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The BC Seed Trials

in Crop Production/Fall 2016/Seeds
BC Seed Trials Field Day in Chilliwack

Shauna MacKinnon

Scaling Up Ecological Seed Production

British Columbia is home to a vegetable industry worth $2.8 billion annually, but nearly every seed planted to grow those veggies is produced outside of Canada. While local, organic vegetable production is on the upswing, seed production is lagging. That may not appear to be a problem when browsing through a thick seed catalogue, but behind the seeming abundance of seed available there is a narrowing of diversity and neglect of varieties that perform well under organic or non-industrial agricultural practices.

The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security was initiated four years ago with a mission to conserve and advance seed biodiversity, keep seed in the public domain, and promote ecological seed production. In BC, passionate seed growers have long been at work in support of these same ideals, but the lack of commercial-scale seed production still prevented most BC farmers from using BC seed in their market operations. To fill this gap, the Bauta Initiative, carried out by FarmFolk CityFolk in BC, is focusing on increasing the quality, quantity and diversity of ecologically grown BC seed.

Inspecting golden beets at UBC Farm
Inspecting golden beets at UBC Farm Photo: Chris Thoreau

We do not need to look far for inspiration. Just over the border, Washington State has a well-established and very profitable seed production industry. Like the coastal areas of BC, Washington’s cool valleys west of the Cascades are one of the best areas in the world to grow seed for cool weather crops like spinach, beets, and brassicas.

❥ Washington state’s Brassica vegetable seed crops gross from $1,500 to over $6,500 per acre (1)
❥ Washington growers earn over $5 million on beet seed crop alone (2)
❥ The vegetable seed industry is a significant contributor to the diversity and economic viability of Washington state’s agricultural community

Going from a small number of experienced seed growers producing seed for backyard gardeners to seed production for commercial growers is not a simple transition. The BC Seed Trials project is helping to facilitate that transition by harnessing the passion and experience of BC seed growers and rising interest in diversifying local agricultural production to lay the foundation for a BC seed industry.

Beets in bins ready for evaluation. Credit: Alex Lyon.
Beets in bins ready for evaluation. Credit: Alex Lyon.

BC Seed Trials

If your goal is to grow seed for the best performing and regionally adapted crops, it is crucial to know which existing varieties perform best under local conditions. The BC Seed Trials project is seeking to do just that by trialing numerous varieties of beets, spinach, and kale on farms throughout BC to better understand which varieties are best suited to BC seed production. The three-year project began in early 2016 through a collaboration between the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm, the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, and FarmFolk CityFolk.

The project includes variety trials, seed quality tests, and field training aimed at engaging farmers in seed development. The research is participatory, which means BC vegetable farmers will be directly involved in growing and evaluating the crops. Academics and farmers will be working together to help identify varieties that perform best in local conditions and are good candidates for local seed production.

The first year is off to a strong start with 14 farm participants primarily representing growing conditions in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island. BC Seed Trials Lead Researcher, Alexander Lyon, along with UBC Farm Seed Hub Coordinator, Mel Sylvestre, are overseeing the organic “mother” site at UBC Farm, where a full set of trial varieties (in triple replicates) will be grown, while Renee Prasad from the University of the Fraser Valley is coordinating growing efforts at Wisbey Farm in Chilliwack, the BC Seed Trials conventional “mother” site.

Mel & Alex evaluating beets at UBC Farm. Credits: Chris Thorea
Mel & Alex evaluating beets at UBC Farm. Credits: Chris Thoreau

The “baby” sites on participating farms are trialing a sub-set of beet, spinach, and kale varieties. Each participating farmer observes and records how well each variety grows (germination, vigour, presence of disease, pest damage) and the quality of the harvestable product (upright stature, uniformity, visual appeal). This information is collected and provided to the BC Seed Trials research team, which will analyze the data to determine the best performers.

At the end of three years, the BC Seed Trials will have helped to determine the best stock varieties for seed production in a number of crops that are well suited to our climate. But perhaps more importantly, a network of BC farmers will be well versed in the trial design and crop evaluation that is crucial for successful seed trials and plant breeding. These farmers will have practiced the first steps of choosing plants with the best genetics for improving varieties and growing superior seed as we work to scale up BC ecological seed production.

