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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.

Meat from Here

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

Challenges to Localizing Meat Production

Tristan Banwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

An Ode to the Farmer

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

Josh Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Photos by Sara Dent | farmlove.org

Growing the Local Food Economy in the North Okanagan

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

Eva-Lena Lang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Photos by Maylies Lang.

Local Food Economies Thrive at Market—Rain or Shine!

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

Anna Helmer

The bell rings to start the market day. Relentless and demoralizing rain has been falling since the tents came out of the trailer and we began the set up, two hours ago. The gutters now strung up between the tents are working well, emitting a steady stream of water into the growing pool along the back curb and the tent side walls keep us relatively rain-free inside the stall. The very air seems wet, however, and little can be done about that. Tough morning at market so far.

I’ve been selling my family farm’s produce at Vancouver farmers’ markets for 20 years, so I know how to sell potatoes in the rain. It’s just like how to do it in the sunshine, except it seems mentally harder. The difficulty lies in keeping the stall in a high state of readiness, even though it might be empty and you would prefer to be warm and dry elsewhere. Every sale matters—especially in the rain, if your farm depends on farmers’ market sales.

I squeeze my way past the bins of backstock in the trailer where I have been changing out of sopping wet clothes. I have already traded a few hellos with the neighboring vendors, people I’ve seen every Saturday morning for years, but there’s been no time for more than that. I glance around to make sure all the signs are up and that the display is full: we’ve finished in time. It takes just as long to get set up in the rain as it does otherwise. Longer, of course, if you waste time regretting the situation.

The potatoes look good today, the red Chieftain and yellow Sieglinde sort of glowing in the dim light. My staff, who are making up $5 bags of potatoes and carrots, wisely refrain from discussing the weather. The vast, dripping, emptiness out in the market fairway which would normally be filled with customers eager to start shopping, lining up in advance of the opening bell, is obvious enough.

It is undeniably deserted, and despite the potatoes doing their best to provide sunshine, it feels disheartening. I give my head a shake because I think it’s too early to write this one off.

The first customer materializes. She’s a rain-or-shine regular who gave up on regular grocery stores quite a few years ago. She is followed by another I don’t recognize. A chef splashes his way in. I make sure his 20lb bag weighs at least 25. At the till, we’ll be rounding down more than usual. The customers might not notice but I don’t mind. I am feeling very benevolent towards anyone who turns up this morning.

Before I know it, an hour has passed, and I realize that the potato display tables are hidden from view by the backs of customers filling bags. The stack of now empty bins in the back has risen to a level I hardly thought possible when the opening bell rang. It’s going to be a solid day, despite the rain, which might even be easing up a little.

One of my staff has been coming to market ever since she was a baby, and her mom worked for a farm vendor here before that. She’s on the first till, and I jump behind the second one, a line-up having formed of dripping wet customers who thank us for being here today when they get to the front.

It bears repeating: the rain-soaked customers are thanking us and giving us money for potatoes. In fact, it’s now so busy they are lining up to do so. This, right here, is what makes farmers’ markets tick. People choose shopping in the rain over going to a grocery store. Farmers choose marketing in the rain over selling wholesale.

It’s what leads to the fact that farmers can make a living on an acreage that would otherwise be insufficient because they can get full retail for their produce. The customers keep coming back for more because…well…I just don’t know. Is it the quality of the product? The contact with an actual farmer? The coffee and crepes? It might be magic. Whatever the cause, it provides me motivation to keep farming, and to keep customer service and marketing standards high. It seems like a practical way of showing the customers that I really appreciate their business.

I love being a part of this special relationship, but I worry that it won’t last. It’s so much work, there is so much to learn, and there is so much competition for customers—and surely, they won’t keep coming? I mean, sometimes they must quietly wonder if it is really all that great? The weather, the effort, the cost. All that cooking.

Customers. We need customers to make markets successful. We need to retain existing ones and win new ones who might also shop in the rain. The good news is that we are only tapping a tiny fraction of the people who buy food, so there are plenty more to be had. The bad news is that the competition out there is absolutely fierce, and nowhere else other than at farmers’ markets are customers asked to go out shopping in all sorts of weather, probably park far away, and spend perhaps a little more than they really meant to.

