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Weeds: Don’t Shoot the Messenger

in 2018/Crop Production/Current Issue/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.


A New Model for Integrated Habitat Development

in 2018/Crop Production/Current Issue/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


Footnotes from the Field: Celebrating the Flight of the Bumblebee

in 2018/Current Issue/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.


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!


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





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

in 2018/Current Issue/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.


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

Organic Farming to Enhance Native Species

in 2018/Current Issue/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Living with Wildlife/Organic Standards/Summer 2018

Tanya Brouwer

Agricultural activities are often blamed for the demise of the planet’s environmental systems. It is not uncommon to hear about deforestation, drained wetlands, and dying grasslands when referencing agriculture. Yet the Canadian Organic Standard specifically states that “organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plants, animals, humans and the planet as one and indivisible.” This puts organic farmers in a unique and invaluable position as environmental stewards of some of the last large tracts of fertile land in the country.

Unfortunately, this noble mandate, while inspirational on paper, lacks the specific steps that organic farmers need to turn this goal into reality. It becomes necessary, then, for organic stewards to first turn inwards and understand the local, biogeoclimatic zone in which they operate. With this understanding, it becomes easier for farmers to recreate or retain habitat elements of the zone’s numerous ecosystems in order to bolster often dwindling populations of native species. At the same time, a knowledge of regional ecosystems allows organic operators to minimize farmer/wildlife conflict. The result is a scenario where farmers and wildlife form mutually beneficial relationships.

For example, many of the South Okanagan’s organic operations lie within the Bunchgrass biogeoclimatic zone (BG).  Very generally speaking, this zone is characterized by moderate winters, hot summers, and very little precipitation. Grasses are the dominant vegetation, interspersed with Rabbitbrush, Big sagebrush, and Antelope brush among others. The wildlife species native to this zone, including birds, bats, mammals, and insects, have evolved with the climate and resultant plant life and rely upon these ecosystems to fulfil certain life cycles. Agricultural plant species, on the other hand, are not part of this coevolution and, alone, can disrupt natural life cycles forcing some native populations to diminish and others to become perceived ‘pests’.

The good news: it is possible for organic farmers to coexist with native systems within the farmed environment without decreasing production goals. For instance, the South Okanagan is home to many snakes. The rattlesnake and gopher snake are some of the most well-known and misunderstood. Through persecution and habitat loss their numbers have dropped significantly. What many farmers fail to realize is that snakes, protected under the BC Wildlife Act, are an organic farmer’s friend for effective and ‘approved’ rodent control, so populations should be encouraged in a safe manner.

In the South Okanagan, rocky slopes are often used as denning sites. These should be maintained with a buffer of natural habitat. In order to prevent farmer/snake conflict, habitat hiding spots like piles of rocks or wooden boards can be created and placed away from busy work areas. If all else fails and conflict cannot be avoided, particularly with rattlesnakes, a farmer may opt to install snake barrier fencing.

Wetlands are also a vital element of the dry BG zone and support at-risk species like the Blotched tiger salamander and the Great Basin spadefoot toad. Healthy wetlands help farmers by reducing mosquito populations, recharging aquifers, and minimizing flooding to non-wetland areas. With over 85% of the Okanagan’s wetlands destroyed, farmers would be wise to protect them. Ensuring organic fungicides are applied on low wind days avoids negatively impacting amphibians. Exclusion fencing is a good first step for livestock operators and appropriate buffers with native plantings are also recommended in non-livestock settings. Wetland re-creation is another option in fields where wetlands have been drained.

Admittedly, many organic farmers, particularly those growing fruit, might be hard pressed to find room for a relationship with birds. Many birds, however, are voracious eaters of insects that are also detrimental to fruit crops. And, like other native species, numerous populations of native birds are on the decline due to human related habitat loss and competition from non-native species like the European starling. For these reasons, the Lewis’s woodpecker, found in the South Okanagan, is considered threatened. To encourage its comeback, large standing dead or live Ponderosa pine or Cottonwood trees should remain intact as they provide important habitat for this species (BOX). Ensuring that vineyard netting is tight and not hanging loosely will prevent stolen grapes and inadvertent bird catch. As a final incentive, Lewis’s woodpeckers, like all migratory birds, are protected under the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act so meddling with this species and many others is considered illegal.

