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Organic Stories: Covert Farms, Oliver, BC

in 2019/Climate Change/Crop Production/Current Issue/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

Biodynamic Farm Story: Putting the Dynamic in Biodynamic

in 2019/Crop Production/Current Issue/Fall 2019/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Soil/Tools & Techniques

Anna Helmer

I used to write a small weekly column for the local paper, telling stories about the farm each week. I kept it going through the busy times and the not busy times. I hardly remember how I managed to write the required 600 coherent words during those intensely busy summer weeks. Maybe they weren’t coherent. Likely not, now that I think about it. Maybe coherence was not a goal. If you can’t do it, don’t make it a goal, I always say.

Those winter columns, though. I remember writing those. They were the ones where I had done precious little farm work during the week and now had to write about it. They were a challenge to compose. At least in the summer weeks there was lots of material. However, I did learn how to make 600 entertaining words out of, say, a flat tire and a quiet market.

I am feeling reminiscent of those lazy days of winter and cobbling together something interesting about scant farming activities because I have agreed to do another installment of Biodynamic Farm Story, but I really haven’t done much Biodynamic stuff lately.

The blame for this lies entirely with the farm. In addition to non-descript regular farm work, each tractor has broken down several times, we’ve poured new concrete, built a new shed, and started attending our local market about six weeks earlier than ever before. The events have very much taken precedence over Biodynamic activities. The original Biodynamic lectures don’t seem to specifically address what to do when this happens.

Those lectures contain a fair amount about the importance of talking with other farmers about Biodynamic methods, however. I gather Steiner, the lecturer, understood that much of his content was untested in real farm-world situations. There is also acknowledgement that every single farm, being its own entity consisting of its own unique people, soil, and environment, will have to find its own way.

(Cosmic) Hightland Cow. Credit: Nilfanion (CC)

I think that’s the story this time: how does it work to be a Biodynamic farm (or farmer!) when events overtake intentions? This is about how we can’t seem to follow the Biodynamic calendar very well, and how in actual fact, we seem to forget all about being Biodynamic when the fur starts flying on a busy farm season. Perhaps this is when the “dynamic” part comes into play.

I would like to think that the work we do in the shoulder seasons—creating composts, using the preparations, planning planting around propitious dates in the calendar—all contribute to the strength of the farm now, when it is being fully taxed. I suppose it possibly might be so.

Theoretically, what would a biodynamically active farmer not like me be doing right now on the farm? I would have two things on the list: compost management and Biodynamic Preparation 508.

Priority one: turn the cow manure pile and bung in more Biodynamic preparations, purchased in a set from the Josephine Porter Institute—nettle, yarrow, dandelion, oak bark, chamomile and valerian. They are intended to not only stimulate the biological breakdown of the material into humus and whatnot, but also to create a source of energy for the farm. How cool is that?

I came across a metaphor for the Biodynamic compost heap several years ago, the source regretfully forgotten, the actual meaning mangled: Cosmic Cow. Consider the cow that can transform the energy of the sun (via green grass) turning it into precious manure that may be used to grow our eating plants. It is a remarkable feat that is accomplished in a complex digestive system. Even more remarkable, the function carries on despite the animal eating all kinds of garbage along with the lovely grass. And through thick and thin, the animal maintains a more or less even disposition, emanating a particular energy that is quite powerful, in its own way.

So the Cosmic Cow Biodynamic Compost heap can do the same sort of thing. Its digestive system is powered up to produce the desired dirt, and the whole thing is solidly grounded to be able to broadcast the infinite energy of the universe to the farm.

If I had some time, and if the loader tractor hadn’t developed a leak in the axle and the right seal had been sent from the source of seals and if it therefore had a wheel, I totally would have done that job by now. Pretty certain it is high on Dad’s list too. The wheel will eventually go back on, surely. Meanwhile, the pile sits patiently in the field, the essential activity continuing despite neglect.

I am also looking into the preparation called 508. It uses horsetail in either a tea form (very easy to make) or a more complicated distillation. There has been a lot of rain, heat, and wind lately and fungal issues may arise. The 508 may help cope with that. Plus, it is all the rage right now in Biodynamics and I am nothing if not keen to fit in.