Golden beet evaluation. Credit: Alex Lyon.
Golden beet evaluation. Credit: Alex Lyon.

BC Eco Seed Co-op

A great complement to the BC Seed Trials in this endeavour is the BC Eco Seed Co-op. The BC Eco Seed Co-op was incorporated in 2014 in an effort to help BC seed growers scale up their seed production while marketing that seed on growers’ behalf.

The co-op allows growers to pool production and marketing resources while providing educational opportunities to growers to help them provide high-quality bulk seed to BC vegetable farmers. The BC Eco Seed Co-op represent a shift away from multiple individual seed companies selling packet seeds to backyard gardeners towards growers collectively growing bulk seed to sell to farmers.

Get Involved

If you are interested in being involved with the BC Seed Trials please get in touch as we will be expanding the number of farmers and regions involved next year. Even if you are not growing a seed trial crop you can still be a part of the research. Many of the BC Seed Trials farmers will be hosting field days this season to bring the experience and observations of the wider farming and chef communities into the research process. Join a field day and be a part of the discussion of what characteristics are most desirable for plant breeding in your area, how to select for these, and the importance of strengthening our local seed system.

Follow the research journey at the BC Seed Trials blog, on Facebook, Instagram, and Flickr.


The BC Seed Trials project is funded in part by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture through programs delivered by the Investment Agriculture Foundation of B.C. Additional funding is provided by the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm, the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, and Whole Foods Market.

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.

Resources:

(1) http://mtvernon.wsu.edu/path_team/EM062E.pdf

(2) http://69.93.14.225/wscpr/LibraryDocs/BeetSeed2010. pdf

The Potential for Organics in the North Peace Region

in 2016/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Indigenous Food Systems/Organic Stories/Summer 2016
Leslie Jardine on her organic farm in the Peace Region

Sage Birley

Three years ago I returned to my family’s organic farm to help my father. I had just completed three years of schooling in Vancouver and as a young activist I was dealing with my first severe cycle of burnout. Oddly enough, it was that burnout that led me back to the farm. After learning about environmental destruction and the concerning state of the world while struggling to do anything that created any meaningful change, I began to see organic farming as one of the best examples of environmental sustainability and stewardship.

I have had the privilege of interviewing and learning from a variety of organic producers in the Peace Region. I’ve toured their farms and picked their brains learning more with every conversation. One of the most important questions I ask farmers is always “why organics?” A recent conversation with current President of the Peace River Organic Producers Association (PROPA) struck a particular chord. Jerry Kitt is a mixed operation organic farmer producing primarily meats near Goodfare, Alberta. He has been a member of PROPA since its second year in 1990, and he explained to me that, with a background in ecology and zoology, he had always believed in organics.

“Once you start going back and working with natural systems, things just flourish; I think that is what people are realizing,” he said. “You have to be connected to your soil, to the plants that grow on it, and the people that buy that product, what ever it is, because those people are in need of that connection, too. You just have to feel good about the food that you produce and you eat.” Over the years, Kitt has gained a wealth of knowledge and a sense of community from being a part of PROPA: “Knowing you are part of a bigger picture, seeing land that is being farmed in a sustainable manner while watching families continue to grow on the farm creates a really positive vibe.”

You have to be connected to your soil, to the plants, and the people that buy that product, because those people are in need of that connection too.”

Kitt has been selling organic meats at local farmers’ markets for around 24 years. He stressed that customers did far more than just support his business “I think of the people that used to come visit me 20 years ago and buy organic food. They carried their little kids up to my booth and I’d show them pictures of the farm and now 20 years later they are all adults and they are coming with their children. I feel really good about that. I’m helping that family grow, nourishing them the best I could and they come back beautiful people and continue to support what I do.”

He added, “Organic farming has made my whole life really worthwhile. If I was on my deathbed and I looked back at what I’ve done, I would feel good about what I did, all the families that I fed and that have grown up healthy and wiser. For me, organic farming was the wisest choice that I ever made in my life.”

