and knowledge for selecting and saving seed” can contribute significantly to our collective seed and food security. Lyon encourages farmers to reach out with their experiences with regards to climate change and seed. She and members from the team will also be at the COABC conference February 22-24, 2019 with the intention to connect with BC farmers.

Ultimately, at UBC farm, “all the issues people are working on play into what we will need to adapt to climate change” says Lyon. The formal and informal networks made at UBC Farm are really starting to take root across the province. This is an amazing resource for us all to profit from. Take advantage of these slower winter months to dig in and digest the information available to us—it may very well change the way you approach your next growing season.

FOR MORE INFO

Check out UBC Farm online at: ubcfarm.ca

More on Organic Systems Nutrient Dynamics: ubcfarm.ubc.ca/2017/06/01/organic-soil-amendments

More on UBC’s Climate Smart Agriculture research: ubcfarm.ubc.ca/climate-smart-agriculture

For BC Seed trial results and updates: bcseedtrials.ca

Dr. Alexandra Lyon can be contacted at alexandra.lyon@ubc.ca

Seed grown at UBC farm is now available through the BC Eco-Seed Coop. Keep an eye out for two new varieties: Melaton leek and Purple Striped tomatillo.


Constance Wylie left her family farm on Vancouver Island to study Political Science and the Middle East at Sciences Po University in France, only to return to BC where she took up farming, moonlighted as a market manager, and got a PDC in Cuba and Organic Master Gardener certificate with Gaia College. She now lives, writes, and grows food in Squamish with her dog Salal.

Feature Image: UBC Farm. Credit: Sara Dent @saradentfarmlove

Ask an Expert: BC Seed Security

in 2019/Ask an Expert/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Seeds/Winter 2019

Scaling Up Organic Vegetable Seed Production in BC

Emma Holmes, P.Ag

The organic seed sector will be getting a boost through a comprehensive project that includes seed production, business, and market supports.

FarmFolk CityFolk, which has been working to cultivate local, sustainable food systems since 1993, will be leading the project with funding provided from the Governments of Canada and B.C. through the Canadian Agriculture Partnership. The five year, $3 billion Canadian Agricultural Partnership launched on April 1, 2018, and includes $2 billion in cost-shared strategic initiatives delivered by the provinces and territories, plus $1 billion for federal programs and services.

FarmFolk CityFolk will specifically be working on:

  • Developing a mobile seed processing unit to help small and mid-scale seed farmers efficiently and affordably process seed
  • Expanding seed production skills training in the Lower Mainland, Okanagan, Kootenays and North through focused in-person training and webinars
  • Supporting new entrants and small seed businesses with “Seed Enterprise Budgets” to help farmers plan and prepare for expenses, revenues and inventory management
  • Supporting Seedy Saturday events around the province by developing shared event planning resources

This project builds off of FarmFolk CityFolk’s previous work with the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, as well as Dan Jason’s Seed Resiliency report commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture this past winter. Jason’s report included an inventory of seed assets in the province as well as recommendations for increasing seed resiliency in BC.

Beet seeds. Credit: Chris Thoreau

British Columbia has the greatest diversity of crops and growing conditions of any province or territory in Canada. This provides a great opportunity to work with a wide range of ecosystems to create regionally tested and locally adapted seeds that support our local foodsheds in uncertain climates and that can also thrive in diverse climates around the world.

Seed production provides BC organic farmers with an opportunity to diversify their farm production and increase revenue. The market for certified organic seed is expected to continue to grow in the coming decades as the consumer demand for organic products increases and certifiers are adopting stricter enforcement around purchasing certified organic seed when available.

FarmFolk CityFolk will be collaborating with other organizations in BC focused on seed, such as the UBC Farm Seed Hub, KPU’s new lab for seed testing and cleaning (a major new asset for the province), and the BC Eco Seed Co-op. The strengths of these organizations, combined with the incredible passion and energy of local seed savers, farmers, and growers, will go a long way in supporting the development B.C.’s organic seed sector, the base of resilient communities and thriving food systems.

bcseeds.org


Emma Holmes has a BSc in Sustainable Agriculture and an MSc in Soil Science, both from UBC. She farmed on Orcas Island and Salt Spring Island and is now the Organics Industry Specialist at the BC Ministry of Agriculture. She can be reached at: Emma.Holmes@gov.bc.ca

Feature image: Examining carrots as part of the BC Seed Trials. Credit: Chris Thoreau

Local Seeds for Local Food

in 2019/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Organic Community/Seeds/Winter 2019

Michael Marrapese

Agriculture as we define it today has existed for roughly 12,000 years. Though the practices have been refined over millennia, modern farmers would still recognize the intent and the activity as ‘farming.’ We can find examples of plants we recognize as cereal grains, peas, barley, wheat, rice, and squash dating back 10,000 years. What makes this possible is that all these food plants produce seed.

Chris Thoreau, BC Seed Security Program Director at FarmFolk CityFolk, notes that seed is also the most efficient way to move food. “Growing seed allows you to ship food in its simplest form,” he says. “Moving lettuce seed across the border is different from moving lettuce across the border. Many of BC’s seed companies are already doing this through online sales.”