If there is one weed we have plenty of in the potatoes this year, it is horsetail. Do I go to the effort of picking it, boiling it up and spraying it around? So far, I do not.

A look into my farm notes for the past couple of months reveals at least a passing nod to the Biodynamic Calendar. I have noted when something I did was done because it was a good day to do it according to the position of the moon and the planets. It still means nothing to me, but I think the plants get it, so that’s good. For example, the carrots were done right. As that field also had a good helping of BD 500 both last fall and this spring, I could expect one of our best crops ever. I don’t, however. Biodynamics is a method, not a guarantee.

Unlike chemical fertilizers. They are more of a guarantee. It is very plain to see the appeal of popping in a wee bit of N, P, and K at planting time. Conventional farmers in Pemberton who planted potatoes weeks later than us are pleased that theirs came into flower right at the same time and achieved row cover well ahead. It’s just a fact of science.

A fact that means nothing to me. Today when I walked through our potato field, I would have needed a machete to get through the White Rose and Fingerlings. As an aside, did you know that potato flowers smell delicious?

I boast like this because I think Biodynamic farming can be a difficult sell to…well…most farmers. Let’s face it. The positive results are heavily anecdotal. I must add my own.


Anna Helmer farms with her family and friends in the Pemberton Valley and could have submitted the picture that featured a lot of weeds but instead chose the one that did not.

Feature image: Tractor wheel in a beautifully weed-free potato crop. Credit: Anna Helmer

Biodynamic Farm Story: Cosmic Compost

in 2019/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Preparation/Summer 2019/Tools & Techniques

Anna Helmer

Hello and welcome once again to The Biodynamic Farming Experience for the Celestially-Challenged: a partly-formed, poorly-articulated, and over-hyphenated chronicle of a particular journey in which a woman-farmer-of-a-certain-age-and-experience (me) delves into the theory and, more importantly, the practice of Biodynamic farming in search of fun and the future of farming.

Rambling along here, aren’t I? I do that when I am not sure of the destination. And now that I am in full digression, I can see that “journey” is not the right word as it would suggest both a destination and a plan, neither of which I can guarantee. Voyage of discovery? Too fancy. Is it a process? Nope. I don’t think that sounds like fun. Compost heap. I think it might be a compost heap: piling up ideas, layering with experience, mixing up theories (some quite junky), letting it sit. For absolute certain something good is going to come of it, but it might take a while depending on how raw the material is.

The bottom layer in my compost pile of cosmic cognitive sentience (how about that!) is a cover-to-cover reading of the original lectures (the Biodynamic farming origin story) delivered by Dr. Rudolph Steiner. I am just about done. I remain perplexed most of the time, although I experience (sadly random and rare) flashes of triumph when I realize I have managed to grasp a concept or follow an argument, very quickly snuffed out usually by the next paragraph. I persist however, because I find it fascinating.

Another batch of Biodynamic Preparation 500: cow horns neatly lined up at Helmers Organic Farm. Credit: Helmers Organic Farm

In the last article I mentioned Biodynamic Preparation 500, which we have been using for years on the farm. It’s easy to make. You just stuff a cow horn full of fresh manure and bury it a foot or two down in the soil for the winter. In the early summer, when dug up, the manure has transformed into a delightfully hummus-y, sweetly-smelling substance which is incorporated into water and sprinkled about the fields and gardens. Steiner manages to explain why the use of a cow horn is necessary, but I can’t. The point though, is to avail the farm of the powerful forces of the universe.

Well the thing of it is, I have discovered that BD 500 works not just on the crops and soil: it works on people too. If you are not picking yourself up off the floor after collapsing there in a dead faint of amazement, I have not expressed myself well. This reflects a problem with the writing, not with Biodynamics. You see, I myself have been made available to believe that the universe has an influence on the health of the farm because I have been using the Biodynamic Preparation 500. Probably it’s what’s made the lectures readable and fascinating too. I did try a decade or so ago but there was no joy.