Leslie Jardine on her organic farm in  the Peace Region

New Organic Farmers in the Peace Region

The recent downturn in the fossil fuels industry has been extremely difficult for many people throughout the BC and Alberta Peace. Meanwhile, food prices continue to rise and farmers continue to age out, threatening food security further. In considering the opportunity he saw for young people in organics Kitt stated, “I think that it offers long term security, it offers a sustainable source of income, and organic farming creates community. I think there are a lot of young families out there that live on farms who are looking towards organic production as a means to be able to generate an income, and feed good people. For them, their whole future is based on organics.”

Recently I have been working with a community of young market gardeners whose futures are tied to organic farming – but in the BC Peace Region that future is under threat. Leslee Jardine and Colin Meek are first year organic farmers working hard to demonstrate what the Peace River Valley is capable of. Jardine is operating a small one acre market garden while Meek grows organic sunflowers and hemp.
Jardine, age 24, has been gardening since she was three, and has been operating her own garden for the past four years. After selling extra produce to coworkers, she got the push from supportive community members to take the plunge into fulltime market gardening.

Jardine explained that she and Meek “were both in the oil and gas industry for a while and decided that we just didn’t like the way that was going and what our government was doing. Then the whole decision about Site C being approved pushed both of us to change.” Jardine went onto explain that Meek is a third generation organic farmer and had been planning on taking on the family farm but the Site C approval “made us want to go hard and show everybody what the Peace River Valley can do and what is at stake.”

With the construction of the Site C Dam looming in the distance many farmers including Jardine and Meek’s operation are currently under threat of being flooded.

Canoes along the Peace River in the fertile Peace River Valley

Saying “Yes” to Food Security

According to Wendy Holm, a professional agrologist who looked at the agricultural impacts of the Site C Dam, the Peace River Valley could feed one million people annually. Jardine, Meek and others are determined to demonstrate that. “I want the Peace Valley to be saved, preserved, and thanked I guess. I just don’t think people appreciate what you can get from this valley, and what is at stake. This valley is one in a million.”

Jardine is happy to be a part of a small community of growers banding together to demonstrate the alternative future that could be grown in the Northern BC Peace Region. “I don’t believe there will ever be a loss of jobs when it comes to farming. Food is one of the only things that people really need. You can survive without so many things but you can’t survive without food. We can only grow this market, just imagine if all the farmland in the Peace region was utilized to its full potential,” said Jardine.

The unique micro climate of the east to west valley, the rich alluvial soils, and abundant irrigation opportunities means that the Peace River Valley is capable of producing crops that cannot be easily produced elsewhere in North Eastern BC. Jardine along with other market gardeners in the river valley have successfully grown various melons, squash, and corn along with a wide variety of heritage vegetables that cannot be found in a typical grocery store. So far the community has been extremely supportive. Jardine is constantly bombarded with encouragement and questions about where to buy her vegetables and already began signing up her first customers for vegetable boxes last August.

I’m honored to be a part of a community of young growers that is fighting to preserve an incredible valley with their hands in the soil and their arguments on display on farmers market tables. “Farming is a way to create change and this summer is going to be an eye opener for so many people who just don’t know what we can grow in this valley. This valley is priceless and you just can’t replace what it can provide,” stressed Jardine.

Blossoms on organic farm in Peace Region

Jardine and others aren’t saying no to Site C. They are saying yes to a future where young people can make a living while turning the Peace River Valley into a leader of Northern food security. Jardine echoes a sentiment of many young growers when she said “before, we weren’t doing anything, we weren’t making any change, or having an impact, but I feel like with farming and young people getting into farming we are deciding that we aren’t sticking with the norm, we are helping people and we are feeding people by using what we have around us in nature.”

At one time the Peace River region was largely self sufficient and now I’m thrilled to see people taking the lead in demonstrating that it could be a reality again. As I write this in my cabin at my garden, seven kilometers down river from the Site C construction site I can hear equipment working in the valley. My thoughts go to Leslee Jardine and Colin Meek who currently have equipment doing test drilling for BC Hydro on their property, a few meters from their field and home. At times I feel hopeless, but then I think of them and other growers around the world and I am comforted to know that soon they will be waking up and getting to work doing their little part to grow a brighter future.