Of course, the tiny but mighty native pollinators should not be forgotten. Native species of bees, flies, moths, butterflies, and beetles are responsible for one of every three bites of food we take. Unfortunately, many of these populations are also on the decline. This is where native plants are especially important. In the South Okanagan, for example, the Mining bee is the first to emerge in the spring and benefits from Yarrow’s early bloom. As another example, the female Northern Checkerspot will lay her eggs on the underside of Rabbitbrush leaves. By planting a hedgerow or strip of native plants (or maintaining existing native habitat), organic farmers will help preserve species that are vital to crop success.

Obviously, many of these projects require some financial input. Additionally, learning this information requires time that many organic farmers simply do not have. Several communities and regions have stewardship societies with experts that will assist farmers in identifying critical habitat on their property. These groups are also aware of potential grants and other funding that can help fulfil conservation goals. Okanagan Similkameen Stewardship, Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust, the Kootenay Conservation Program, the GOERT society on Vancouver Island, and the Environmental Farm Plan are great regional programs that farmers can access.

At the end of the day, organic farmers are also ecologists, managing the interrelationships of soil, water, plants, and animals to create a thriving, healthy operation. While the specific knowledge of local ecosystems may be new to some, it is likely that the nurturing of these ecosystem elements is a long time practice for many. Learning the details of a region’s biogeoclimatic zone is an extra step that will ensure the organic farmer is well on the way to fulfilling the organic standard’s mandate to protect Canada’s environment.


BC is divided into 14 biogeoclimatic zones. Zones are large geographic areas with relatively uniform climate. They are named after 1, 2, or 3 of the dominant climax species. Spruce-Willow-Birch, Mountain Hemlock and Coastal Douglas-fir are some examples. Other provinces use different classification systems.


BC Wildlife Act: protects virtually all vertebrates from direct harm, except as allowed by regulations (e.g. hunting). Anyone who kills or harms an endangered or threated species can be fined $500,000 and three years in jail.

Migratory Birds Convention Act: federal legislation that protects all of Canada’s migratory birds, including their nests and eggs, unless allowed by regulations.

Large standing dead or live trees that provide valuable habitat for the conservation of wildlife are referred to as Wildlife Trees.

Tanya Brouwers is the Ecostudies coordinator for the Okanagan Similkameen Conservation Alliance. She also is an organic verification officer and a farmer. For any questions related to this article or to book a workshop, email her at ecostudies@osca.org.

Photo: Keith Manders, rancher, helping Okanagan Similkameen Stewardship plant native trees and shrubs to enhance a riparian buffer (along Aeneas Creek) on Garnet Valley Ranch in Summerland. Credit: Okanagan Similkameen Stewardship

Ask an Expert: Biodiversity and the Organic Standards

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

An Inspector’s View

Stuart McMillan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Future of Our Food System

in 2018/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Spring 2018

Excerpts from The Future of Our Food System: Report on the Southwest BC Bioregion Food System Design Project by the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU). Reprinted with thanks to Kent Mullinix and the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at KPU

Foreword to The Future of Our Food System

William Rees

Society is only three square meals away from revolution. —Leon Trotsky (i)

H. sapiens is an enigmatic species. Humans have evolved high intelligence, making us uniquely capable of reason and logical analysis; no other species can plan ahead, using available evidence to shape its own future.

But there is a problem. Humans are also endowed with behavioural predispositions that were once adaptive but have become impediments to survival today. In particular, humans are inherently short-sighted. Most people favour the here and now over future possibilities and distant places, a trait that economists have formalized as “social discounting.” This built-in myopia dilutes our ability to plan for the future.

To complicate matters, humans are myth-makers. While other species take the world as it comes, people socially construct shared perceptions of reality. Much of what we take to be “truth”—our various cultural narratives, religious doctrines, political ideologies, and academic paradigms—are largely products of the human mind. These stories are massaged and polished by social discourse and negotiation and ultimately elevated to the status of received wisdom by common agreement.

Most importantly, people “act out” from socially constructed beliefs as if they were ultimate truths. This is not a problem when a cherished myth resonates well with external reality, but what if our construct is little more than a shared illusion? Allegiance to ill-conceived myths and paradigms—the denial of contrary evidence—has presaged the collapse of countless social organizations, governments, and even whole societies since the dawn of civilization.

What has all this got to do with food? Food is the ultimate resource, yet myopia and denial are defining characteristics of society’s prevailing approach to food security. Food (and, often, agricultural land) is treated just like any other commodity, subject to the vagaries of market economics. And markets are intrinsically short-sighted—prices reflect current supply and demand with no capacity to factor in likely future conditions.