I realize in fact, that it’s taken close to 20 years of using the preparation for me to get to this stage. I hope it doesn’t take everyone else that long to feel its affects. Steiner seemed to think about four years should do it.

To return to the point of this exercise: is Biodynamics fun? Is it the future of farming? I remain firm in my conviction that it might be both. It is certainly more fun than the organic certification process, which I find has gotten a little dry. It’s necessary of course, if we are keen to relieve certain large industry leaders of their self-appointed mantle of agricultural way-finders. It’s obligatory, if we want to sell to people who feel the same way we do.

Practicing biodynamic farming, while still offering the certification experience, brings some serious, additional motivation. I count inspiration, wonder, amazement, incredulity, reality-checks, positive feedback from customers, and tantalizing experiences of powerful forces among the benefits of the practice. Oh, and increasing yields of very tasty produce. Lovely things to add to a compost heap of galactic oomph. I think I am going to be a better farmer because of it. Certainly, the farm is better because of it.

The Biodynamic practice of filling cow horns for preparation of preparation 500 or “horn dung.” Credit: Sugar Pond (www.flickr.com/people/88927846@N00)

Could Biodynamics be the future of farming in general? There are snags. One of them has got to be that it can get a little bogged down in discussion, which I would like to flag as one of the biggest hinderances to farm productivity. A talking farmer is very often not a working farmer.

Another issue is this insistence on involving the position of the sun and the moon in relation to the stars and planets when making farming decisions. People like me, whose astrological understandings end even before the horoscopes page, are simply going to switch off when this topic arises. People who like a little more conventional science in their lives will also be left wanting, and very little apology is made for that. These are difficult aspects to accept, and in my case required 20 years of using BD 500 to get over.

Cynically, I would also suggest that the fact that Biodynamic farming does not require much in the way of support from the agricultural industry is a close-to-fatal flaw. Apart from the odd tractor, a few implements, and some cover-crop seed, Biodynamic farmers spend very little in the mainstream agricultural system. There is simply no need. Thus, there will be no corporate champion, with a big marketing budget, to help turn heads and change minds.

So, as far as the future goes, Biodynamic farming can be hazardously non-productive, bizarrely off-putting, and doesn’t contribute to the bottom line of the world’s largest companies. This is not promising…or is it?

It’s May, it’s go-time, and theoretical considerations on fun and the future of farming may not strike quite the right tone at your place just now. I completely understand. It would not hurt in the least however, since you have read this far, to throw a little Biodynamic 500 around as you carry on with the business of farming. At the very least, your soil and plants can get busy working with the infinite energy of the universe. You’ll get there too, although perhaps that doesn’t matter as much.


Anna Helmer farms with her family and friends in the Pemberton Valley and recently hosted a farm open house that could have gone really badly, but didn’t.

Feature image: Compost heap. Credit: Andrew Dunn (www.andrewdunnphoto.com)

Farm Story: the Biodynamic Ice Break

in 2019/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Preparation/Soil/Spring 2019/Tools & Techniques

Anna Helmer

Would you mind if we talked about Biodynamic farming?

There. That’s how you keep your readership small. Those of you still with me have fought through eye-glaze and eye-roll and have resisted page turn. You will notice that even I am struggling a bit to stay on topic, and if only you could see the amount of squirming and fidgeting I am doing as I try to find the right way to write about one of the more under-simplified and over-complicated farming methods of our time.

There is no way around this fact: Biodynamic farming methods involve focusing the power and influence of the entire universe on the health and productivity of the soil, plant, farmer, and consumer. The sun, the planets, the galaxies beyond ours: they all matter. The position of the moon matters. It’s complicated. It’s off-putting.

And yet, quite simply, it works whether you understand why or not. In fact, the less time sorting that out, the more time there will be for actual work and that is what really matters.

We do need to talk about it, though. Biodynamics is an approach to farming that combines science, philosophy and common sense and it should not be avoided. Something like this could easily become the future of farming.

