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2022

Organic Stories: Grounded Acres, Skwxwú7mesh territory

in 2022/Climate Change/Crop Production/Current Issue/Grow Organic/Marketing/Organic Community/Organic Stories/Summer 2022

Digging into Community

Darcy Smith

Mel Sylvestre has been farming for almost 20 years, and she’s pretty sure she’ll never run out of lessons learned. From last year’s heat dome, to this year’s cold, wet weather, to figuring out just what type of kale customers want, every farming season brings new challenges—and new opportunities.

She farms with Hannah Lewis, her “partner in life, partner in business,” at Grounded Acres Organic Farm on what is today known as the Sunshine Coast. Of their five-acre property, “about two acres, give or take, is farmed in some way.”

Mel and Hannah grow mixed vegetables and have about 100 laying hens, and they get their food to their community through the Sechelt Farmers’ Market, their farm stand, local restaurants, and a collaborative community box program put together by a local organization.

The vision for Grounded Acres was to open up an acre of land and grow from there. They knew they could make enough revenue out of an acre to keep them going, and build from there wisely. They were also keen to learn what people wanted in their new community. “We did a lot of market research,” Mel says, “Our first year we did a blind shot in the dark—we grew as much and little as we could of everything and let things fly, so we could see what the enthusiasm was for. In one region everyone wants green curly kale, in another people want Lacinato kale, and you don’t know why.”

Grounded Acres apprentice crew working in the fields. Credit: Grounded Acres Organic Farm.

As they get to know their community, Mel and Hannah are also learning the land, which was first opened up over a century ago. First a strawberry farm, then planted in potatoes, it had been 30 to 50 years without having tillage of any sort when they arrived. The land isn’t classified as agricultural soil: it’s class four, or with improvement class 3, loamy sand. Mel says “it’s extremely sandy, and in some parts extremely rocky. In other parts, folks a century ago did the work of removing rocks.”

The good news is Mel is familiar with improving soil. Before moving to the coast, both Mel and Hannah spent almost a decade working at UBC Farm, which has the same soil class. “We came with a shovel when we visited the property. I dug a hole and said, ‘Ah, same soil’.”

Mel originally trained as a musician and sound tech, but when the industry began turning to technology and opportunities dwindled for sound techs, she landed on an organic farm in the outskirts of Montreal teaching children. Despite being raised in the middle of cornfields and dairy cows, she hadn’t been interested in farming until, she says, “I was watching people in the field and thought, ‘Hey, that looks fun’.” One day, they needed help, so Mel “picked up a hoe, went out and helped, and fell in love.” From there, she got another farm job.

Sometimes, Mel says “I wish I had started with an apprenticeship, or working more intentionally on the farm. Things just kept happening, and life brought me from one farm to another.” She ended up in BC in 2005, and farmed with Saanich Organics on the island for six seasons.

Curious hens provide eggs to the Gibson’s community. Credit: Grounded Acres Organic Farm.

Eight years into her farming journey, she had a window where she could return to university, and studied plant and soil science at UBC. That led her to UBC Farm, where she “discovered a new love, teaching and helping other folks getting into farming.” UBC farm is also where Mel had the opportunity to get into seed production.

UBC Farm is where she found a different kind of love. Hannah was already working in the Indigenous garden at UBC Farm when Mel arrived, but it took them a year—and realizing they were neighbours—before they started connecting. “We didn’t overlap much at the farm, our rhythms in the day were quite different, but we discovered we lived a block from each other, and every time I was taking the 99 bus from East Van she was on the bus. We call it a 99 romance—the 99 brought us together.”

Mel knew she didn’t want to stay in the city long-term, but Hannah was an educator by training. While she really liked gardening, Hannah wasn’t sure how she felt about farming—until she took UBC’s farm practicum and discovered she also loved working the land.

But, Mel says, “what Hannah loved even more was the Sunshine Coast. In my head I thought I was going to go back to the island where my community was, but she convinced me.” They started looking for property, and, Mel says, “I started developing my relationship with the land here.”

It took them three years to find the right piece of land, and by then Mel and Hannah had new twins along for the ride. “We have the lucky situation, the privilege, of having family that invested in our land,” which, Mel says, “was a life saver in the start-up of this business.” Hannah’s mother sold her condo in Vancouver and moved with the young family in order to help them buy the property. “Having the grandchildren in the picture helped.”

