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An Ode to the Farmer

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

Josh Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Photos by Sara Dent | farmlove.org

Growing the Local Food Economy in the North Okanagan

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

Eva-Lena Lang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Photos by Maylies Lang.

Local Food Economies Thrive at Market—Rain or Shine!

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

Anna Helmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Photo by Moss Dance.

Footnotes from the Field: Intergenerational Soil Stewardship

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

Intergenerational Soil Stewardship: Our Only Hope?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Principle of Health

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does a New Sustainable Agriculture Ethic Require from Us?

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

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

Soil is in a Symbiotic Living Relationship with Plants

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

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

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

Principles of Conservation Agriculture:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Weeds: Don’t Shoot the Messenger

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

(Not Until You Understand the Message)

Av Sing

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

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

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

Weeds Redefined

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

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

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

Learning From Your Weeds

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

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

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

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

Soil pH

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

Extreme Weed Makeover: Look for the Positive in Weeds

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended reading (available from the COG library): 

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

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


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

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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!

Organic Stories: Spray Creek Ranch

in 2018/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Organic Stories/Winter 2018
Tristan and Aubyn walking in the pasture at Spray Creek Ranch

Regenerative Ranchers

Michelle Tsutsumi and Tristan Banwell

Tristan and Aubyn Banwell, managers of Spray Creek Ranch, have shared quite the journey. They met in high school band class in Northern California, spent their university years as urban vegans and then homesteaded off-grid for five years before moving to the juxtaposed landscape of Northern St’at’imc Territory near Lillooet. Situated between rugged cliffs, endless forested mountains and the mighty Fraser River, Spray Creek Ranch is also home to cattle, pigs, and poultry, as well as an on-farm abattoir and meat shop. Of 260 acres, around 125 are under gravity-fed irrigation, including open perennial pastures, orchards, silvopasture, and homestead gardens. The remaining land includes mostly native forest and protected riparian areas.

For thousands of years, the land where Spray Creek Ranch is situated was a gathering place for St’at’imc people. The old homestead cabin and original irrigation ditches date back to the late 1800s and the land was deeded in 1897. More recently, the farm was a commodity cow-calf ranch, producing winter feed like hay or corn silage while the cattle spent the summer on range in the mountains. Calves were sold at auction in the fall and the cycle started again. In 2014, Tristan and Aubyn moved onto the land and began the process of reshaping the ranch from a conventional, small-scale commodity model to an organic and regenerative agroecosystem.

Regenerative Agriculture builds on the organic Principle of Care, whereby agriculture “should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment,” (IFOAM Organics International) by specifying concrete actions towards improvement. Thinking in terms of regeneration guides producers in their quest to increase biodiversity, enrich soil, improve water cycles, enhance ecosystems, develop resilience to climate fluctuation, and strengthen the health and vitality of their communities. “Organic is our foundation,” says Tristan, “and we’re building from that foundation with regenerative practices.”

Conventional, continuous grazing is like driving a tractor without brakes or a steering wheel. We are now able to use our cow herd as a tool to improve the soil environment, which is the foundation of plant and animal health.

Soon after arriving on the farm in 2014, Tristan and Aubyn started Management-Intensive Rotational Grazing (MiG) à la Jim Gerrish and Allan Savory. This involves keeping the cows on the move anywhere from once every three days to a few times per day, depending on the season, pasture condition and their goals.

“Cattle are the primary tool for regeneration on the farm and they work hard every day turning grass and mountain water into fertility,” says Aubyn. Next come the poultry flocks—also major contributors to soil health—turning farm-milled organic feed into powerful fertilizer. They break up the cow manure and grass thatch that accumulates in the pastures, allowing new plants to germinate and thrive. Pigs act as a disturbance agent on the farm, breaking up the ground in preparation for reseeding more diverse pastures.

MiG is labour-intensive, but Tristan says that the benefits far outweigh the additional effort. “Conventional, continuous grazing is like driving a tractor without brakes or a steering wheel. We are now able to use our cow herd as a tool to improve the soil environment, which is the foundation of plant and animal health.” Using portable electric fencing, the cows are moved to fresh pasture, usually each day, along with their portable water and mineral feeder. Moving the cows across the ranch this way spreads their impact and fertility evenly over the pastures, encouraging healthy plant growth and carbon sequestration while disallowing the over-grazing, nutrient pollution and compaction that comes from conventional continuous cattle grazing systems. The level of attention to, and care for, their cattle does not stop here.