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Sage Birley is an agricultural journalist, 4th generation farmer, and 2nd year market gardener living on his family’s 101 year old, now certified organic, farm in North Eastern BC’s Peace River Region. As an activist and a community developer, he sees sustainable agriculture as the ultimate way to grow the change the world needs.

All photos: Sage Birley

Collective Marketing for Veggie Farmers

in 2016/Marketing/Organic Community/Spring 2016
Merville Organics Farmer Co-operative

Moss Dance

Get Your Produce in a Pile!

I was lucky to witness the flourishing of the Saanich Organics farming (and marketing!) co-operative when I lived and farmed on southern Vancouver Island. In their book All the Dirt: Reflections on Organic Farming, Saanich Organics farmers Robin Tunnicliffe, Heather Stretch, and Rachel Fisher describe an amusing scene—it may be familiar to you, too. Picture three stressed out, overworked farmers, hauling produce in small, worse-for-wear pick-ups—all of them headed to make deliveries to the same restaurants!

Back in 2012, they might as well have been describing me. At my new farm in the Comox Valley, I was spending four and a half hours every Tuesday delivering 25 CSA shares to members’ doorsteps after a morning of frantic harvesting and packing shares.

But that all changed when I met Arzeena Hamir and Neil Turner at Amara Farm in 2013.

As soon as we met, Arzeena and I started hatching plans for a growers’ co-operative. Thanks to those clever Saanich Organics farmers, I was feeling pretty excited about the idea of collective marketing by this time. The only issue was, we needed three members to start a co-op! So we began with a two-farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. We also took turns at the local farmers’ market where we sold each others’ produce under the Merville Organics banner. By uniting under Merville Organics, our marketing efforts could be more concise and targeted.

By 2015, several of our apprentices graduated onto their own farms, and some new young farmers were setting up shop in town. We finally had our founding member quorum and took the initial steps towards “inco-operating” through the BC Co-operative Association.

Merville Organics Farmer's Co-op

Why Collaborate?

I’m not going to lie: collaboration takes a lot of extra work at the beginning. Setting up tracking systems, establishing effective group dynamics, and doing the legwork of starting up a shared business is a huge commitment. It took many long meetings and volunteer hours from our members to get started. As we begin our second year, our co-operative still relies mostly on volunteer labour from our grower members to keep things running. For many farmers, co-operative or not, marketing comes at the end of a long list of things that just can’t wait, like thinning the carrots. Still, in our view, the benefits outweigh the challenges.

Despite the volunteer hours we spend running the co-op, our goal is to lessen the marketing workload on our members so they can spend more time farming. Here are a few of the best results of our work together:

Increased Marketing Reach

People power is real when it comes to marketing a farm—we’ve seen this time and again when our seven grower members combine their contacts in the community to spread the word about our products.

For example, when we post about our CSA on our co-op Facebook page, we can reach a portion of our 800 followers (thanks to Facebook’s limiting algorithms we can’t reach them all at once for free). If each member shares that post, we exponentially increase our online reach. Friends, family members, and co-workers who know us personally take an interest and spread the word for us. This kind of grassroots marketing is essential in small communities.

Abundance & Visual Appeal

Working together, we not only increase our marketing reach, we also increase the variety and consistency of the products we supply to our markets. A three-farm market table overflows with produce. This in turn revs up interest in our market stall—the more variety you’ve got, the more people you’re going to attract to your table!

Shared Infrastructure

Thanks to our marketing co-op, our new grower members are saving on farm start-up costs by sharing essential equipment such as a walk-in cooler, wash station, delivery vehicle, harvest totes, packaging materials, and co-op office. We hire a bookkeeper for the co-op which means financial record-keeping is much simpler for all of our members. As well, we share marketing resources—everything from printed materials to social advertising, thus reducing the cost and the workload for all.

Grower Member Specialization

Sharing in the larger tasks of operating a farm business means our grower members can specialize in roles that they enjoy and excel at such as customer relations, farmers’ markets, marketing, or sales tracking. The increased number of growers also enables each farmer to specialize in growing crops they have success with instead of trying to grow a full array of crops to ll their own CSA program. Several of our members have expertise in marketing and the co-operative as a whole gets to reap the benefits!

