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Organic Stories: UBC Farm, Vancouver, BC

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

Cultivating Climate Resilience in a Living Laboratory

Constance Wylie

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

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

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

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

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

UBC Farm. Credit Constance Wylie

Organic Soil Amendments

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

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

Climate Smart

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

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

Seed Savers

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOR MORE INFO

Check out UBC Farm online at: ubcfarm.ca

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

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

For BC Seed trial results and updates: bcseedtrials.ca

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

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


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

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

Winter Work: the Mexico Myth

in 2019/Current Issue/Farmers' Markets/Grow Organic/Organic Community/Past Issues/Winter 2019

Anna Helmer

Here’s a question I hear a lot: So, what are you going to do now that winter is here and there is no more farming? Leaving aside the irony that I most often hear it while selling potatoes at farmers’ market, not to mention its (alarming?) assumption that farming is not a full year occupation, why do I struggle to find a good answer? I start with an earnest assertion that there is plenty of farm work to do and as I move on to mumbling something about markets, a ripple of uneasiness passes through the thought process and I begin to lose the thread of my theme, which as always has to do with me being a hard-working farmer. My answer becomes yet more bumbly and borderline indignant as I try to cling to and insist upon this image. A little tension develops in the space between my eyes.

The tension tells a truth and the truth is that for certain there are farm related tasks that I ought to be doing right now, and I have not been doing them. In the process of answering the question eventually I am going to get to the part where I have to explain that I have been choosing baking, reading, and in fact a whole bunch of things over farming. It will become clear that farm work is coming second, or perhaps even dead last, on my list of things to do. I resist telling people about that, however, because I don’t want them to think they are right, that there is no farming in the winter.

It’s not like there’s nothing to do. Oh my, no. It just means that most of the farm work is not due until spring. The weekly mandatory work consists of attending the winter market and servicing a few restaurant orders. This I can do in my sleep, having done around 1,000 markets lately and perfected the art of weighing out 50lb boxes of potatoes. It’s the only work with any immediate urgency and even that has been reduced to a whimper.

This long deadline is a problem. Spring is so far distant as to be ephemeral. As a deadline it seems ignorable. It is, however, firm. Anything not done by spring will not get done at all. I will be behind before I even get started. I am aware of the consequences yet struggle to produce.

It may be just a function of this particular week, which is featuring deliciously short, slushy, and dusky days. The wood shed is full, prompting lavish firewood usage which in turn demands I read in front of it. Then there is the seasonal requirement to bake cookies. I am not the least interested in: pruning raspberries, clearing a fence line, re-lining the drum washer, washing and sorting 10 tons of potatoes outside…

That work can wait. Or so I tell myself.

In two days, I will be at market again, and someone is going to ask me the question, and that flicker of irritation is going to betray my uneasiness about a lack of productivity. I really need to heed the warning. I need to do some of the farm work on that long deadline list.

My advice to myself is to do a farm job every day. We farmers get to measure work-life balance over the course of a year, rather than a day. It’s a privilege and the steep price is that you need to muster some motivation when it is hard to come by.

So I started small today and ordered next year’s carrot seed. Some would think this is early, but obviously I am partial to a variety and will need to know as soon as possible if it is not available. I ordered 300,000 seeds, which is mathematically more than we need, but allows for the fact that I have been planting carrots for several years now and made a whole variety of mistakes that have resulted in needing more seed.

And wouldn’t you know it, that led to some other jobs getting done that I hadn’t even listed yet. Because I had the farm binder open to compare last year’s order, I noticed that the field notes were not up to date, which led me to check field sizes—a source of on-going angst at our organic inspections. For some reason, although the actual farm boundaries have not changed in 125 years, when we list the fields on the organic application, we can’t settle on their actual size. Dad’s notes say one thing and mine say something slightly else. Drives inspectors crazy and causes an embarrassing amount of confusion.

“Get the field size sorted out” is an absolutely essential job that might not have been done before our spring inspection. Thank goodness I ordered the carrot seed today.


Anna Helmer farms in Pemberton with her parents and other family and has finally eaten more cookies than potatoes.