Tristan and Aubyn are selecting for smaller-framed cows, high fertility, calving ease, and heat tolerance using purebred Red Angus bulls. Acknowledging Mother Nature’s wisdom, they have transitioned the herd to later calving and a shorter breeding season. “The cows calve onto fresh green pasture in May and June, along with the deer, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep in the area,” Aubyn says. “Calving later has helped eliminate the calving problems we used to see. In 2017, we didn’t assist a single cow, had a 100% calf crop and 96% of the cows and heifers exposed were bred in two cycles.”

In late summer, grazing is carefully planned so that as much standing forage can be stockpiled on the farm as possible. This is then rationed out over the winter to extend the grazing season well into the new year. “Every day we’re grazing, the cows are working for us, and we’re saving hundreds of dollars,” says Tristan. What little hay is needed is purchased from local certified organic farms. Because the cows have a chance to recover their body condition on spring grass before calving, calves are able to winter with their mothers, postponing the stress of weaning until the calves are older. When calves are weaned, it is done so using a multi-stage process to keep weaning stress on both cows and calves to a minimum.

During the fall of 2015, baseline soil carbon monitoring was completed across all fields on Spray Creek Ranch. This was conducted in partnership with a Thompson Rivers University Master of Science student, Dan Denesiuk, who was part of Dr. Lauchlin Fraser’s interdisciplinary plant ecology and land management lab in Kamloops. Meaningful research conclusions will not be available for some years, but there are compelling qualitative observations that the land is celebrating the shift to regenerative agriculture.

In terms of increasing biodiversity, there has been an increase in the variety and abundance of clovers without seeding. The clovers initially came back from the pasture seed bank during the long rest periods between grazing, and are able to set seed again each season. Another key observation is that their 80% alfalfa hay fields filled in with grasses in only two years. Leaving tall residual after grazing appears to favour grasses, as they can recover more quickly than the alfalfa, which has less leaf area at the bottom of the plant. They have also decreased the amount of irrigation water applied to the land as organic matter builds and trampled forage reduces soil temperature and evaporation.

When analyzing the financial picture, it was evident that a right-sized commodity cow-calf operation would not provide a livelihood. At the same time, they knew that the land could provide much more with additional labour. Much deliberation was focused on the mix of enterprises that would work on the land and in the local markets. Thus began a period of adding and trialing elements, then eliminating the ones that were not a good fit. They also began development of an on-farm abattoir and meat shop, starting with obtaining a Class D slaughter licence. This allows on-farm slaughter of many of their animals, and their eventual goal is to slaughter, butcher, and package all their production right on the farm for direct marketing. The abattoir and meat shop is also developing into an independent enterprise that will help other local, small-scale producers get their products to market.

Beyond the reach of their business, the Banwells have found other ways to contribute to the well-being of the community. Soon after moving to Lillooet, they began working to reduce barriers for small-scale farmers in the area. In 2015, they trialled a cooperative marketing effort for Lillooet-area farms, which led to the creation of the Lillooet Agriculture & Food Society (LAFS). This non-profit supports local farmers, ranchers, growers and other passionate individuals who are building a sustainable food system. Bringing workshops to town, launching the Lillooet Grown brand, and tirelessly working to improve market access and local production and processing capacity has kept the dedicated board, staff, and contractors busy.

In addition to chairing LAFS, Tristan will be representing the North Okanagan Organic Association on the COABC Board starting in February. Aubyn sits on the board of the Lillooet Farmers’ Market Association, and is working to bring the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Coupon Program to the community. The couple has been very involved with Young Agrarians (YA), taking advantage of mentorship and learning opportunities as well as sharing their knowledge at YA events. They also donate their products and time to support local fundraisers and initiatives like the Lillooet Friendship Centre Food Bank, the Lillooet District Hospital Foundation, the Náskan Ūxwal (I’m Going Home) Walk, Love Lillooet, the T’it’q’et Amlec Food Security Initiative and Lillooet Seedy Saturday.

Tristan and Aubyn have already had a remarkable impact in terms of strengthening the health and vitality of their soil, pasture, livestock, community, and livelihood through transitioning the land and their lives toward organic regenerative practices. The significance of protecting land and water for future generations is even more meaningful with their first child due in early February.