You should know that it is a popular farming method in Germany, which has the highest concentration of scientific-minded farmers in the world, a fact I completely fabricated but which I believe could be used for emphasis without harm. I have (in actual fact) heard German farmers speak in excruciating scientific detail about soil science and crop management and then mention in a self-consciously off-hand manner that they also use Biodynamic preparations. Pressed further, they become extremely and remarkably vague about the details. I find this fascinating: farmers like that would not waste their time with something that wasn’t working.

Our farm has been Biodynamic in practice and often certificate since the mid-nineties when my parents attended a conference on the subject and were impressed with the practical experience of the speakers. We have slowly incorporated some methods into our farming practices—and avoided talking about it as we really don’t understand it well enough to explain.

To be honest, I have not been paying much attention to the whole thing, content to let my parents and sister tell me what to do. It seemed more important to learn things like welding, mechanics, and fertility-building cover crop management. Although I have certainly not mastered any of that, I have gradually pushed Biodynamics up higher on the “things-to-learn-that-will-probably-be-helpful” list.

Some Biodynamic practices have been incorporated thoroughly into our farm routine. Mom’s Biodynamic compost heaps, for example, could probably turn old cars into nice, rich, loamy soil. Tree branches certainly presented no difficulty. I follow her directions to build the heap, and I add the preparations (yarrow, chamomile, nettle, oak bark, dandelion, valerian) and marvel at the result a few months hence. It seems like magic, but really it isn’t.

My sister annually buries cow horns stuffed with manure and that becomes the preparation we apply to the carrot field every year. It’s very simple: if we do it, we get great carrots. If we don’t, they are normal.

My mom boils it all down quite nicely: it is a fun way to farm.

Our Biodynamic practice does not extend far beyond this. It really should, or at least could. It is time to experiment with a few more methods, acquire some knowledge, become conversant. Most of all, I want to write about it in a way that can be easily understood. Is that possible? Can we keep it fun?

I am starting at a very, very basic level of celestial understanding. This point cannot be over-emphasized. I cannot even tell you for certain what my birth sign of the zodiac is. I just never found it important. In terms of blind faith however, I am on more solid ground. I can “witch” water wells, for example, and fully support the protection of random wild areas on our farm because grandma said there were a lot of fairies living there. I guess the fact that I now believe with absolute certainty that it is quite likely that plant health is influenced not only by the phases and position of the moon but the universe beyond isn’t such a stretch after all. You commoners will have to struggle to keep up.

My first self-assigned task has been to read the original lectures, delivered in 1924 at a German agricultural convention by Rudolph Steiner, a philosopher with a practical bent who is also known for starting the Waldorf school system. This I am doing until the snow melts and I don’t have time for reading anymore. Looks like I might be able to make it through the whole works.

Contained in a book called Agriculture, the lectures were commissioned by a group of farmers who had recently begun to use chemical fertilizers. Although the yields of certain cash crops were reaching unheard-of levels, they noted a significant decline in the health of their soils, and the overall productivity of their farms. Alarmingly, they could no longer produce very much at all without the use of the new chemicals.

So far, for about 95% of what I have read, I have not a clue what he is talking about. Every once in a while, however, he talks about potatoes, and I certainly know what they are. They are the hook that keeps me focused. I keep reading, hoping he will mention them again.

Another point of light is his reasoning for considering the universe in the first place. You can’t describe a person based on the last joint of their little finger, nor describe a farm using one plant in the far corner, but they are strongly related to the whole. If we allow for the possibility that we are the little joint of the little finger of the universe, if becomes obvious that there is a lot going on that matters to us.

We are part of something much bigger.

Stay tuned for the next exciting installment. I am going to be building compost heaps and seeding celeriac at a time suggested by the Biodynamic Calendar: the sun will be in Pisces and the moon in Virgo. I don’t know what this means but hopefully the plants can sort it out.


Anna Helmer farms potatoes in the Pemberton Valley with her family and friends who know she can cook if she must.  