Feature image: Frosty farm fields. All photos: Anna Helmer

California Programs Show How Farmers Are Key to Reversing Climate Change

in 2019/Climate Change/Current Issue/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Winter 2019

Shauna MacKinnon

From extreme flooding to drought and previously unheard of temperature variability, climate change is a serious matter for BC organic growers. While agriculture is feeling more than its share of climate change impacts, a set of solutions exist where farmers and ranchers play a key role. Land-based climate solutions can avoid and absorb enough greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to be equivalent to a complete stop of burning oil worldwide.

This contribution is too important to ignore. An article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences assessed 20 cost effective land-based climate solutions applied globally to forests, wetlands, grasslands, and agricultural lands. These conservation, restoration, and land management actions can increase carbon storage and reduce GHG emissions to achieve over a third of the GHG reductions required to prevent dangerous levels of global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated emissions reductions are not enough to avoid catastrophic climate change impacts: we need to remove existing carbon from the atmosphere. Farmers and ranchers can help do this through practices that sink carbon in soil and vegetative cover.

In California, the fifth largest exporter of food and agriculture products in the world, climate change poses a major threat—drought, wildfire, and a reduction in the winter chill hours needed for many of the state’s fruit and nut crops are already taking a toll on production. California is a leader in climate change policy with ambitious GHG reduction goals, but the state is also recognizing that reductions alone are not enough. California is implementing programs and policies that put the state’s natural and working lands, including wetlands, forests, and agricultural lands, to work sinking carbon.

Field of green rye and legume with mountains in the background and blue sky
Rye & legume cover crop at Full Belly Farm, Guinda, California. CalCAN Farm Tour, March 2017. Photo by Jane Sooby

Carbon Farming: Agriculture as Carbon Sink

Dr. Jeffrey Creque, Director of Rangeland and Agroecosystem Management at the Carbon Cycle Institute in California, is a carbon farming pioneer. It all started with a conversation between himself and a landowner in Marin County. “We were talking about the centrality of carbon to management and restoration of their ranch and watershed,” explains Creque. “That led to a larger conversation about carbon as something they could market and then how exactly we could make that happen.”

The carbon farming concept was founded on early research in Marin County that showed land under management for dairy had much higher carbon concentrations than neighbouring land. This led to research trials by University of California, Berkeley in partnership with local ranches that showed a single year of compost application yielded higher annual carbon concentrations for at least 10 years. In the initial year the compost itself was responsible for some of those carbon additions, but additional annual increases in soil carbon came from carbon being pulled from the atmosphere. The one time, half inch application of compost stimulated the forage grasses to increase carbon capture for a decade or more.

This was enough for researchers to take notice. Producer partners were happy to see the increased yields in forage production that resulted from the compost application. Those first results led to the development of a carbon farm planning tool. “After seeing those results everyone was excited about compost. But we wanted to see what else we could do,” states Creque.

Using the existing USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service farm planning process as their template (the US equivalent of Canada’s Environmental Farm Plan), Creque and his colleagues re-formulated the approach by putting the goal of maximizing carbon sequestration at the centre of the process. The carbon farm planning tool was the result. The first farm in Marin County completed a Carbon Farm Plan in 2014; today, 47 farms across California have completed plans and about 60 more are waiting to begin.

Along with compost applications, other carbon farming practices include riparian restoration, silvopasture (the intentional combination of trees, forage plants, and livestock together as an integrated, intensively-managed system), windbreaks, hedgerows, and improving grazing practices. Over 35 practices are considered in carbon farm planning. For high impact, riparian restoration is one of the best performers. The high productivity of riparian ecosystems means a large amount of carbon can be sunk in a relatively small part of farmers’ and ranchers’ total land area.

Preparation for planting of a one mile windbreak on a Carbon Farm in NE CA. Photo by Dr. Jeff Cheque, Carbon Cycle Institute

Impact and the Potential for Scaling Up

The adoption of carbon farming practices on one California ranch is equivalent to taking 850 cars worth of carbon dioxide out of the air and putting it into the ground. This ranch has also tapped into new markets for their wool by being eligible for the Climate Beneficial program offered by Fibershed, a network that develops regional and regenerative fiber systems on behalf of independent working producers. A win-win at the farm-scale. But collective impact holds the most potential. “No one farm can ameliorate climate change, but collectively with many farms involved they can have a big impact,” Creque emphasizes.

The implementation of carbon farming practices in California is greatly helped by numerous federal, state, and county level programs that offer cost share contributions. Farmers and ranchers can receive direct grants to implement carbon farming practices from programs such as the national Environmental Quality Improvements Program and California State’s Healthy Soils program. But it has been challenging to convince the government agencies involved in managing climate change of the valuable role agriculture can play.