Farmers’ markets enjoy one major competitive advantage however, and that is something I have begun to call “mutual appreciation.” This is an energy generated at the point of contact between primary producer and end consumer at market, most notably at the transaction stage. I take your money, you take my potatoes. We are both appreciative of the other. The feeling builds each week, from season to season and year to year and really can’t be re-created in other retail environments.

The farmer can do much to cultivate the feeling of mutual appreciation in the stall. It’s about a lot more than saying “thank you.” Developing good customer service and merchandizing skills is of prime importance—pre-market preparation, and of course years of practice help too.  In my opinion, it is important to put as much effort into selling the food as you spend growing it. These customers deserve that.

The farmer makes the magic that the people are coming back for. If you can also create this feeling of “mutual appreciation” in your stall, I think you’ll be able to have both tills busy, even in the rain.


Anna Helmer farms in the Pemberton Valley with her family, friends, and relations. Her book is called: A Farmer’s Guide to Farmers’ Markets and is available on amazon.com.

Photo by Moss Dance.

Footnotes from the Field: Intergenerational Soil Stewardship

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

Intergenerational Soil Stewardship: Our Only Hope?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Principle of Health

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does a New Sustainable Agriculture Ethic Require from Us?

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

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

Soil is in a Symbiotic Living Relationship with Plants

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

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

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

Principles of Conservation Agriculture:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Weeds: Don’t Shoot the Messenger

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

(Not Until You Understand the Message)

Av Sing

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

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

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

Weeds Redefined

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

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

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

Learning From Your Weeds

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

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

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

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

Soil pH

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

Extreme Weed Makeover: Look for the Positive in Weeds

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended reading (available from the COG library): 

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

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


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

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A New Model for Integrated Habitat Development

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

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

Saikat Kumar Basu

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

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

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

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

Aquatic Habitats

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

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

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

From Flora to Fauna

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

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

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

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

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

Regionally Specific Ecological Restoration

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

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

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

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

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

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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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From the Chilcotin Wildfire Front: A Rotational Grazer’s Story

in 2018/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Summer 2018/Tools & Techniques
Wildfires scour the landscape around Riparian Ranch

Shanti Heywood

This story first appeared on the Young Agrarians website.

Protecting my home was just something I had to do. People keep commenting on how brave I was—but I like to think everyone has some grit inside of them somewhere to fight when they have to. My heart goes out to those who have lost their homes and those who are still fighting to save homes.

We bought 256 acres of cleared but poor quality (and consequently, affordable) land out in the middle of nowhere. My husband wanted to live off the grid and I grew up off grid, so it wasn’t a huge stretch buying this place. With technology these days we have a lot more creature comforts available off grid than I did as a kid in the ‘90s.

The only catch was my hubby has a company down in Burnaby so I’m up here by myself 90% of the time learning to do a lot of things I never dreamed I’d be doing. Since the land needed improving and was not fenced we bought some solar powered fencers and step in posts and got to work. With affordable solar fencers, the voltage isn’t that much, so you really have to work with the psychology of the animals. If they’re not satisfied they will just leave. Solar fencers definitely let you know if your animals are happy in a hurry.

I moved them last year every 24 to 48 hours, and I saw a good deal of improvement. This year we dedicated a lot of time to fencing. I would only move them once per week but it still did what it was supposed to do.

The forage stayed green a lot longer than the ungrazed areas despite extreme drought conditions. Once the fire started I kind of knew we were in a good spot. Some of my friends, bless their hearts, were heavily involved in helping people evacuate livestock. They were quite insistent that I should get my animals out of there, but I refused. They’re as much my coworkers as they are livestock and they had as much of a job to do during the fire prep as I did.

I put my cows and horses in the hay field (the only area that had not yet been grazed…lots of fuel growing in peat soil) and started to move the step in posts closer to the forest every time they had finished a section. The fire danced around me for a month and finally made a pretty decisive b-line for me. Once the fire started to come I moved the posts back to the grazed area so they wouldn’t burn and set up a second water source in case the first source had fire near it. I moved the animals’ loose mineral tub back to where I thought was safest so they knew that was the best area to hang out, and that was that.