Organic Stories: Gabriola Food Hub

in Fall 2018/Organic Community/Organic Stories

A Two-Wheeled Ride through Gabriola’s Growing Local Food Economy

Hannah Roessler

Graham Bradley is a busy guy. I catch him on a rare day off to talk about the Gabriola Food Hub, but we end up delving into the importance of cultural shift, decolonization, green transportation, feeding passions, and systems thinking. The spill over into all of these topics comes as no surprise—so many of us land-based workers, dreamers, and thinkers recognize and ponder the layers of complexities and interconnectivities encountered when engaging on food systems work on any level. Graham is a dynamic individual who spans several roles in the food system on Gabriola Island. He is someone who is clearly driven to make a difference, and has fully invested his whole self into this pursuit.

Take his work with the Gabriola Food Hub (GFH), a collective marketing hub made up of three main partner farms: Heart and Soil Farm, Good Earth Farm, and 40×40 farm. Not only is he the founder of the GFH, but he is also the “aggregator, communicator, and distributor.” He is the guy who pulled the farms together and connects the farms to various markets, and he is the one you will see delivering all the produce—he has roles in both the center of the hub, as well as the spokes.

Graham is quick to assert that he is not inventing something new, and is generous while listing off his many mentors. He names, with much gratitude, those who taught him about farming and marketing (Ferm Melilot in Quebec, Saanich Organics in Victoria, Ben Hartman’s Lean Farm approach, and more), those who helped him with legal agreements for land sharing (Young Agrarians and other generous legal advisors), his business mentorship through Young Agrarians (with Niki Strutynski from Tatlo Road Farm), the chef on Gabriola Island who last year solidly ordered produce from him every week (Kellie Callender from Silva Bay Restaurant). He even tells me about Josh Volk, the person who inspired him to build his delivery bike, named Pepper, on which he does all of the deliveries for the GFH. Something that I really appreciate about Graham is how much he obviously values the relationships that he is cultivating through his food growing—this seem to be his own personal heart hub from which all the other spokes of his work flow.

While the GFH echoes other models of marketing that exist in the small scale organic farm world, there are of course differences. These are all tied distinctly to the difference in “place”—all the variations and oscillations in the GFH are distinctly their own, as they seek to find their own dynamic equilibrium. Each of the participating farms is striving to find what model of farming and marketing works for the particular scale and sites that they work and live within, in every realm. Every farm business has to find the right flow that works in their particular bioregion, and it’s clear that when Graham talks about the GFH, he is very much focused on the interconnected systems of ecology, economics, and community that are distinct to Gabriola Island.

Graham refers to what they at GFH are aiming for as “super-hyper-local”—and they’re not pulling any punches. He’s been working tirelessly with his partners, Dionne Pepper-Smith and Katie Massi from Heart and Soil, Lynn from Namaste Farm, Rebecca from 40×40 Farm (which Graham also co-manages), and his land partner and co-farmer Rosheen Holland at Good Earth Farm, to sell everything they grow right on Gabriola Island.

In the past, these farmers usually had to go over to Cedar on Vancouver Island to sell their produce at the market. Now, with the GFH entering its third year of business, those days are done as they move towards the super-hyper-local vision. Their biggest commercial customer is the Village Food Market, the largest grocery store on Gabriola Island. “We are actually managing to replace the lettuce [that is usually sold at the market], lettuce that comes from off-island, with our lettuce. It’s exciting,” says Graham. They also run a box program, which is really important to their business, and is something that they hope to continue growing.

Another approach that helps them realize this super-hyper-local vision is how all the farms work as a team, both together and with their environment. When I ask Graham if the farms do their crop planning together, he says “well, the farms plan it on their own”. The GFH farms really embrace each of their unique microclimates, which allow different crops to thrive. They don’t try and do it all, all the time, but they work with the strength of the local ecology of each farm site. Good Earth Farm tends to flood every year, but they find that their best spring crop is lettuce, and their best winter crop are storage crops: they do grow some chard, but harvest it, roots and all, and keep it in the cold room for continued harvest into winter. At 40×40 Farm, they are really focused on salad greens. At Heart and Soil, their site is particularly good for growing early on in the spring, and they “are a bit warmer so they grow loads of tomatoes,” says Graham. “They don’t have root maggot, so their radishes and Hakeuri turnips are so beautiful that we’ve stopped growing ours.”