To follow along with their unfolding journey join their newsletter, find them on social media, or check out their website: spraycreek.ca

Michelle Tsutsumi is a part of Golden Ears Farm in Chase, BC, looking after the market garden, 15-week CSA Program, and events with her partner Tristan Cavers and daughter Avé. goldenearsfarm.com

All photos: Tristan Banwell

Cleaning: Sanitizing, Sterilizing, and Disinfecting

in 2018/Organic Standards/Preparation/Winter 2018
No loose hair in a food processing environment unless it's a photo shoot! Rebecca Kneen at Crannog Ales

Feature photo: No loose hair in a food processing environment unless it’s a photo shoot! Rebecca Kneen at Crannog Ales

Rebecca Kneen

Cleanup. We do it every day, in our homes and on our farms and in our food processing. For some of us, cleaning and sanitizing takes up more time than actually making or growing. For many farmers, though, cleaning is very much secondary to our primary goal of growing great food. Sure, we’ll spray out our picking baskets with water after digging potatoes in the rain, and we’ll make sure our salad spinner is free of chunks of clay and dried plants, but how much further do we need to go? And do we need to worry about sanitation at all?

Our regional Health Departments tend to prefer every food surface be disinfected, not just cleaned and sanitized, but few of us would adopt this either in principle or in practice. Fortunately, there’s a middle ground. I shall insert here a caveat for all readers: I am NOT a food safety expert. I am a Certification Committee member for NOOA and a brewer and farmer. This article is not the final word, but will hopefully be a useful basic guide.

First, it is necessary to differentiate between cleaners and sanitizers. Cleaners remove dirt, organic material, and some germs (bacteria, viruses, and fungi) by physically washing them away. They do not kill. Sanitizers are chemicals that actually kill bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Disinfectants kill more than sanitizers, but are not always necessary. A surface that is not already clean cannot be sanitized, no matter how hard you try. Cleaners and sanitizers must come in contact with 100% of the surfaces, including valves, corners, and other “blind” areas. And yes, more time and the correct temperature will increase effectiveness, while increased concentration can actually impede the usefulness of any given chemical.

The main principles of any cleaning and sanitizing regime are correct chemical & concentration, complete coverage, and sufficient time and temperature.

For most daily low-risk food applications, proper cleaning is all that is required. If a food is likely to be directly ingested after harvest (as with herbs, microgreens, or sprouts) without the consumer washing them, handling surfaces must also be sanitized, as water- or soil-borne bacteria can relatively easily remain on the food.

Our first approach, of course, is to use only water that is potable and to test regularly. City water is tested daily, but on-farm water sources should be tested annually or, for microgreens and sprouts, at least semi-annually. Water must be tested at the point of use—not at the wellhead, but at the tap in your washing station.

A wide variety of cleaners are usable in the organic standard, and most detergents are up to normal farm cleaning needs. However, reading the consumer label is not enough. Labels such as “biodegradable”, “natural”, or “non-toxic” are essentially meaningless and unregulated. Therefore it is important to not just read the label for active ingredients, but to get an MSDS sheet for the cleaning product and find out what else is in it, as carriers and surfactants can be on the prohibited list. This may require a direct request to the manufacturer and some effort to discover, but it will prevent you from having your certification removed.

 

Food processing, abattoirs, and sprout/microgreen production all require a bit more by way of cleaners and sanitizers. Dairies, slaughterhouses, and breweries face challenges in cleaning fats and proteins, and require both caustic and acid cleaning. Surfaces should be designed for easy cleaning and resistance to the chemicals needed, while appropriate chemicals to clean the particular type of soil must be sourced. In other words, know both your chemical and what you are trying to remove.

Sanitizers can be used to prevent or manage fungal diseases like damping off in greenhouses, or for tools being used for pruning in orchards, hopyards, or berry plantations. Different uses and different surfaces require different approaches, as with cleaning. Some sanitizers require a post-usage rinse with potable water, while others are “leave-on”. Soak or contact time is critical with sanitizers in particular, as there’s no easy “look test” to see if the sanitizer has done its job. Standard operating procedures help everyone maintain those critical thresholds.