Intensively grazed pasture stopped the spread of fire
Intensively grazed pasture stopped the spread of fire

We watched the fire come in on all sides in one wild night. There’s no way I can describe the power of this fire so I’ll just give a rundown of what happened. August 11—I kind of knew it was the day the fire would come. Five weeks of waiting, watching, and preparing. That morning I got my chores done early and headed inside for a nap. I woke up in the afternoon to roaring fire on three sides and hot—I mean HOT—wind.

My neighbours Becca and Darrel showed up not long after. Darrel was worried about a cabin in the woods, Mikey’s cabin, and wanted to go check that the pump was still running. He went one way and Becca and I went the other way to break a dam upstream to let more water in to the creek for Mikey’s pump. There we are, two girls sitting in the mud listening to the roar of the fire behind us. Once we started heading back we quickly realized the fire was already almost at my property and became pretty worried about Darrel. He never made it to Mikey’s pump because the fire was already in the surrounding forest. We all figured the cabin was a pile of ash.

Another neighbour, Robert, showed up at that point, as did the one and only guy we had ever seen from Quesnel (who is supposed to be managing this fire). He quickly left. There wasn’t much we could do. We stood and watched the flames come in on all sides, completely surrounding us and cutting off all exits.

Once the fire had come in close I turned the waterfowl and billy goat loose and went in to the field that the goats and dogs were in. I called them all out of their huts as I was worried the roofs might catch a spark and led them to the sprinklers. They seemed to understand what I was showing them, as they never walked back in to their huts that night. I was not concerned about the cows and horses out in the hay field. We do managed intensive grazing, which proved very effective at stopping the fire in its tracks. I was pretty confident they were completely safe.

Then the smoke came down on us and for most of the evening we were choking on smoke and couldn’t see a thing. We had a couple little hot spots in paddocks and pastures throughout the night but they either burnt themselves out or were put out.

About midnight the fire calmed down on the Northern side and much to our surprise we heard the buzz of Mikey’s pump in the distance—the cabin had survived. The water from the dam had finally made its way down to us so we used it to put out a few fires and wet certain areas down. At the end of the night we all stood in awe of what had happened and what was still going on. Robert cut his way through my driveway to get home and we headed to bed. Darrel stayed up to keep watch.

The next day my husband finally was able to make it home and the fire ripped through two of our neighbour’s properties (they both made it). We weren’t able to be there for either of them but we cut our way through and went to help as soon as we could. Later that evening Robert’s wife Mamie said, “Who’s even going to believe this? Two people in their mid ‘60s running around with hoses fighting a wildfire.”

The fire burnt right up to where they had grazed and stopped. It was very hot and burnt pretty much anything in its path including green marshes and willow bushes. In one spot where I had just grazed but didn’t move the posts back to the grazed area the fire actually burnt the hot tape but not the posts because the cows had reached under and grazed around them.

Peat soil is quite notorious for burning underground for months…even through the winter…but for whatever reason the field appears to be just fine. My poor neighbour who owns another part of this field about two km away is still battling underground hot spots in his peat soil and he had the fire pass through one day after me. We’ve been over a few times to help him put out spots and move hay.

We have major wolf problems in the winter so fencing and LGDs (livestock guard dogs) are actually more important than this fire ever was. I shocked the heck out of the structure protection crew when I told them my puppies in training were more important than their hoses and I would NOT move them out of their field. Never a dull moment around here.

Horse and cows happy to be safe and sound!
Horse and cows happy to be safe and sound!

None of us are able to get fire insurance due to our remote off the grid locations, so of course we all stayed to fight. We have been spending every day since checking on the properties and putting out little hot spots. It won’t be something I will ever forget, nor will this area ever look the same within my lifetime.

In the end, we didn’t lose anything to the fire. There’s no damage other than a few singed fence posts and of course my canoe I forgot about until we had gone to break the beaver dam when the fire was here. All the prep I did made it a fairly easy experience and the people that stayed with me of course helped immensely. I was never very good at studying for tests in school but this one I feel like I did my homework and was pretty well prepared for.

The fire is still blazing to the East of me. I can see plumes of smoke rising as I type this but for the most part we are safe. It’s never a dull moment here but I think it is safe to say this was one of the most exciting.

facebook.com/riparianranch


Shanti Heywood manages Riparian Ranch, an off grid ranch in the Chilcotin working towards providing humanely raised meat and livestock in the most natural and peaceful setting possible.

All photos: Riparian Ranch/Shanti Heywood

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