Moreover, contemporary neoliberal economics is “hands-off” economics, socially constructed to minimize government intervention (so much for long-term planning) and to optimize a single value: efficiency (who can be against efficiency?). Efficiency, in turn, demands local specialization in a few commodities supplemented by trade for everything else. This creates monocultures and potentially unsustainable producer and consumer dependencies. Meanwhile, increasing competition in global markets drives producers to externalize ecological costs such as soil and water pollution and bid down local wages. In short, the economic paradigm that is shaping what (and even whether) we will produce and consume in coming decades ignores such values as community cohesion, equity, regional self-reliance, economic diversity, and ecological stability while simultaneously inhibiting public planning for global change.

Little sign of high intelligence here, and too bad, given that significant change is a certainty. This is the Anthropocene. Global warming and increasingly unpredictable climate is already upon us, biodiversity is plunging, soils are eroding and water tables falling, an energy crisis has been headed off only by a slowing global economy but will return (particularly significant because “modern agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food” (ii), sea level rise and desertification are likely to destroy vast areas of agricultural land and displace millions of desperate people, and such trends can only increase geopolitical tensions and the likelihood of resource wars.

Meanwhile, most of the official world remains in a socially constructed bliss-bubble. Blinded by the prevailing myth of perpetual growth and continuous technological progress, we are not quite able to admit that these trends may herald a global food crisis. Consider the following burst of (effectively self-cancelling) optimism from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization:

“Barring major upheavals coming from climate change and the energy sector or other events that are difficult to foresee—such as wars or major natural catastrophes leaving long enduring impacts—world agriculture should face no major constraints to producing all the food needed for the population of the future, provided that the research/ investment/policy requirements and the objective of sustainable intensification continue to be priorities.” (iii)

What this really says is if none of the highly likely events that could prevent it from happening actually happens, and everything needed to make it happen does happen, then world agriculture will have no problem producing all the food needed for future populations. This is an impossibility theorem; there will be “major constraints” in meeting global food demand.

This is why everyone concerned about food and food security in Southwest BC—anywhere, actually—should be interested in the present study: The Future of Our Food System assumes from the outset that the system must adapt to changing biophysical and geopolitical realities. It is increasingly unwise for any region to become excessively dependent on potentially unreliable external sources of supply or to commit an excessive part of its own productivity to external markets. With cool intelligence and a steady eye on the future, this project explores alternative scenarios for expanding food production and processing in the bioregion and asks whether regional self-reliance can be increased while minimizing ecological costs. These are questions every bioregion should be asking.

The Frazier River is an important salmon habitat for the lower mainland of British Columbia. A lovely scenic river.

In the case of Southwest BC, the answers raise an ominous yellow flag. In baseline year 2011, the bioregion’s 2.7 million people had only .06 hectares of arable land per person, including grazing land; by 2050, when the population is expected to be 4.3 million, the ratio falls to only .04 hectares per person. This actually compares unfavourably to the already (arguably inadequate) global figure of .20 hectares arable land per person, exclusive of grazing land. Tellingly, it currently takes about .50 hectares per person of arable land to produce the average North American diet.

We should therefore not be surprised (but should be alarmed) that under the most optimistic scenario, with most of its arable land in production, Southwest BC could become only 57% food self-reliant by 2050 (assuming a standard recommended Canadian diet). This is twice the performance available from business as usual but leaves the region’s people heavily dependent on imports from elsewhere—imports that may well not be available.

It is clearly time to rethink the region’s entire development trajectory—indeed, the world’s development trajectory. The predicament revealed in The Future of Our Food System is typical of modern urbanizing regions. Food (in)security may well become the defining anxiety of the early Anthropocene. The only question is whether the world community can abandon its dangerous illusions, accept the evidence of a gathering storm, and apply humanity’s much-vaunted high intelligence to planning a way through.

There should be enough incentive: if the world fails to maintain the three-meal buffer, chaos and anarchy will not be far behind.

A ripening strawberry crop in BCs Fraser Valley district in summer

Excerpted from The Future of Our Food System:

What Is a Food System?

When we talk about food—its origin and availability, quality and safety, and how it affects our lives and communities—we tend to immediately focus on agriculture and defer to the farming sector for information, answers and direction. But farming is only one component. Food system characteristics and outcomes are dependent on many other multi-faceted, extensive, and interdependent elements that are as equally important as farming.Indeed, it is increasingly acknowledged that the direction and outcomes of our food system should not reflect agriculture and food business interests alone. The American Planning Association, in its 2007 Policy Guide on Community and Regional Food Planning, had this to say: “Food is a sustaining and enduring necessity. Yet among the basic essentials for life—air, water, shelter, and food—only food has been absent over the years as a focus of serious professional planning interest. This is a puzzling omission…”(10).

