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regenerative agriculture

Weeds: Don’t Shoot the Messenger

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

(Not Until You Understand the Message)

Av Sing

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

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

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

Weeds Redefined

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

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

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

Learning From Your Weeds

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

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

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

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

Soil pH

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

Extreme Weed Makeover: Look for the Positive in Weeds

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended reading (available from the COG library): 

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

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


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

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Footnotes from the Field: Celebrating the Flight of the Bumblebee

in 2018/Current Issue/Footnotes from the Field/Land Stewardship/Organic Standards/Summer 2018

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

When I think of the ‘wholeness’ of a bioregional ecosystem and imagine the inner workings to identify which biological organisms could have the greatest influence on the entire system, nothing seems to compete with the influential power of the domesticated honey bee.

This industrious pollinator flies great distances to gather nectar and pollen. The Canadian Organic Standards (COS) Clause 7.1.10 recognizes the prodigious flying capacity of the honey bee by requiring apiaries to be protected by a three kilometre buffer zone from pesticides, GMO crops, sewage sludge, and other environmental contaminants. I decided to calculate just how big of an area a three kilometre radius would cover—an astounding 28.27 square kilometers! Wow! The domesticated honey bee’s influence in a bioregion extends over a huge pollination territory.


RELATED ORGANIC REGULATIONS

CAN/CGSB-32.310 7.1.10 Location of hives
Where sources or zones of prohibited substances are present, that is, genetically engineered crops or environmental contamination, apiaries shall be protected with a buffer zone of 3 km (1.875 mi.).

CAN/CGSB-32.310 7.1.7 When bees are placed in wild areas, impact on the indigenous insect population shall be considered.


In stark contrast to the honey bee’s huge domain is the relatively small realm of influence the humble bumble bee commands. There are well over 450 native bee species in British Columbia and 45 of those are bumble bees.

The bumble bee is the only other social bee that makes honey. Bumble bee colonies are very small containing between 50 to 200 bees. Seventy percent of the colonies are formed by ground nesters, while others nest in cavities of dead wood or pithy stems.

The average bumble bee species will only travel 100 to 200 m from the home nest to collect nectar and pollen. The average domain of pollination influence for a bumble bee is between 0.031 km2 and 0.13 km2. Putting this all into perspective, for each honey bee colony’s influence domain of 28.27 km2 there could be between 200 to 900 humble bumble bee ground nesting colonies competing for many of the same nectar and pollen resources!

Frisky bumblebee. Credit: Gilles Gonthier

The good news for bumble bees is that many of them are specially designed to harvest nectar and pollen from native flowers that honey bees can’t access. The bad news is that native bee populations are in decline due to loss of native foraging habitat, pesticides, and mechanized farming destroying nests by tilling the soil.

Social bee colonies form ‘super organisms,’ with all individuals working for one home. The honey bee’s ‘super organism’ even exceeds in bioregional influence the largest organism on planet Earth, a honey fungus that extends its reach over 10.36 km2 of the Malheur National Forest in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. Honey fungus is a plant parasite that manages its domain by selecting which plants live within its territory. The fertilization by pollination of plants by the bee has a similar selection effect on the ecosystem. By geographic area, one domestic honeybee hive has three times the bioregional influence of the largest organism on earth.

COS clause 7.1.7 recognizes that imported domestic honey bees have an impact on the indigenous insect populations. I would say that even though the vast majority of farmers cannot qualify to produce organic honey themselves, it should be recognized that the conventional production of honey is having a major impact on our native pollinators. Taking the lead from clause 7.1.7, we can conscientiously strive to protect and provide forage habitat and safe nesting sites for the humble bumble bee and other native pollinators.

Brown-belted Bumble Bee (Bombus griseocollis). Credit: Andrew C
Brown-belted Bumble Bee (Bombus griseocollis). Credit: Andrew C

By providing forage habitat and safe nesting sites for bumble bees, we are having a direct influence on the health and wealth of our home bioregional ecosystem. As an environmentally conscious and active community, we can have a positive impact in our bioregion by providing for our indigenous insect pollinators as we mobilize ourselves to address the environmental needs of these indigenous insects.

There are so many delicious wild berries that need the bumble bee. The flowers on these berries are enclosed so it takes a bumble bee’s specialized long “tongue” to get to the plant’s nectar. As the bumble bee ‘buzzes’ on these flowers the muscles it uses for flying releases the flower pollen and sticks to its long body bristles to be transferred to other flowers.

Buffer zones are an excellent starting place to plant native vegetation, trees, shrubs, and flowers that will become oases of survival for the humble bumble bees.
If you need further inspiration, think about the near extinction of the native bee pollinator for the vanilla orchid, which produces vanilla beans, the shiny green orchid bee. All commercial vanilla bean operations must now employ hand pollination!

Another shocker in the news is that Walmart and other interested corporations have been patenting designs for robotic pollinators. I’d rather keep the robots out of the pollination equation, especially since we can set aside buffer zones and wild areas and gradually restore unfragmented sections of land devoted to a wide diversity of native pollinator vegetation, undisturbed nesting locations, and overwintering sites for bumble bee queens.