More and more local climate action plans are being developed, but most fail to consider what natural or working lands can offer to GHG mitigation strategies. “The beauty of agriculture land is that since we are already managing them, not as big of a change is required to manage them differently,” Creque concludes.

Rye & legume cover crop at Full Belly Farm, Guinda, California. CalCAN Farm Tour, March 2017. Photo by Jane Sooby

The Role of Organic Producers

Under their Climate Smart Agriculture initiative, California offers programs on irrigation efficiency (SWEEP), farmland conservation, manure management, and incentivizing farm practices that store carbon in soil and woody plants (Healthy Soils). Each of these programs, funded in part by the State’s cap and trade program, plays a role in either decreasing the amount of GHG emitted from the agriculture sector or increasing the amount of carbon stored in soil and woody plants.

The Healthy Soils program has been particularly popular among organic growers. In the first year of funding over 25% of applicants were organic producers, when they make up just 3% of the state’s total producers. Jane Sooby, Senior Policy Specialist at CCOF, a non-profit supported by an organic family of farmers, ranchers, processors, retailers, consumers, and policymakers that was founded in California, explains why: “Organic farmers have a special role to play because they are already required to use practices such as crop rotation that contribute to carbon sequestration, and they are rewarded in the marketplace with a premium for organic products.”

State programs like Healthy Soils and SWEEP are a start, but more can be done, suggests Sooby. These programs are competitive, and they can be complicated and time consuming to apply to which makes it difficult for smaller scale producers to access the available resources. Sooby would like to see California provide financial incentives to all farmers who are taking steps to conserve water and reduce GHG emissions.

CCOF has engaged directly with government to make their programs more accessible to organic farmers and ranchers at all scales. What more is needed?

Sooby likens the current climate change crisis to the all-hands-on-deck approach of the World War II effort: “Climate change is of similar, if not more, urgency. Governments need to draw up plans for how to support farmers and ranchers in sequestering as much carbon as possible and helping them transition to clean energy solutions.”

Learn more:
California Dept. of Food and Agriculture – Climate Smart Agriculture programs: cdfa.ca.gov/oefi
Carbon Cycle Institute: carboncycle.org
Climate Beneficial Wool: Fibershed.com
CalCan – California Climate & Agriculture Network: calclimateag.org/climatesmartag


Shauna MacKinnon has been working on food and agriculture issues for well over a decade. From social and economic research to supporting research and extension she has been honoured to work with many great food and farming organizations. She currently coordinates the Farm Adaptation Innovator Program for the BC Food & Agriculture Climate Action Initiative, but has contributed this piece as an independent writer.

Feature image: Implementation of a rotational grazing program on a Marin Carbon Farm. Photo by Dr. Jeff Cheque, Carbon Cycle Institute.

An Ode to the Farmer

in 2018/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/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 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 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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Foodlands Cooperative of BC

in 2018/Grow Organic/Organic Community/Summer 2018

Breaking New Ground

Michael Marrapese

Spring is often a time of optimism and renewed expectations. This will be Ariella Falkowski’s first year breaking ground for her new Sweet Acres Farm.She is leasing two acres of land at Lohbrunner Community Farm Cooperative on the outskirts of Langford, BC. She’s still getting to know the land and is excited by its potential. “It’s been really busy,” she says, “but some parts of the field dried up fairly early so I’ve been able to get crops in the ground earlier than I expected. My two projects this month are to finish putting up my hoop house structure and installing the drip irrigation.”

The Lohbrunner Farm is also home to Vitality Farm. Farmer Diana Brubaker and her husband Doug have been growing market vegetables on the property since 2012. When Brubaker first arrived on the property it was held in trust by the Land Conservancy of British Columbia (TLC). Norma Lohbrunner had wanted the 40 acre property with its rich peat soil and rolling wooded hills to be preserved as a working farm and wildlife sanctuary. Brubaker and a group of community volunteers signed on to maintain and enhance the existing crop beds and berry bushes after Norma Lohbrunner died in 2011. However, TLC was facing financial difficulties and the fate of the farm was uncertain.