Many are becoming aware of the concept of food systems. Examination and discourse around food’s relationship to community, economy, and environment has shifted from agriculture to the food system as a whole. Lisa Chase and Vern Grubinger describe a food system as “an inter- connected web of activities, resources and people that extends across all domains involved in providing human nourishment and sustaining health, including production, processing, packaging, distribution, marketing, consumption and disposal of food.” The authors go on to say that our food systems are reflective of and responsive to the social, cultural, economic, health, and ecological conditions in which they exist. These interacting conditions occur or are imposed at multiple scales, from national and provincial to city and household. These conditions, regardless of scale, must be compelled to work in concert to achieve the characteristics and outcomes of the food system we want for our communities and a sustainable future.

What Is a Bioregion?

Bioregions are generally defined as areas that share similar topography, plant and animal life, and human culture; they are not just geographical or political areas delineated by lines on a map but are conceptual as well. Bioregionalism adheres to the notion that human settlement and land use patterns must be viewed as integral, functional components of ecosystems rather than as separate, unrelated entities. (12)

What Is Needed for a Sustainable Future?

Our food system is far from sustainable. It is dependent on diminishing supplies of oil and fresh water and threatened by global warming. Its adverse environmental impacts, such as groundwater contamination, habitat destruction, soil degradation and loss, and enormous greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming are undisputed.(1) In BC, as elsewhere, food price increases, food insecurity, diet-related disease, and the economic marginalization of farmers and loss of revenue from the local economy is also of concern.(2) In Southwest BC, we spend an estimated $8.6 billion on food annually,3 but much of this does not stay in the local economy because it is spent on imported food or in non-local food system businesses.

Climate change, food and energy price instability, and dietary preferences are limiting the capacity of our food system to provide sufficient food. Our food system future seems tenuous, and perhaps the only thing we know for certain is that our population will continue to grow, requiring more food to sustain it. We need to purposefully address the challenge of providing food for all, in sustainable ways, well into the future.

A sustainable future requires a sustainable food system.

Some argue that localizing food systems will better ensure a sustainable, resilient food supply into the future. Local food systems are characterized by greater food self-reliance, which is defined as the ability to satisfy local food needs with food grown locally. Local food systems are purported to have greater social benefit,(4) reduce negative environmental impacts associated with bringing food from farm to plate,(5) improve community health, nutrition, and food safety,(6) and strengthen economies.(7)
In BC, food security experts have identified food self-reliance as a key climate change adaptation strategy(8) and argue that increasing local fruit and vegetable production capacity makes sense in a future where imports may not be as available or as cheap.(9)

Organizations across the province have mobilized around the themes of food, land, culture, and ecological sustainability. Increasingly, local governments and the private sector are supporting local food systems as vehicles for community and economic development. In Southwest BC, many local governments have introduced policies supportive of food system localization and residents are increasingly interested in the concept.

Despite a growing interest in food system localization, there remains little information about how or to what degree it can realistically address our food system sustainability concerns. We are at a critical moment in history where issues of climate change, food security, energy, and local economics are rapidly converging. The choices we make about our food system could potentially mitigate some of these issues or make them worse.

Click for more information on the Southwest BC Bioregion Food System Design Project, including the Project Summary The Future of Our Food System.


From Foreword to The Future of Our Food System:

i. W. J. Gingles, By Train to Shanghai: A Journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway (Bloomington, Indiana: Author House, 2006), 137.
 ii. A. Bartlett, “Forgotten Fundamentals of the Energy Crisis,” NPG Academic Series, 1998, 10, http://www.npg.org/forum_series/ ForgottenFundamentalsEnergyCrisisApril1998(web).pdf.
 iii. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050, 2012 Revision (Rome, Italy: FAO, 2012), 20. (emphasis added)

From The Future of Our Food System:

1. Lester R. Brown, Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Security (New York, New York: The Earth Policy Institute, WW. Norton & Company Inc., 2012).
 2. Brown, Full Planet, Empty Plates.
 3. Statistics Canada, “Table 203-0028: Survey of Household Spending (SHS), Detailed Food Expenditures, Canada, Regions and Provinces, Annual Dollars, CANSIM (database),” 2016, http://www5.statcan.gc.ca/cansim/a05.
 4. Brian Halweil, “Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market,” November 2002, http://www.worldwatch.org/system/ les/EWP163.pdf.
 5. John E. Ikerd, “The Globalization of Agriculture: Implication for Sustain- ability of Small Horticultural Farms,” XXVI International Horticultural Congress: Sustainability of Horticultural Systems in the 21st Century (Toronto, Ontario: ISHS Acta Horticulturae, 2004), 399–410, http://www.actahort.org/ books/638/638_51.htm.
 6. Kamyar Enshayan, Wallace Wilhelm, and Kate Clancy, “Local Food, Local Security,” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 19, no. 1 (February 12, 2004): 2–3, doi:10.1079/RAFS200359.
 7. Gail Feenstra, “Local Food Systems and Sustainable Communities,” American Journal of Alternative Agriculture 12, no. 1 (1999): 28–36.
 8. BC Food Systems Network, “Building Food Security in British Columbia in 2013,” http://bcfoodactionnetwork.com/sites/default/ les/Building%20 Food%20Security%20in%20BC%20in%202013%20Sept%2020.pdf.
 9. Aleck S. Ostry, Christiana Miewald, and Rachelle Beveridge, “Climate Change and Food Security in British Columbia,” http://pics.uvic.ca/sites/ default/ les/uploads/publications/Food%20Security_2011.pdf.
 10. American Planning Association, “APA Policy Guide on Community and Regional Food Planning,” 2007, https://www.planning.org/policy/guides/ adopted/food.htm.
 11. L. Chase and V. Grubinger, Food, Farms, and Community: Exploring Food Systems (Durham, New Hampshire: University of New Hampshire Press, 2014).
 12. P. Berg, “Bioregionalism (a definition),” The Digger Archives, 2002, http:// www.diggers.org/freecitynews/_disc1/00000017.htm.

How to Think About Bioregionalism When Growing Seeds

in 2018/Grow Organic/Seeds/Spring 2018

B.C. Eco Seed Co-operative

Meagan Curtis

For some, bioregionalism may seem like a practical concept useful for creating ecological dividing lines between regions, but the concept’s meaning extends into social, cultural, and economic realms. One of the foremost ecotheologians of the 20th century saw bioregionalism as critical for the next era of human life on earth, feeling it should encapsulate “a self-propagating, self-nourishing, self-educating, self-healing and self-fulfilling community.”[1] With “bio” standing as its prefix, the concept refers to anything within a region relating to life. This means that it is not just the ecology of our region we need to consider, but also factors such as ethics and economics that are dominating that region.

For the BC Ecological Seed Co-operative (BCESC), our focus is on vegetable, herb, grain, flower, and cover crop seed that is ecologically grown, open-pollinated, regionally adapted, held in the public domain, and GE-free. We want to increase the quantity and improve the quality of ecological and organic seed grown in BC and believe that seed sovereignty is an essential part of sustainable bioregional food systems. This means that when we think about growing resilient seed—seed that performs well in an uncertain climate—the co-op considers a variety of factors from ethics to ecology.

The Bioregional Ecology of Seed

Most of the seeds we use in our BC bioregions, for our gardens or on our farms, are not descendants of native species from our bioregions. With the notable exceptions of berries, pumpkins/gourds, sunflowers, various herbs, and wild rice, most of the crops we grow across the country stem from a very recent part of Canada’s history. [2]

Immediately it appears there may be a disconnect between the ecological emphasis in bioregionalism and the vegetable seeds we grow and produce. This is further complicated by the fact that as seed producers, we know (and maybe even enjoy) the fact that seed is shared across regions, countries, and continents. Seed always has and will continue to travel across borders – if not purposefully, then in the hair of animals, on the boots of travellers, or by the prevailing westerlies.

Right now, most seed bought by gardeners and farmers is not seed originally grown in their bioregion, not even within their own country. By growing seed within bioregions across the province on farms with published locations, the BCESC is working on localizing seed so that buyers know where the seed is coming from and are assured that it performed well in that particular region. In this sense, BCESC seed is regionally-adapted as well as regionally tested as our members trial seed from other member’s farms across the province.