Many producers rely on common household bleach for basic sanitation. Chlorine bleach is listed on the PSL, but beware: many bleach formulations include fragrances that are not allowed. Be very careful about dilution, and ensure the correct ratios are observed. Peroxyacetic Acid (hydrogen peroxide and acetic acid blend) is widely used as a substitute, and is considerably less toxic. It breaks down quickly into a mildly acidic water, which is great for your waste stream, and which is easy on the humans using it. Both bleach dilutions and peroxyacetic acid break down, which means that your mixes must be refreshed or replaced rapidly. Peroxyacetic acid is also a no-rinse sanitizer, which makes it easier to use.

Daily Operations Made Simple

The basic principle here is that if something is not straightforward, it will be done incorrectly. Clear, well-written, and organized procedures with tools directly at hand will ensure that everyone does the job right and rapidly every time.

First, think about what you are cleaning: are you simply doing an annual clean of your start trays? Are you cleaning your daily work surfaces? What are they made of, and what are you trying to remove? What are the potential bacteria, viruses or fungi you are trying to get rid of?

Do your homework: Research your chemicals and make sure everything you need and want to use will be allowed. Do this before the next certification application, so you aren’t caught out in non-compliance in the middle of operations. Get MSDS sheets, write to the manufacturers, and spend some quality time with the PSL. Trust me, it’s riveting.

Look over your equipment: what can you remove and soak in cleaner and sanitizer easily and safely? What needs to be cleaned in place (CIP)? Do you have the appropriate pumps, spray balls etc to run a CIP system? Will it reach all the blind areas? Do you have more than one cleaner type to make sure you can clean the different types of gunk?

Set up your tools: Set up spray bottles, measuring tools and mix buckets for both cleaners and sanitizers. Label each of them with the target dilution (especially spray bottles) and have recipes posted where chemicals are stored. All your chemicals should be in safe, secure storage where they are easily accessed by adults but not children and where you can also keep your measuring tools, but also where there is no chance of contaminating your food or ingredients if you spill.

Write it down: Follow yourself around for a day or a week, and observe what your regular processes are. How often do you need to clean and sanitize? Are you doing it? Are you not doing it because you don’t have the right hose nozzle, or someone keeps borrowing the scrub brush? Is your sanitizer spray bottle too far away or in a spot that’s too hard to reach? Is it a huge chore to set up your CIP system for one piece of machinery? Once you see what you are actually doing, you can see why you are not doing certain procedures—and then you can create a setup or a system that will make it easy to improve.

From that experience, you can create a Standard Operating Procedure, a routine that enables every person to do the same procedure reliably. It includes when to clean and sanitize every piece of equipment or surface, what the appropriate concentrations of chemicals are for different uses, and how frequently to replace chemical mixes. Daily checklists can be incorporated into your batch records or cleaning logs can simply be posted in the work area. Initialing tasks as completed is vital, especially for things like knowing who restocked the sanitizer spray bottle and when, as a missed day can mean no effective sanitizer was applied.

We check on our SOPs periodically, to make sure that they are working for everyone—sometimes you discover that a tool is missing, or a new employee can’t actually reach everything, or that interesting substitutions have been made. Even when you discover problems, they can teach you to change procedures, chemicals, or training. We have also discovered that all staff have to be trained to understand why the SOP is set up the way it is—why certain tanks have to be cleaned differently from other tanks, why contact times are important for sanitizers, and so on. For committed and interested staff, understanding the why will not just improve compliance but can improve the entire system.

Some Common Chemicals and their Effects

Ammonia and bleach (sodium hypochlorite) causes asthma in workers who breathe too much of it in their jobs. They can trigger asthma attacks in children or ECE providers who already have asthma. They can also irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract.

Quaternary ammonium compounds (also known as QUATs, QACs, or QATs) are not volatile compounds, but using them as sprays can cause nose and throat irritation. Benzalkonium chloride is a severe eye irritant and causes and triggers asthma. Exposures to QUATs may cause allergic skin reactions. Use of QUATs has been associated with the growth of bacteria that are resistant to disinfection. Sometimes this resistance also transfers to antibiotics. In laboratory studies, QUATs were found to damage genetic material (genes).