Thoreau started farming in 2001 knowing very little about seed. “My introduction to farming was the small scale organic vegetable production that is very prevalent on Southern Vancouver Island,” he says. “Which is also how I got introduced to seeds. It really was by default. There was a lot of local seed production happening in the region. We still had a good dozen seed companies in BC. Seedy Saturdays had been around for 20 years so it was a very active community.”

Rows of seedlings in a field with labels
BC Seed Trials. Credit: Chris Thoreau

In 2006 Thoreau worked on a survey of organic growers to get a sense of what seeds they were buying and from whom. He observed that “growers sourced their seed from places you’d expect like Johnny’s and High Mowing but were also sourcing from some local seed companies like Salt Spring Seeds and Stellar Seeds.”

Thoreau returned to Vancouver to study Agroecology at UBC. Still wanting to grow food while at university, he started Food Pedalers, a microgreens operation in East Vancouver. “It was very paradoxical to be attending the agroecology program but leaving the farm to do that,” he recalls. “I thought growing microgreens was the only way to make enough money for a viable urban farming business in Vancouver. The return per square foot from micro-greens was much higher than any ground crop I could grow. We were doing about 10,000 pounds of microgreens a year. During that time we were buying seed by the pallet load. I draw a lot from my time growing microgreens to help inform my seed work now.”

Thoreau joined FarmFolk CityFolk in 2015 to coordinate the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security (BFICSS). He’s extended his interest in seed production and education, coordinating seed workshops, public events and seed trials throughout BC. The BFICSS project is focusing on locally adapted organic seed to meet the needs of organic farmers. Thoreau notes that “seed optimized for organic production must be bred and produced in organic systems.”

Chris Thoreau and Shauna MacKinnon from FarmFolk CityFolk, and Alex Lyon from UBC, inspect a golden beet seed crop at Local Harvest Market in Chilliwack (2016). Credit: Michael Marrapese

Today, a vast array of seeds are owned, patented, and marketed by a few large corporations. With less than two percent of our population actively farming, our connection to seed and its critical role in our lives is increasingly tenuous. Thoreau points out that seed can play many roles. “Seed production can be a profession or a community building activity or even a therapeutic activity. All are quite different. Small-scale seed growers in BC have great community reach, a pretty good diversity of seeds, but what they don’t have is bulk seeds to sell to farmers.” When he first started farming most of the local seed companies were just doing packet sales. Packets were fine if a farmer was interested in trying a new variety. If they wanted to do a couple of thousand row feet of something, no BC seed grower could accommodate that. “And that is still very much the case today,” he notes.

With a predominately corporate controlled seed system, there are many issues that undermine our food security. Chief among them are irregular seed availability and degraded biodiversity. A century ago farmers may have grown as many as 80,000 different plant species. As more seed is controlled by a few large corporations, the bulk of our food comes from only about 150 different crops. Corporate ownership, patenting, and gene licensing limit the genetic diversity available to farmers. Any biologist will tell you that this is a perilous enterprise.


Chris Thoreau and Shauna MacKinnon from FarmFolk CityFolk, and Alex Lyon from UBC, inspect a golden beet seed crop at Local Harvest Market in Chilliwack (2016). Credit: Michael Marrapese

Farmers are often at the mercy of big seed producers who may be growing for large commercial markets. Specific varieties regularly disappear from catalogues. “That’s one of the reasons people start growing seed themselves,” Thoreau observes. “If they want to have a particular seed that works well in their environment and their operation, the only reliable way to do that is to grow it themselves. A big benefit to this is that evolving a seed crop on your farm year after year, you are going to come up with a new variety uniquely suited to your environment.”

One of the goals of the BFICSS program is to get more BC farmers growing and saving seed, to scale up production in the region, not only for themselves but to share, trade, and sell to other farmers. This process will ensure the genetic diversity and adaptability of seed in our region.

But there are political issues that hinder a regional and more diverse seed economy. Not all seed is available or appropriate to grow for sale. Hybrid seeds do not breed true; the next generation of plants will have a lot of off-types. Many seeds have plant variety protections on them which means farmers can’t grow and market them. Thoreau notes that this actually encourages seed breeding. “In fairness, if I spend ten years developing and growing ‘Chris’s Super Sweet Carrot’ and I start selling it, I do need to recoup the cost of breeding that seed.” Genetically modified (GM) seeds are generally licensed; farmers never actually own that seed so they can’t use it for seed saving. Most BC seed growers are growing heirloom varieties or rare varieties that aren’t protected by intellectual property laws.

Graceful carrot seed umbel. Credit: Chris Thoreau

Thoreau believes there are enormous possibilities for more seed production in BC. Oregon and Washington State are major global seed producers for crops like beets, carrots, spinach, and a lot of the brassicas. Southwestern British Columbia has similar climate conditions so he sees potential for some of that sector to be developed here. He also believes there is an enormous opportunity to produce more organic seed.

Growing trays of microgreens taught Thoreau the most important lesson about seed. Doing a hundred crop cycles a year, he began to notice differences in how temperature, watering, and daylight hours affected the plants. However, he notes that the biggest determining factor is seed quality. He’s convinced that “you cannot override the poor quality of the seed with good growing practices.”

bcseeds.org


Michael Marrapese is the IT and Communications Manager at FarmFolk CityFolk. He lives and works at Fraser Common Farm Cooperative, one of BC’s longest running cooperative farms, and is an avid photographer, singer and cook.

Feature image: Karma Peppers. Credit: Chris Thoreau

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