Merville Organics CSA

Harvesting Grassroots Media

We use three social media platforms and one in-person platform to get the word out about our CSA programs and our annual spring plant sale. During CSA season, we post our weekly blog to all of our social media platforms.

Facebook

Facebook is definitely the workhorse in our social media strategy. All of our members have active personal Facebook accounts, and this has definitely helped us to gain a good following on our Merville Organics Facebook page. It’s not all free, but it’s not expensive either. The reality is, Facebook doesn’t want you to get much exposure for free, especially if you’re running a business. That’s why we “boost” posts strategically to increase our reach at key times in the season.

Boosting Posts on Facebook

We boost Facebook posts 5-7 times per year, usually with a budget of $14-25 per boost. Here’s the break- down of our strategy:

  • Spring CSA launch
  • #CSADay
  • Spring CSA – one week before the sign up deadline
  • Spring plant sale announcement
  • Spring plant sale reminder (2-3 days before the event)
  • Fall CSA launch
  • Fall CSA – one week before the sign up deadline

Twitter

Developing a good following on Twitter can take a long time, and a bit more strategic thinking. If you really want to drive traffic to your Twitter feed, it’s important to re-tweet, post relevant content, and not just plug your sales. In our experience, Twitter isn’t a popular social media platform in our community—so it means our reach is a bit more far-flung and therefore doesn’t help much when we are selling CSA shares.

Instagram

Instagram is great for farms! We live in image-rich en- vironments—whether we’re growing microgreens or raising sheep—and people LOVE farm pictures. We use Instagram to build a story about our farms, who we are and what we are offering to our community. It’s not so much about hard sales with Instagram, it’s more about the slow process of relationship building.

“Like” Each Other

Our philosophy as a co-op is that there is no competi- tion, only more room for collaboration. We take this approach in social media too. When that amazing local yoghurt company is launching a new avour, or a new locally-owned feed & supply store is opening in town, share that news on your social media feeds!

Building this network of businesses who support each other’s work means we are creating fantastic new local economies where community members can clearly see where to redirect their dollars. Think of it as over-throwing the stodgy, competive capitalist system, one “Like” at a time.

In Person at Farmers’ Markets

If you’re running a CSA, potential members really appreciate the chance to talk to a real person and ask questions about the program. It also helps that we have solid weekly face-to-face connections with people at the market—that kind of trust helps people to take the leap to try something new. The marketing tactic on this one is so simple: put up a sign at your booth that says, “Ask us about our CSA program!”

Co-ops Love Co-ops!

Don’t be shy about reaching out to the co-ops in your community if you’re starting your own collective venture! The beauty of co-ops is that they are creating a culture of collaboration, and what could be more exciting than more people joining in?

Suggestions for Starting Your Own Marketing Co-operative

If you are interested in starting your own marketing co-op, here are a few suggestions:

  • Get together and host a meeting with farmers in your community who you think you would enjoy working with (liking each other IS essential)
  • Look for common ground: What challenges are growers facing? Do you have shared goals & values?
  • Brainstorm opportunities: What could you do together that you can’t do alone?
  • List needs & resources: What do you have that you can share? What do folks need to improve their farm businesses?
  • Start small: collaborate on something simple & manageable in the beginning and expand on your successes

Moss Dance is an organic farmer & founding member of the Merville Organics Growers’ Co-operative. She also works with the Young Agrarians on Vancouver Island.

Photo credit: Boomer Merritt

Facebook: MervilleOrganics
Twitter: @MervilleOrgCoop
Instagram: @mervilleorganics

Fresh Starts at Shalefield Organic Gardens

in Farmer Focus/Organic Stories
Veggie crops at Shalefield Organic Gardens

Hannah Roessler

You don’t need to be young to succeed as a new farmer, as this intrepid pair from the Columbia Valley are proving.“There is just so much shale in the field, we’re always picking up rocks – so there you have it: “Shalefield Farm” was born!” explains Yolanda Versterre when I ask her about the name of the farm in Lindell Beach, BC she owns with her partner Brian Patterson.