It’s almost as though Graham frames the land as the ultimate leader of their little team: “it’s really just the geography that is key to making all of this work in the way it does.” And when it comes to enjoying the bounty of the island, they don’t stop at just farms. “If I see grapes,” Graham exclaims, with a fair share of eye twinkle, “and it’s in someone’s backyard, I will knock on the door and ask them if I can sell it for them.”

This opportunistic approach and ability to be flexible is bound, as any farmer knows, to create quite a bit of extra work. And in a busy farm season, it seems hard to imagine taking on extra bits and pieces. But it seems to fit in Graham’s wider hopes for the food system on Gabriola. We had a long discussion about trying to think a bit more outside of the traditional agriculture box, hoping to understand the potential for managing the broader ecosystem for food in a careful way.

“I think we can have a full and complete food system here, we just have more to learn” says Graham, respectfully acknowledging the long term management of a food system by the Snuneymuxw, long before agriculture as we know it arrived to the island. Graham is keen to continue learning how to incorporate a broader vision, and in the meantime, on the peaty grounds of Good Earth Farm they are busy planting Malus fusca, relying on the embedded local knowledge of that native rootstock to help it withstand rainy winters.

With all the successful strides they’ve made, trying to effectively respond to the dynamic nature of a particular bioregion, of a particular place, must certainly be challenging. I ask Graham about this, and he names some common themes that most farmers struggle with: the desire for more restaurants to get on board with buying local produce, how small their market is, how difficult it is to rely on commercial clients, being burnt out and overworked, etc.

I am particularly curious about how he manages his own work-load, because as every other farmer I know, he seems to have several jobs and commitments. He is also the Chair of the Economic Development Advisory group on Gabriola Island, as well as the National Farmers Union Youth Advisor for BC. Graham is practically bursting with energy even as we quietly sit and chat, and he is so clearly committed to his vision of a better food system and green transport—but he admits to it being overwhelming at times.

Then he explains to me the moment of his day which feeds his energy and desire to push through and keep striving, and I’m left with a clear picture painted in my mind: Graham on Pepper, his bright red electric cargo bike, loaded with veggie boxes, ripping full speed down a hill framed with soaring trees, exuberantly singing Janis Joplin tunes to scare away the deer, and periodically yelling gleefully “the future is NOW (insert expletive)!”

Check out the Gabriola Food Hub: gabriolafoodhub.com


Hannah Roessler has farmed in Nicaragua, Washington, and BC on permaculture famers, polyculture cafetals, organic market farms and a biodynamic vineyard. She has an MA in Environmental Studies, and her research is focused on climate change and small-scale organic farming. She currently farms on the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island.

Feature image from Quinton Dewing. All other photos from Graham Bradley.

Footnotes from the Field: Celebrating the Flight of the Bumblebee

in 2018/Footnotes from the Field/Land Stewardship/Organic Standards/Summer 2018

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

When I think of the ‘wholeness’ of a bioregional ecosystem and imagine the inner workings to identify which biological organisms could have the greatest influence on the entire system, nothing seems to compete with the influential power of the domesticated honey bee.

This industrious pollinator flies great distances to gather nectar and pollen. The Canadian Organic Standards (COS) Clause 7.1.10 recognizes the prodigious flying capacity of the honey bee by requiring apiaries to be protected by a three kilometre buffer zone from pesticides, GMO crops, sewage sludge, and other environmental contaminants. I decided to calculate just how big of an area a three kilometre radius would cover—an astounding 28.27 square kilometers! Wow! The domesticated honey bee’s influence in a bioregion extends over a huge pollination territory.


RELATED ORGANIC REGULATIONS

CAN/CGSB-32.310 7.1.10 Location of hives
Where sources or zones of prohibited substances are present, that is, genetically engineered crops or environmental contamination, apiaries shall be protected with a buffer zone of 3 km (1.875 mi.).

CAN/CGSB-32.310 7.1.7 When bees are placed in wild areas, impact on the indigenous insect population shall be considered.


In stark contrast to the honey bee’s huge domain is the relatively small realm of influence the humble bumble bee commands. There are well over 450 native bee species in British Columbia and 45 of those are bumble bees.