Terpenes are chemicals found in pine, lemon, and orange oils that are used in many cleaning and disinfecting products as well as in fragrances. Terpenes react with ozone, especially on hot smoggy days, forming very small particles like those found in smog and haze that can irritate the lungs and may cause other health problems and formaldehyde which causes cancer, is a sensitizer that is linked to asthma and allergic reactions, has damaged genes in lab tests, is a central nervous system depressant (slows down brain activity), may cause joint pain, depression, headaches, chest pains, ear infections, chronic fatigue, dizziness, and loss of sleep.

Triclosan is a suspected endocrine disruptor and may lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Phthalates are used in fragrances that are found in air fresheners and cleaning and sanitizing products. They are endocrine disruptors. Research indicates that phthalates increase the risk of allergies and asthma and can affect children’s neurodevelopment and thyroid function. Studies show links between phthalates in mothers to abnormal genital development in boys. Phthalates have been found in human urine, blood, semen, amniotic fluid, and breast milk.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that vaporize at room temperature. Many VOCs that are released by cleaning supplies have been linked to chronic respiratory problems such as asthma, allergic reactions, and headaches.

Environmentally friendly cleaners and sanitizers (not the same as organic!)

EcoLogo is a program of Underwriters Laboratory based in Canada. Some of these products are available in the U.S. and some are not. A list of certified cleaning products is available at ecologo.org/en/certifiedgreenproducts.

Green Seal is a program based in the U.S. And used by many institutional purchasers. A list of Certified Cleaning Products is available at greenseal.org/FindGreenSealProductsandServices.

Design for the Environment (DfE) is a U.S. EPA program. DfE certifies both institutional and retail/consumer products. A list of DfE-certified cleaning and other products are available at www.epa.gov/dfe/products.


Rebecca Kneen farms and brews with her partner Brian MacIsaac at Crannóg Ales, Canada’s first certified organic, on-farm microbrewery. They have been certified organic since inception in 1999. Their farm is a 10 acre mixed farm growing hops, fruit, and vegetables as well as pigs, sheep, and chickens. Rebecca has been involved in agriculture, food, and social justice issues since she met her first pair of rubber boots at age three on the family’s Nova Scotia farm.

BC Seed Gathering 2018

in 2018/Organic Community/Seeds/Winter 2018

Uniting Community, Spurring Plans for Action

Shauna MacKinnon

The BC Seed Gathering is not your typical conference. The foundation of the event is a deep commitment to responding to community needs and providing a place for experienced and new seed growers to come together to learn, network and strategize together. The Gatherings are a connection point and forum to discuss what is needed to propel BC seed systems forward.

At the 2012 Gathering plans for the BC Eco Seed Co-op were hatched. The Co-op was launched at the 2014 Gathering and 2017 offered an opportunity to keep building the momentum. The Gathering participants were ready to do just that—the energy and enthusiasm in the room on Friday evening for the official opening was incredible! Perhaps people were already buoyed by conversations during the field tour of the BC Seed Trials at UBC Farm or in the afternoon BC Eco Seed Co-op, Community Seed Organizers, and research focus group sessions. Or maybe folks were just happy to have a chance to relax and connect after a long season. Regardless, the positive energy of the participants set the stage for a productive and inspiring event.


The official opening began with remarks by Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Elder in Residence Lekeyten and Kwantlen First Nation’s Education Coordinator Cheryl Gabriel, who set the tone by emphasizing the importance of seed work to future generations.

Dr. Michael Bomford, a professor in the Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems at KPU, Dr. Hannah Wittman, Academic Director of the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC, Harold Steves, Richmond’s longest standing city councillor, and Arif Lalani, the Assistant Deputy Minister for the BC Ministry of Agriculture each spoke on Friday evening. The common theme shared by these speakers was their interest in supporting the BC seed sector and vision for how seed can and should be the foundation of sustainable agriculture in BC.

What set this year’s Gathering apart from past events was this unprecedented level of support from multiple academic institutions and the Ministry of Agriculture. “My goal is clear—I want to help create opportunities for BC farmers and food producers and this includes seed producers,” said Agriculture Minister Lana Popham. “As a former farmer myself, I know how important the BC seed sector is to BC agriculture. I want to thank our seed growers for the important role they have in ensuring we have food on our tables and jobs in our communities.”

