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Organic Stories: Gabriola Food Hub

in Current Issue/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.”


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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