There were hopes that TLC would still function in some manner and that the group of fledgling farmers could arrange to lease the seven acres they were hoping to farm. “We tried for about four years but it just didn’t happen. Our second option was to buy it,” Brubaker explains. “We were trying to develop a co-op and buy the property. TLC couldn’t do that because they were in the courts trying to resolve their difficulties.”

Ariella Falkowski with her walk-behind tractor
Ariella Falkowski with her walk-behind tractor. Credit: Diana Brubaker

Unfortunately, the process ended up with a court order to put the Lohbrunner Farm and other properties up for sale in order to cover some of TLC’s funding shortfalls. Brubaker and her farming group had to scramble to find another option. “The last option for us was to look for someone to transfer the land to who could hold it as a farm for eternity. That was our main drive: how do we keep this farm as a farm forever.”

The group turned to the newly formed Foodlands Cooperative of BC (FLCBC). FLCBC’s visionary mandate is specifically to hold farmland in trust and ensure that it is actively farmed, managed by a community group, and accessible to the broader community. Heather Pritchard, the co-op developer with FLCBC, notes the process of developing Lohbrunner Cooperative and taking a farm in trust is new ground for all involved. “The leases, agreements, governance processes, and Cooperative structure of Lohbrunner are essentially the template for how other farmlands can be held in trust,” she says. “The lessons learned from Lohbrunner Community Farm will be the basis for other lands held by the Foodlands Cooperative.”

However, FLCBC hadn’t finished incorporating and couldn’t act quickly enough to take the Lohbrunner lands into trust. Pritchard met with funders and stakeholders and arranged to secure the funding and have FarmFolk CityFolk hold the title until FLCBC had fully incorporated and secured charitable status.

Celebrating the Fall harvest web. Credit: Michael Marrapese

Brubaker recalls that, even though the farm had been secured, the co-op members at Lohbrunner soon realized there was still much to be done. The governance and management structure, the co-op’s constitution and by-laws, and core operating agreements all had to be worked out. “The Foodlands Cooperative has been so supportive in helping us establish our own co-op. It’s given us lots of flexibility to design something that works for us. It’s truly incredible to be in this place of options and choices. We’re extremely blessed,” she says.

While cooperative ownership can be challenging, it has big benefits, particularly when starting a new enterprise. Principally, with the high cost of farmland, pooling personal and community resources can be one avenue to secure financing. Falkowski notes that there are other practical benefits. “One of the things that initially drew me to leasing land at Lohbrunner was the opportunity to have a more stable long-term lease. Another benefit is that we have really helpful co-op members with really different skill sets. Different people have different experience and different connections that they can bring to the table.”

One of the current challenges is securing organic certification. As it turns out, the unusual ownership model has made organic certification more difficult. Initially, the Islands Organics Producers Association (IOPA) was suggesting an incubator farm model but it just didn’t fit. Brubaker reflects that, “the problem seems to be that we’re the ‘square pegs that don’t fit into their round holes’. I really liked the idea an incubator farm model where a new farmer, who doesn’t necessarily have the skills, could be mentored to help them get started. However, when they wanted to move on, they couldn’t take that certification with them—they’d have to start over again.”

Falkowski was involved in a lot of back and forth discussions. She recalls that, “what seemed to make the most sense for Lohbrunner was to certify as three different entities—as Vitality Farm, Sweet Acres Farm, and Lohbrunner Community Farm. One of the benefits of doing it this way is that if I were to leave the property or to lease some additional land elsewhere, my certification number would go with me.”

Diana Brubaker working the field while her dog Bella supervises. Credit: Ariella Falkowski

The downside to this process is that each certification will cost $500. “Using this approach we now may have to pay $1500 a year to be certified,” Brubaker says. “At this point, I’m not sure there’s enough revenue off the farm to justify the expense.” The further implication is that when other farmers come onto the property the costs could rise to $2000 or $2500 a year.

Brubaker also finds the certification process particularly arduous for their diverse market vegetable operation. She has many different inputs for the different crops. Chief among them are all the different seeds she purchases—three to four hundred different seeds from different catalogues. “I’ll have to detail why I choose one over the other and whether they are organic or not. If we were just growing one or two crops it would be far less work.”

Despite the difficulties, Brubaker asserts that the certification process has been valuable for her. “As part of my professional career as a leader in health care one of my roles was quality improvement. When I apply those similar principles to the certification process I appreciate that it is a really good process to go through. I look differently now at everything I buy, everything I bring to the farm. I think that, in the beginning, we had the very basic principles of organic farming but this process has taken us a step further.”