New Assets for the Seed Community

KPU has long supported the BC Seed Gathering as the co-host for all three events. This year, support ratcheted up a notch with the unveiling of the new KPU Seed Lab and introduction of the Garden City Lands where variety trials for seed will take place. These facilities will be put to use to further KPU’s commitment to providing post-secondary education, extension programming and research focused on fostering a sustainable, regional food system. These new assets were developed in response to several years of consulting with partners to identify priorities for research and teaching programs. Research support for the growing organic seed sector was consistently identified as a priority and an appropriate seed testing facility focused on vegetable seeds was a gap that KPU knew they could fill.

The Seed Lab and variety trials at the Garden City Lands are part of KPU’s vision of organic seed production becoming an important component of the agricultural landscape, providing exciting opportunities for growers to have a broad impact on seed diversity and quality.

Similarly, UBC and FarmFolk CityFolk have partnered to deliver the BC Seed Trials where over 25 participating farmers have conducted variety trials on their own farms along with the primary research site at UBC. The BC Seed Trials offer opportunities to strengthen farmers’ skills in trialing crops while also providing much needed data on how bioregionally produced seed performs in comparison to commercial varieties. Ultimately, the trials will help determine which varieties are the best candidates for further breeding and seed production. This project has increased UBC’s interaction with the seed community and laid the groundwork for more research in the future.

Skills Sharing

The participants themselves are a huge part of the draw of the BC Seed Gathering. Over 100 seed-loving folks gathered together this year from as far away as Smithers, Moberly Lake, and the Kootenays. Getting the perspective on seed from these communities enriched the conversation about what resilient BC seed systems really mean. Any Canadian seed event should include conversations about the challenges of growing seed in mountainous or northern climates and the value of dedicating a seed library exclusively to seeds with short days to maturation and cold hardy plants.

The Gathering featured over 25 presenters, each bringing their own unique experience and deep knowledge of their subject area to share with participants. Keynote speakers Steve Peters (part of the staff team for Organic Seed Alliance in California) and Dan Brisebois (founding member of the Tourne-Sol Co-operative in Quebec) shared their perspectives on the potential of open-pollinated seeds to outperform hybrids and how to improve the business side of growing seed. BC speakers included Mel Sylvestre from UBC Farm on how to integrate seed into your vegetable production, Rupert Adams on growing seed for medicinal plants, and Vanessa Adams on growing seed and propagating native plants for habitat restoration. Many of the presentations and session notes can be downloaded at: bcseeds.org/gathering

Community Seed Advocates Connect

A true highlight of the Gathering was the number of Seedy Saturday and Seed Library organizers that participated. The “community stream” started on Friday afternoon with a strategy meeting and continued with a full day of programming on Saturday. By the final session on Saturday community organizers wrapped up their time together by identifying 11 action points to increase the collaboration and connection between community initiatives and concrete steps to support more resilient seed systems. You can view the 11 steps at:
bcseeds.org/gathering

What’s Next

The format of the Gathering socials and sessions were designed to generate feedback in the form of individual written portraits, flip charts, and evaluation forms. As we continue to build and shape the BC Seeds program at FarmFolk CityFolk we will be putting all of this information to good use. One thing that came up again and again is the request for more regional Gatherings, training, and networking opportunities. We heard you! Stay tuned for expanded regional training opportunities in 2018.

A big thank you to our co-host KPU, our many sponsors, volunteers, and Gathering Advisory Committee members—without you the event would not have been possible!


KPU Seed Lab

KPU secured funding support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the BC Knowledge Development Fund to establish a Seed Testing Lab and Research Farm at their Richmond campus. The lab is currently under construction and will have equipment such as growth chambers for germination tests, optical seed sorters, seed driers, density sorters, and gravity sorters. The research farm will provide a site where variety trials, new crop development research and production systems research can be carried out. The type of research and services the lab can provide will assist in the development of performance metrics and research-based best management practices for seed production in BC to ensure and enhance the quality and diversity of seeds offered. The lab is expected to be operational by Spring 2018 with the aim to begin conducting analysis on 2018 crops. Growers and retailers can connect with KPU to let them know how they can best be supported. For further information contact Rebecca Harbut: Rebecca.Harbut@kpu.ca


Shauna MacKinnon has been working on food issues for over a decade, from running environmental campaigns to holding the position of BC outpost for the Canada Organic Trade Association. She recently joined the BC Seed Security Program, a collaboration between the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security and FarmFolk CityFolk.

All photos: Michael Marrapese

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