Check out the link below for a library of seasonal listings for pollinator plants to build your pollinator gardens. Celebrate the amazing bumble bee!

seeds.ca/pollinator/plant_canada/index.php


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

Feature photo: Bombus Impatiens. Credit: Katja Schulz

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

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

Shanti Heywood

This story first appeared on the Young Agrarians website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

facebook.com/riparianranch


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

All photos: Riparian Ranch/Shanti Heywood

Organic Farming to Enhance Native Species

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

Tanya Brouwer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIOGEOCLIMACTIC ZONE

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

WILDLIFE PROTECTION

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

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

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


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

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

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

Holistic Management

in Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Summer 2017/Tools & Techniques

Blain Hjertaas

Holistic Management is a decision making system that helps us make better decisions. It teaches us to make decisions that are simultaneously sociologically, environmentally, and economically sound. The end result is happy people, healthy profits, and regenerating soils.

Holistic Management emphasizes principles of regenerating the soil. Our modern industrial approach to agriculture has been a disaster leading to declining nutrient density in food. We consume just over a half tonne of food per year, in the process of producing this food 10 tonnes of soil are lost. Clearly a system of agriculture like this cannot continue.

Holistic Management teaches us the basic principles of regenerative agriculture. How each of us uses these principles is what makes holistic management so unique, as each uses their own creativity to make it work in their own situation.

Principle #1 Solar Capture

To be successful we have to capture sunlight. It is free and non-limiting. There are only three things we can do to increase solar capture: we can make solar panels larger, put more panels up, and leave them turned on longer. On the farm, plant spacing and diversity will largely determine the size and density of the leaves—and in turn how much solar capture is available. We have the potential to capture solar energy from snowmelt to snow arrival (in Saskatchewan, that’s approximately 220 to 250 days). Most annual cropping systems capture solar energy for 70 days of the year. If we are not capturing energy, our soil health is declining. The purpose of solar capture is to send energy to the soil. We need to look at inter cropping, winter crops, poly cropping, etc to increase our harvest of solar energy.

Principle #2 Water Cycle

To make crops grow we need moisture. We have no control as farmers as to how much or when it rains but we have total control as to whether the rainfall is effective (goes into the soil) or not effective (runs off). To make the water cycle effective we need to keep our land covered in litter (green or dead plant material). This absorbs the physical effect of the raindrops and allows them to enter the soil slowly. You can think of the litter layer like the skin on your body. If you have a major burn the consequences can be catastrophic. Litter provides a similar role for the earth. It keeps it warmer in cool times, cooler in warm times, and it allows the moisture to enter and prevents it from evaporating. Moisture is critical for life; to capture and hold it is critical for our success. One of our goals should be to capture every raindrop where it falls.

Principle #3 Mineral Cycle

To have a functioning mineral cycle we need active biology. This occurs when we have solar capture to send sugar down the roots which becomes root exudates. This exudate is the food for the bacteria and fungi. The mycorrhizal fungi physically attach themselves to the root hairs of the plant. In return for the sugar, the fungi get minerals for the plant. These minerals are generally not available to plant; however the mycorrhizal fungi can remove minerals from the soil particles and transport it directly to the plant. This is a synergistic relationship where the plant feeds the fungi and the fungi feeds the plant. This is how nutrient dense food is produced. To have an effective functioning mineral cycle in place, we need to feed the workers below the ground (solar capture) and keep them warm and moist (litter layer and effective water cycle). The bacteria provide many diverse roles from producing enzymes required to being food for the predators which in turn releases nitrogen for the plants. It is wonderfully complex. All we need to do as managers is to foster and enhance and it will continue to get better. All of the living and dying of these billions of organisms is what ultimately sequesters carbon.[DS1]

Principle #4 Community Dynamics

Diversity is wonderful: the more the better. Diversity is not limited to what you plant. Look around; diversity is found in birds, insects, people, animals, and plants. There are synergies between species we do not fully understand. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts: 1+1>2. The challenge becomes how we grow crops that we can harvest mechanically. Poly cropping and inter cropping are becoming new words to farmers as they learn how to put different types of rotations together to harvest the power of this diversity.

How these four principles come together on your farm is up to your creativity. As the four principles are enhanced good things begin to happen. Carbon sequestration begins in the soil. 1 gram of carbon holds 8 grams of water. Increase carbon storage, your farm becomes better able to withstand drought or extreme wet conditions. As carbon increases along with solar capture more life can live below ground. This life below ground increases the nutrient density of the food which is critical for our health. Our requirement for purchased inputs declines and yields go up which certainly helps profitability.

Society will benefit by more nutrient dense food, less infrastructure damage in severe weather events, and carbon being removed from the atmosphere. On my operation in South Eastern Saskatchewan, I have been monitoring soil carbon levels since 2011. I am averaging 22.88 tonnes of CO2 sequestered per hectare per year on a grazing operation. Each Canadian has a carbon footprint of 18.9 tonnes/person/year. Every hectare I operate more than sequesters one Canadian’s carbon footprint.

Regenerative farms provide tremendous value in ecological goods and services to all of society that we are not recognized for. On my 1000 acre operation at a value of $20/ton for CO2, my sequestration value is worth $175,000 per year to society. More water holding and more nutrient dense food and better diversity with endangered grassland birds returning—what value is encompassed there that cannot be quantified?

Holistic Management helps you to make better decisions to achieve the goals that you have for yourself and your family. Along the way your operation should become more profitable and your ecosystem more resilient.

Learn more: holisticmanagement.org


Blain Hjertaas is a Certified Holistic Educator with Holistic Management International. He has 15 years of practical experience using Holistic Management running a 1000 acre grass operation in Saskatchewan, where they also raise lamb, custom graze cows, and poultry. Blain has a passion for carbon sequestration and offers consultations and education on Holistic Management and how the environment functions and how our actions will ultimately influence the ecosystem.

Photo credit: Sandy Black

bhjer@sasktel.net

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