The bumble bee is the only other social bee that makes honey. Bumble bee colonies are very small containing between 50 to 200 bees. Seventy percent of the colonies are formed by ground nesters, while others nest in cavities of dead wood or pithy stems.

The average bumble bee species will only travel 100 to 200 m from the home nest to collect nectar and pollen. The average domain of pollination influence for a bumble bee is between 0.031 km2 and 0.13 km2. Putting this all into perspective, for each honey bee colony’s influence domain of 28.27 km2 there could be between 200 to 900 humble bumble bee ground nesting colonies competing for many of the same nectar and pollen resources!

Frisky bumblebee. Credit: Gilles Gonthier

The good news for bumble bees is that many of them are specially designed to harvest nectar and pollen from native flowers that honey bees can’t access. The bad news is that native bee populations are in decline due to loss of native foraging habitat, pesticides, and mechanized farming destroying nests by tilling the soil.

Social bee colonies form ‘super organisms,’ with all individuals working for one home. The honey bee’s ‘super organism’ even exceeds in bioregional influence the largest organism on planet Earth, a honey fungus that extends its reach over 10.36 km2 of the Malheur National Forest in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. Honey fungus is a plant parasite that manages its domain by selecting which plants live within its territory. The fertilization by pollination of plants by the bee has a similar selection effect on the ecosystem. By geographic area, one domestic honeybee hive has three times the bioregional influence of the largest organism on earth.

COS clause 7.1.7 recognizes that imported domestic honey bees have an impact on the indigenous insect populations. I would say that even though the vast majority of farmers cannot qualify to produce organic honey themselves, it should be recognized that the conventional production of honey is having a major impact on our native pollinators. Taking the lead from clause 7.1.7, we can conscientiously strive to protect and provide forage habitat and safe nesting sites for the humble bumble bee and other native pollinators.

Brown-belted Bumble Bee (Bombus griseocollis). Credit: Andrew C
Brown-belted Bumble Bee (Bombus griseocollis). Credit: Andrew C

By providing forage habitat and safe nesting sites for bumble bees, we are having a direct influence on the health and wealth of our home bioregional ecosystem. As an environmentally conscious and active community, we can have a positive impact in our bioregion by providing for our indigenous insect pollinators as we mobilize ourselves to address the environmental needs of these indigenous insects.

There are so many delicious wild berries that need the bumble bee. The flowers on these berries are enclosed so it takes a bumble bee’s specialized long “tongue” to get to the plant’s nectar. As the bumble bee ‘buzzes’ on these flowers the muscles it uses for flying releases the flower pollen and sticks to its long body bristles to be transferred to other flowers.

Buffer zones are an excellent starting place to plant native vegetation, trees, shrubs, and flowers that will become oases of survival for the humble bumble bees.
If you need further inspiration, think about the near extinction of the native bee pollinator for the vanilla orchid, which produces vanilla beans, the shiny green orchid bee. All commercial vanilla bean operations must now employ hand pollination!

Another shocker in the news is that Walmart and other interested corporations have been patenting designs for robotic pollinators. I’d rather keep the robots out of the pollination equation, especially since we can set aside buffer zones and wild areas and gradually restore unfragmented sections of land devoted to a wide diversity of native pollinator vegetation, undisturbed nesting locations, and overwintering sites for bumble bee queens.

Check out the link below for a library of seasonal listings for pollinator plants to build your pollinator gardens. Celebrate the amazing bumble bee!

seeds.ca/pollinator/plant_canada/index.php


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

Feature photo: Bombus Impatiens. Credit: Katja Schulz

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Fresh Starts at Shalefield Organic Gardens

in Farmer Focus/Organic Stories
Veggie crops at Shalefield Organic Gardens

Hannah Roessler

You don’t need to be young to succeed as a new farmer, as this intrepid pair from the Columbia Valley are proving.“There is just so much shale in the field, we’re always picking up rocks – so there you have it: “Shalefield Farm” was born!” explains Yolanda Versterre when I ask her about the name of the farm in Lindell Beach, BC she owns with her partner Brian Patterson.