Sitting at approximately 944,735 km2, our province happens to have quite a few different bioregions. Therefore, it should not be assumed that because a lettuce variety does very well on the coast at UBC Farm, it will not perform well in Southern Ontario or that it will perform fantastically in the Okanagan. A certain bioregion in BC may be more similar to a bioregion in another country than to some within our own province. Because of this, the co-op grows its seed with wide spectrum selection in mind in order to create horizontal resistance,[3] making it suited for multiple bioregions across the country. Our growers use large population sizes and shy away from selecting narrowly for one trait so that a wide diversity of traits are preserved and the plant is theoretically more resilient in the end. This means that although BCESC seed is grown and adapted to a bioregion, it also carries enough diversity to potentially thrive in other regions. In the end, the diversity our plants carry emerges from regions and then flows across regions as the seed’s resilience is shared within our province and beyond it.

The Ethics and Socio-Economics of Resilient Seed 

Aside from ecological considerations, there are multiple tangible social, economic, and ethical benefits to investing in seed grown within your bioregion. The transparency within an organization like the BCESC means that a dialogue is possible with seed producers and growers in a way impossible in other circumstances. BCESC can respond to varieties that growers in their region would like to see preserved, improved, or increased. For the same economic reasons that we tell people to eat local, we should buy local seed. The economic sustainability of inhabitants of a given bioregion is critical to a healthy society. BCESC’s purpose is to be able to offer farmers the quantities of seed they are looking for. We also offer packet size seed for those with a smaller area or who want to test a variety.

Difficult issues relating to agricultural and food sovereignty can be overwhelming to consider at the international, national, or even provincial level. What may be more available to us is the opportunity to think about, and work on, the socio-economic and ecological health of our bioregion. Working at this level, we may more effectively create the kind of life and systems we want to see flourish. Resilience within a bioregion may also mean transforming our cultural norms and adapting our social relations in order to foster cooperation and collaboration. Bioregionalism indicates to us that perhaps feeding ourselves and future generations in uncertain climatic times involves not only ecological solutions, but social, economic, and ethical as well.

The full range of BCESC inventory is available online at bcecoseedcoop.com. You can also find a selection of packets in racks in local communities across BC:

Vancouver: Figaro’s Garden, 1896 Victoria Dr.

Langley: Cedar Rim Nursery, 7024 Glover Rd.

Nelson: Kootenay Co-op, 777 Baker St.

Prince George: Ave Maria Specialties, 1638 20 Ave.

Smithers: Alpine Plant World, 3441 19 Ave

Meagan Curtis is member of the BC Eco Seed Coop in Port Alberni—on Instagram @mtjoanfarm. Inspired by EF Schumacher, her farm has three goals: health, beauty, and permanenc—productivity is attained as a by-product.

Photos: BC Eco Seed Coop

[1] Berry, T. (1988). The Dream of the Earth. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press. https://gaiaeducation.org/news/cosmopolitan-bioregionalism/

[2] For the origin of geographic origins of our food crops – where they were initially domesticated and evolved over time, see: http://blog.ciat.cgiar.org/origin-of-crops/

[3] Resistance based on the result of continuous selection in the face of adversity based on many genes working together resulting in a healthy plant (Morton, F. (2018). Horizontal Resistance: An Organic Approach to Selection. Wild Garden Seed Catalogue. p. 100: https://seedstory.files.wordpress.com/2007/12/franksessays-1.pdf )


Footnotes from the Field: Seeds of Resilience

in 2018/Footnotes from the Field/Grow Organic/Organic Standards/Seeds/Spring 2018
Leet and onion starts at a plant sale

Seeds of Resilience for Thriving Bioregionalism

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

Bioregionalism is a philosophical concept that promotes the harmonization of human culture and activities with those of the environmental bioregion they reside in. There is also an emphasis on local food production for local markets, including indigenous plants and animals.

The organic community has developed into a proactive global sub-culture phenomenon whose regulatory standards happen to work hand in glove in implementing some fundamental bioregionalism concepts. Case in point, the use of organic seed when and where possible.

CAN/CGSB-32.310-2015 Clause 5.3 Seeds and planting stock: Organic seed, bulbs, tubers, cuttings, annual seedlings, transplants, and other propagules shall be used…

The tenants of bioregionlism recognise the uniqueness of each ecosystem’s bioregion as defined by its natural boundaries. Often these natural boundaries are not related to national boundaries: for instance, the bio-geoclimatic subzone of the Okanagan Valley stretches through southern British Columbia into Washington state. The organic sub-culture spans the globe and in this sense the bioregion or ecoregion that is defined is the entirety of the earth system herself.