Trying new processes and new approaches, breaking new ground, is difficult but in the spring, the season of optimism, it seems possible. “It’s not going to be easy,” she says, “and there are lots of unknowns. We’re hoping this year has more laughter and hugs than tears.”

foodlands.org

lohbrunnercommunityfarm.org

sweetacresfarm.ca


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

Feature photo: The Lohbrunner Farm crew with their garden hoophouse. Credit: Michael Marrapese

2018 Conference Recap

in 2018/Organic Community/Spring 2018
Rebecca Kneen, Carmen Wakeling, Heather Pritchard at COABC 2018 Conference

Bioregionalism: Resilience in a Changing Climate

Moss Dance

One thing that struck me about this year’s annual COABC conference was the high level of engagement and the cohesiveness of the organic community. This year’s theme was “Bioregionalism: Resilience in a Changing Climate,” and the organic farmers and friends who showed up to learn, share, and connect with community brought so much attentiveness and presence to the conversation. We also had an incredible array of speakers and workshop presenters who co-created an inspiring weekend for the organic community in B.C.

Food Is Sustenance First

Dawn Morrison, celebrated Indigenous food sovereignty activist from Secwepemc territory, kindled the fire for our weekend conference during her Friday keynote speech. Dawn is Director of the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty and during her address, she generously shared Original Instructions from her Elders and teachers about the importance of food and access to land and foodsheds with a crowd of keen organic farmers. I found Dawn’s speech moving on many levels—what really struck me was her kind and candid approach to the issues we all face after a long legacy of colonization and genocide of Indigenous peoples.

Dawn Morrison’s Saturday morning keynote speech

As a settler myself, I often feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the issues I have faced as a “landowner” and a farmer on stolen land. How do I reconcile myself with the fact that, as a farmer, I need secure access to land to produce food, and that, as a settler, I benefit from the theft of Indigenous lands? How do I succeed as a farmer and decolonize my relationship to this land; acknowledge past wrongs and take action to heal them?

There are no easy answers to these questions—and throughout the weekend, Dawn, and Rebecca Kneen, who co-facilitated a Saturday session with Dawn, encouraged us to stay in our discomfort. We can have amazing dialogues and find incredible common ground from a place of questioning and seeking new answers.

A practical suggestion from Dawn had me reconsidering my approach to farming—she urged the farmers in the room to stop using the word “product” to describe food. Food is sustenance first, and all living things are related. Honouring the necessity of food for life, the energetic qualities of food (grown organically, with care and the best inputs) is something food growers in this community can understand in day-to-day life. That’s why we are a part of this movement.

Organic Family: Singing Cathleen Kneen’s meal blessing song at the Saturday evening banquet

50 Million Farmers Needed in Canada & US

The following morning, Kent Mullinix lit within us a call to action with his keynote address: “Food Systems in a changing environmental, economic, and societal climate: our path to a sustainable food system future.”

Kent gave a passionate plug for young and upcoming farmers—yes, those infamous Millennials! It was inspiring to hear his take on the drive and ingenuity of this generation based on his direct experience working with young farmers enrolled in Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Sustainable Agriculture Program. In fact, we had a number of KPU students in attendance over the weekend.

Kent focused on the role of organic agriculture in the years to come, outlining key strategies to continuing the movement and building a larger sustainable agroecological movement. He urged us to continue our work to remain credible and build trust in society for organics, and to focus on the family farm—however we might define our family units! Kent also outlined some very strong arguments for the decommodification of agricultural land in BC. These points are summed up nicely in a recent CBC article.

The Trade Show was bursting with seeds, info, and tools!

And the Winner Is…

This year’s Brad Reid Award winner was Rebecca Kneen. Rebecca was honoured for her outstanding contributions to the organic community, her social and environmentally-minded approach to business, and for coming up with really excellent names for craft beers like Backhand of God and Insurrection IPA.

Rebecca is co-owner of Crannóg Ales and Left Fields, a farm and microbrewery in Sorrento on Shuswap Lake. She has served as a director of PACS, NOOA and the COABC, put in several years on the COABC Standards Review Committee, and currently serves on the Certification Committee for NOOA as well as being the BC representative to the Organic Federation of Canada. Rebecca also worked with her late mother, Cathleen Kneen on the editorial/design team for the BC Organic Grower! Rebecca grew up on a commercial (non-organic) sheep farm in Nova Scotia, then wandered about Canada working on various farms and for arts and social justice groups for several years after completing her BA. She has worked with FarmFolk/CityFolk in Vancouver organizing the Feast of Fields.