The story of Yolanda and Brian’s entry into farming puts a fresh twist on the new farmer tale: as Yolanda puts it, “we are old young farmers.” While discussions of the aging farmer base and the challenges faced by young entrants into farming are a frequent theme in farming news, its not often we hear about people embarking on farming careers later in life.

“There is just so much shale in the field, we’re always picking up rocks – so there you have it: “Shalefield Farm” was born!”

Brian has owned the 10-acre property south of Chilliwack, near Cultus Lake, for many years, but Shalefield Organic Gardens only started taking off in 2005, when Brian began his professional life as a farmer — at the ripe young age of 55! He had been laid off from his job as a printer, as new mechanization and technology made his job of 35 years obsolete. It was an opportunity for a new start, and Brian began growing blueberries, raspberries and garlic — no longer as a hobby, but with an eye towards making money.

Inevitably, there were challenges in the transition from hobby farmer to professional grower. As Yolanda describes it, “Brian had been growing one row, so then he just started growing 10 rows! But of course, everything changes with scale, doesn’t it?”

Yolanda and Brian of Shalefield Organic GardensWhile Brian had years of experience growing vegetables for family and friends, Yolanda was completely new to farming. She had moved to BC after working as an operating room nurse in Holland, and met Brian while they were both enjoying their other hobby – trail running. Did this athletic training prepare them to be the successful farmers they are now? Certainly farming requires stamina: “It’s a LOT of work,” Yolanda sighs, noting that they’ve given up trail running, along with tennis, since farming provides all the exercise they have time or energy for!

 

Today, Yolanda and Brian and their dedicated staff have nine acres in production, growing strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and a variety of field crops. They have a few experimental crops, such as ginger, which they source certified organic from Hawaii; it’s done very well this year, and it’s a hit with market customers. Sprouts are another Shalefield specialty crop, one they started to develop a source of farm income throughout the winter months. Their sprout blends, which they create using over 10 types of sprouts, are a customer favourite at the market.

Using Technology to Build Customer Loyalty

Yolanda explains that they mostly sell at farmers markets, and have started using a market share program to help retain customers. Customers can purchase a market share for either $500 or $250 and then receive a gift card for the amount, which they bring to the market with them. Yolanda scans the card with an iphone app, which subtracts the amount of their purchase and sends an email to the customer to let them know how much credit they have left on their card.

This year they are expanding into a CSA program and they are determined to provide a veggie box to a family in need. They’ll need to attract 50 CSA box customers to attain this goal, and are well on the way there. As Yolanda notes, “how many times do you just have the one bunch of carrots left that didn’t sell, just because it’s that last bunch of carrots? I’ve asked for a lot of help from other people to get to this stage of farming and I am so, so very grateful for what I get to do in my life, because farming allows me to eat so healthy and live well. And I really want to help someone else access that.”

Yolanda and Brian’s experiences starting their farming business at Shalefield Organic Gardens makes it clear that, whatever age you begin farming, a willingness to learn new things and take chances is the first requirement.

A Biodynamic Commitment

Growing up in Holland, Yolanda became familiar early on with the use of homeopathics for healing. Today, she and Brian practice biodynamic agriculture at Shalefield, and Yolanda feels the philosophy behind biodynamics fits with the ethic of healing holistically. Following biodynamic cycles can be challenging given the tight rotations of market growing, but the pair are committed to making it work for their operation. Yolanda and Brian’s experiences starting their farming business at Shalefield Organic Gardens makes it clear that, whatever age you begin farming, a willingness to learn new things and take chances is the first requirement. Add a big measure of love and commitment to the job and you’ve got a recipe for success: “We just love what we are doing. We are so excited about the fact that we are still here. We made it! It’s do-able. You can do it. You can make it happen.” Follow us at GATreeCompany.com.


Hannah Roessler has farmed in Nicaragua, Washington, and BC, on permaculture farms, polyculture cafetals, organic market farms and a biodynamic vineyard. She has an MA in Environmental Studies and her research is focused on climate change and small-scale organic farming. She currently farms on the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island.

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