In some ways Bioregionlism harkens back to a time before modern industrialization, when food production was still predominantly local and relied on hardy regional crop varieties that were grown using traditional farming methods and largely consumed by local peoples. In that pre-industrial model, each community had its own work force that could produce enough local foods to support its local population base.

In a world comprised of unpredictable natural disasters and volatile global markets subject to politico-economic shifts, we find that the organic regulatory requirement for the use of organic seed brings the concept of “resilience” into the bioregionalism equation. On a global basis, the organic community directly supports the establishment of local seed reserves, local seed exchanges, the maintenance of open pollinated heritage varieties, the conservation of regionally hardy varieties, local seed producers, and a seed saver aware community.

This is in contrast to the reduction of seed diversity and the increasing vulnerability of seed supplies managed by the multinational conglomerates.

In the past 60 years we have witnessed a rapid consolidation of smaller regional seed companies into a handful of multinational seed producers. The vast majority of seeds are grown out in select regions of the globe and shipped back to farmers. Risks are inherent when you put all your eggs in one basket, so to speak. A traumatic disruption, such as a volcanic eruption or an untimely winter freeze could wipe out the majority of seed for one crop in a production year.

Forty percent of all hybrid onion seed grown for commercial production in North America comes from a few hundred acres in the Yuma, Arizona. Jefferson County, Oregon supplies 45% of the global market for hybrid carrot seed and supplies 55% of the US domestic market. A main carrot seed producer has reported losing his entire crop due to a winter freeze, significantly reducing seed supplies for a commercial carrot crops.

Another vulnerability that comes with consolidated seed production is hybridization which inherently limits variety and loses some plant characteristics available to open pollinated varieties. Hybrid seeds are a dead end for seed savers as progeny diverge from parent genetics after the first generation. As well, hybrids have not been selected for local characteristics and regional hardiness, as open pollinated seeds are through rogueing.

In Canada, seed production for onions and carrots is a two year process as the plants are biannual seed producers. Contrast that with the longer growing seasons of the more southern USA, where onions and carrots can be an annual crop. Under annual crop growing conditions rigorous rogueing for carrot variety cannot be conducted as only the leaf tops can be checked for shape. Here in Canada, carrots are dug up and the roots rogued out for desired characteristics and replanted the following spring as ‘stecklings,’ with seed harvested in the fall of the second year.

The organic standards provide a globally unified conversation around seed production ideals and philosophy that actively seeks to build bioregional communities with seed and food resilience at their core. The use of organic seed embodies much more than just a commercial value or niche market item as it is the ‘seed core of resilience’ for thriving bioregional communities. Without the seeds of diversity and regionalism we lose the strength of resilience in an uncertain world.

Happy seed saving!

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

Photo of leek and onion starts at a plant sale: Moss Dance


1. Onions: cals.arizona.edu/fps/sites/cals.arizona.edu.fps/files/cotw/Onion_Seed.pdf
2. Carrots: oregonstate.edu/dept/coarc/carrot-seed-0
3. Carrots: www.farmflavor.com/oregon/oregon-ag-products/seed-needs/

Ask an Expert: Fostering Resilient Soil Ecosystems

in 2018/Ask an Expert/Crop Production/Spring 2018

Emma Holmes, Organics Specialist, BC Ministry of Agriculture

Studies examining soil microbes are showing huge potential to improve growing practices. A number of soil microorganisms have abilities to increase soil fertility, aid in nutrient and water uptake by the root system, and protect crops against pests and disease.

Soil Bio-fertilizers

If you grow legumes, you are likely already familiar with Rhizobia, the family of soil bacteria that form symbiotic relationships with legumes to convert atmospheric nitrogen to a form of nitrogen that is plant available. Producers have been inoculating their legume seeds with rhizobium since the ‘50s and it is estimated that 70 million tonnes of N are fixed annually by Rhizobia (Zahran, 1999). There are significant potential gains to be had from reducing dependence on nitrogenous fertilizers by increasing biological nitrogen fixation including reduced input costs, pollution prevention, and improved yield and crop quantity (Kelly et al., 2016).

But it is not just legume crops that see big returns in partnering with soil organisms. Farmers around the world are using bio-fertilizers to cut back on expensive fertilizers, build their soil quality, and better protect their waterways and aquifers.

There are six main types of biofertilizers:

Symbiotic Nitrogen Fixers (e.g. Rhizobium) form nodules on the roots of legumes and can fix 50-200 kgs N/ha in one crop season.