Left Fields is 10 acres of mixed production, in hops, house garden/orchard, Icelandic sheep, and pigs—and is also the primary land base for Stellar Seeds. Rebecca’s family background is in food policy and community organizing (Brewster and Cathleen Kneen, the Ram’s Horn), and her interests are primarily in sustainable food production and social justice, as well as fibre arts (spinning, knitting, felting), culinary/brewing arts, and feminist science fiction. Rebecca has also been providing leadership in the organic community around creating understanding around Indigenous Food Sovereignty and Indigenous rights.

Crannóg Ales was the first exclusively organic brewery in BC, and has been certified since opening in 2000. It is also a zero-waste system, with everything (except one bag of garbage a week) being recycled or re-used on the farm, from wastewater to spent grains.

We’d like to offer congratulations to Rebecca for receiving this award, and our heartfelt thanks for all she has done to support the organic community over the years!

Rod Reid, Charlie Lasser, and Susan Davidson share stories from the Vanguard of Organics

Tell Your Story to the ALR

The ALR Roundtable focused in on food growers’ stories about farmland challenges, and discussion of practical solutions that the ALC could adopt to deal with rising farmland prices and decreased access to farmland for farmers.

A few great ideas I heard at the ALR Roundtable:

  • Ensure market rental rates when land is leased for farm use.
  • Concentrate on saving land from development.
  • The Home Plate: limit footprint of housing to a certain number of square feet or a percentage of total land area.
  • The ALC needs to acquire farm land and hold in trust—lease back to farmers on 20 year leases at reasonable rates (it’s not a new idea! This has happened in the past.)
  • Raise property taxes when farmland is not being used for agriculture.
  • Require potential buyers of agricultural land to present a farm business plan.

These measures could really add up to increasing access to farmer access to agricultural land, and increase the number of farmers and profitability of farm operations in BC. Agree? Disagree? It’s time to have your say on the ALR, and if you haven’t already, please be sure to submit comments or fill out the survey prepared by the Minister’s Advisory Committee on the ALR by April 30.

Rebecca Kneen, Daria Zovi, and Heather Stretch on the Record Keeping panel session

Organic Online System (OOS)

Darcy Smith and Jen Gamble gave us an exciting sneak preview into the Organic Online System. The OOS session was great for identifying a few glitches and helping the team to identify some additional user needs and functional improvements. Hooray for crowdsourcing farmer ideas!

The OOS is really going to help streamline organic applications of new applicants. While long time farm operators may find the transition a bit challenging at first, the takeaway I got from this session is that the online system is long overdue and will improve the resilience and accessibility of organic certification in B.C.

Singing for supper at the Saturday night Organic Banquet

Plan for Organics

One final highlight from the conference was the unveiling of the COABC BC Organic Strategic Plan by COABC President Carmen Wakeling and Executive Director, Jen Gamble. The November 2017 planning session produced a simple, streamlined strategic plan with 4 high level goals.

Want to get with the program? Find out more on the BC Organic Strategic Plan.

Community Coming Together

I am always blown away by the incredible community we are all a part of. This year’s conference was no exception—new babies and snowstorms in the Lower Mainland meant that a number of presenters were unable to make it to the conference, and people stepped up at a moment’s notice to fill those workshop sessions with rich content and thoughtful discussions. What a testament to the knowledge and giving spirit in the room.

This year’s silent auction, organized by Natalie Forstbauer, was a record breaking success. Together, we raised almost $5,000 that goes directly back into COABC and growing BC organics. COABC exists because of the ongoing participation and support of the organic community, and this year’s silent auction was an amazing show of support from that community. We hope you enjoy your silent auction godies—also sourced mostly from within our ranks.

Thank You Jesse!

Finally, I think I can safely speak on behalf of all of us in thanking Jesse Johnston-Hill for her enormous effort organizing this year’s COABC gathering. It was a really wonderful weekend full of amazing takeaways to inspire us all for the coming season. Thank you for all of your hard work, Jesse!

Photo Credits: Thank you Michael Marrapese for capturing the weekend in photos and sharing them with us for this recap!

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