The story of Yolanda and Brian’s entry into farming puts a fresh twist on the new farmer tale: as Yolanda puts it, “we are old young farmers.” While discussions of the aging farmer base and the challenges faced by young entrants into farming are a frequent theme in farming news, its not often we hear about people embarking on farming careers later in life.

“There is just so much shale in the field, we’re always picking up rocks – so there you have it: “Shalefield Farm” was born!”

Brian has owned the 10-acre property south of Chilliwack, near Cultus Lake, for many years, but Shalefield Organic Gardens only started taking off in 2005, when Brian began his professional life as a farmer — at the ripe young age of 55! He had been laid off from his job as a printer, as new mechanization and technology made his job of 35 years obsolete. It was an opportunity for a new start, and Brian began growing blueberries, raspberries and garlic — no longer as a hobby, but with an eye towards making money.

Inevitably, there were challenges in the transition from hobby farmer to professional grower. As Yolanda describes it, “Brian had been growing one row, so then he just started growing 10 rows! But of course, everything changes with scale, doesn’t it?”

Yolanda and Brian of Shalefield Organic GardensWhile Brian had years of experience growing vegetables for family and friends, Yolanda was completely new to farming. She had moved to BC after working as an operating room nurse in Holland, and met Brian while they were both enjoying their other hobby – trail running. Did this athletic training prepare them to be the successful farmers they are now? Certainly farming requires stamina: “It’s a LOT of work,” Yolanda sighs, noting that they’ve given up trail running, along with tennis, since farming provides all the exercise they have time or energy for!

 

Today, Yolanda and Brian and their dedicated staff have nine acres in production, growing strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and a variety of field crops. They have a few experimental crops, such as ginger, which they source certified organic from Hawaii; it’s done very well this year, and it’s a hit with market customers. Sprouts are another Shalefield specialty crop, one they started to develop a source of farm income throughout the winter months. Their sprout blends, which they create using over 10 types of sprouts, are a customer favourite at the market.

Using Technology to Build Customer Loyalty

Yolanda explains that they mostly sell at farmers markets, and have started using a market share program to help retain customers. Customers can purchase a market share for either $500 or $250 and then receive a gift card for the amount, which they bring to the market with them. Yolanda scans the card with an iphone app, which subtracts the amount of their purchase and sends an email to the customer to let them know how much credit they have left on their card.

This year they are expanding into a CSA program and they are determined to provide a veggie box to a family in need. They’ll need to attract 50 CSA box customers to attain this goal, and are well on the way there. As Yolanda notes, “how many times do you just have the one bunch of carrots left that didn’t sell, just because it’s that last bunch of carrots? I’ve asked for a lot of help from other people to get to this stage of farming and I am so, so very grateful for what I get to do in my life, because farming allows me to eat so healthy and live well. And I really want to help someone else access that.”

Yolanda and Brian’s experiences starting their farming business at Shalefield Organic Gardens makes it clear that, whatever age you begin farming, a willingness to learn new things and take chances is the first requirement.

A Biodynamic Commitment

Growing up in Holland, Yolanda became familiar early on with the use of homeopathics for healing. Today, she and Brian practice biodynamic agriculture at Shalefield, and Yolanda feels the philosophy behind biodynamics fits with the ethic of healing holistically. Following biodynamic cycles can be challenging given the tight rotations of market growing, but the pair are committed to making it work for their operation. Yolanda and Brian’s experiences starting their farming business at Shalefield Organic Gardens makes it clear that, whatever age you begin farming, a willingness to learn new things and take chances is the first requirement. Add a big measure of love and commitment to the job and you’ve got a recipe for success: “We just love what we are doing. We are so excited about the fact that we are still here. We made it! It’s do-able. You can do it. You can make it happen.”


Hannah Roessler has farmed in Nicaragua, Washington, and BC, on permaculture farms, polyculture cafetals, organic market farms and a biodynamic vineyard. She has an MA in Environmental Studies and her research is focused on climate change and small-scale organic farming. She currently farms on the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island.

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