Asymbiotic Free Nitrogen Fixers (e.g. Azobacter) live in the soil and fix significant levels of nitrogen without the direct interaction of other organisms.

Associative Symbiotic Nitrogen Fixers (e.g. Azospirillum) form close relationships with grasses and can fix 20-40 kgs N/ha.

Phosphate solubilizing bacteria (e.g. Fusarium) convert non available inorganic phosphorus into a plant available form.

Algae biofertilizers (e.g. Cyanobacteria) can provide plants with growth promoting substances (ex. Vitamin B 12) and fix 20-30 Kgs N/ha.

Mycorrhizal fungi refers to the symbiotic association between plant roots and soil fungus that enhances plant soil and nutrient uptake.

Growers in the Fraser Valley have reported that using a bio-fertilizer has allowed them to reduce their N fertilizer application by as much as 30-40% while seeing similar yields and higher product quality. The bio-fertilizer is called TwinN, a freeze dried microbial product that contains a group of asymbiotic free nitrogen fixing bacteria called diazotrophs. Along with N fixation, the diazotophs in TwinN have also been shown to increase root growth and root hair density and decrease root infection. It is thought that the colonization of the plant with beneficial bacteria protects the host plant from harmful bacteria (similar to the use of probiotics to promote human health).

Soil FoodWeb

Dr. Elaine Ingham, a soil microbiologist who previously worked with at Oregon State University and the Rodale Institute, is now the president of Soil FoodWeb. She has dedicated her career to help producers grow crops better by directly observing and promoting life in the soil.

Soil FoodWeb features comprehensive guides and online courses on making compost tea and analyzing soil samples using a microscope. Commercial growers using the Soil FoodWeb management programs report substantial savings in crop production input costs, reduced water usage, and increases in yield and quality.

Korean Natural Farming (KNF)

Koran Natural Farming looks very holistically at the entire farm system, including the people in it, and uses inputs that are generally close at hand and relatively inexpensive. Unlike bio-fertilizers, which involve bringing in microbes from another region or lab, KNF focuses on fostering beneficial Indigenous Micro-Organisms (IMO) within the ecosystem in which the crops are grown.

For more information, check out this link to a video on KNF Indigenous Micro-Organisms: https://vimeo.com/35078856

RootShoot in Vancouver provides 2-day workshops on KNF that includes a detailed explanation of the actual making of inputs including indigenous microorganisms, fermented plant juice, fish amino acid, and lactic acid bacteria.

Measuring Soil Diversity

The Plant Health Laboratory in Abbotsford can conduct a nematode assessment for $16-$32 (depending on turn around time). Nematodes are used as biological indicators of soil health because the number and types present in a soil reflect changes in the microbes they consume, and the soil’s physical and chemical environment.

Independent Soil FoodWeb consultants can analyze bacteria, nematodes, protozoa, and fungi using microscopes.

Managing for Soil Diversity

As the complexity of the food web increases, productivity of the soil tends to increase. Strategies for supporting robust soil biology include:

  • Supply organic matter, which acts as a home and food source for soil microbes. Composts and manures can also provide an input of beneficial soil microbes.
  • Leave crop residue to break down in place. Surface residue encourages decomposers and increases food web complexity.
  • Plant winter cover crops to act as a food source for bacteria in a time when food is otherwise scarce.
  • Create a diverse landscape that supports diverse niches of life.
  • Reduce tillage, which can disrupt sensitive organisms such as fungi. Over the long-term, tillage can deplete soil organic matter and thus reduce soil activity and complexity.
  • Minimize the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Even organic products can reduce the populations of fungi, nematodes, protozoa, and bacteria.
  • Minimize fallow periods, which can result in starvation for many creatures in the soil food web.
  • Minimize compaction and improve drainage to support aerobic microbial populations.
  • Cultivate beneficial indigenous micro-organisms
  • Apply compost teas and/or bio-fertilizers.

Emma Holmes has a B.SC in Sustainable Agriculture and M.Sc in Soil Science, both from UBC. She farmed on Orcas Island and Salt Spring Island and is now the Organics Industry Specialist at the BC Ministry of Agriculture.



Kelly,  et al., (2016). Symbiotic Nitrogen Fixation and the Challenges to its Extension to Nonlegumes. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 82(13). Retrieved from: http://aem.asm.org/content/82/13/3698.full

Zahran, H.H. (1999). Rhizobium-Legume Symbioses and Nitrogen Fixation under Severe Conditions and in an Arid Climate. Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, 63(4). Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.ih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC98982/

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