Mel is “thankful for the years I spent working on other farms. It’s a blessing and curse. I knew what I needed to be successful, but the curse was I knew how much money it would cost.” They started with zero savings, and Mel knew they would need $100 thousand in financing for the first year to even be able to make their loan payments. “That was the barebone minimum. It seems like a lot of money but it was just barely what I knew we needed to be resilient and get through those first few years, as well as be healthy for our family. We’re not 20 anymore,” Mel says. “We have twins and they’re two years old, and we had a lot of infrastructure to put in place: irrigation, greenhouses, washing station, cooler, workshop. There was a lot that needed to come together to make the farm possible.”

With a solid business plan, clear vision, and the confidence that comes from experience, they went in search of funding—and an angel investor from the community “came out of the woodwork, believed in us, and lent us the money that we needed,” Mel says.

Hannah and Chef Johnny Bridge satisfied with cauliflower. Credit: @joshneufeldphoto.

Mid-way through their second season on this piece of land, Mel reflects on how lucky they’ve been, despite a tough year. Crops are three weeks behind, and some have been lost due to weather and pests. “All the things from a cold wet spring,” Mel says. “That’s the name of the game. Every farm has pluses and minuses, and depending on the season, you’ll lose some and gain some.” They have sandy soil, so the heat dome—and accompanying water restrictions—was harder. The sandy soil helped them out this spring, while nearby farms are on clay soil, which never drains. “I feel for the beginners right now. The last two to three seasons were uniquely hard. It’s next-level hardship for farming.”

Mel has the “old equation” in her head, from when she was brought up to be a new farmer. Once upon a time, the first three years were supposed to be tough, and starting in years four to five, “it should be even keel, you should have your system down and understand the land enough to play around.” That magic three-to-five-year number is because “even if you know what you’re doing, there are still things to learn, on the land, in the area, what’s the pattern here, why aren’t the cover crops growing. There’s lots to troubleshoot.” But, Mel says, “that’s not the way it is any more. It could be year 10 before you start to feel like you’re coasting…”

At Grounded Acres, they’re “still really in the deep of it,” learning what their customers want, what ingredients chefs are looking for—there’s lots to figure out. But there’s good news: “one thing people have said even before we moved here, if you grow it, it will fly.” Even before the pandemic, young families were leaving the city and moving to the Sunshine Coast. Between the young families and established residents, there’s high demand for fresh produce. Marketing their product on the coast “has been a fairly easy ride compared to other regions I’ve worked in where there are a lot of other market gardeners per capita,” Mel says.

Mel out on the tractor on a long summer evening.
Credit: Grounded Acres Organic Farm.

As it turns out, on the Sunshine Coast everyone wants curly kale, but that hasn’t stopped Mel and Hannah from planting a variety. “We love the diversity. One will sell more, but there’s going to be a reason why we’re glad we planted the other,” says Mel. “Siberian kale is not my favourite in the summer—pests love it. But I always plant a bit because over the winter it’s going to rock it. We had the worst winter last year, it was so cold for so long, but we were still harvesting Siberian kale.” Mel remembers that the other varieties were skeletons, but the Siberian came roaring back and they were able to sell bags of braising greens. “Fresh kale on the stand in March—people will elbow each other out of the way to get it.”

Mel says they will always keep the diversity in their crop planning. “I think climate change is reinforcing what we’ve known as biodiverse small-scale farmers,” she says, and recommends that even within one crop, don’t plant just one variety, go for a few. “It surprises me every year, that one variety rocked it for four years but this year not so much. I’m always so glad I planted that other one. Climate change is running that message back home heavily about not putting all your eggs in one basket.”

Over the last hard winter five or six years back, Mel remembers people planting more and more overwintering brassicas like purple sprouting broccoli, or planting lots of greens in the spring. The risk there is picking up on that trend and over-committing. One person, at least, planted triple the amount and lost everything. “Mother nature is always like, ‘Oh you’re feeling confident, I’ll take your confidence away’.” Moments like that are there to “remind you not to bank too hard on that income, to have other avenues to make it through the season.”

“We live in a culture where we’re looking for that one book, that one person who’s going to teach us everything,” Mel says. “Farming is not that. I know folks that went to five, six, seven different farms to learn as much as they can. You will still learn until you die. There is no recipe in farming, there’s just a set of skills and knowledge you can keep accumulating.”

Mel highlights the importance of having a “troubleshooting mind” in the absence of a formula: someone can say, do it this way and this will be your result. “Maybe one year out of three that will be true. Other years, you get a cold spring and you have white fly now.” She is adamant that no one person on this planet can teach you—rather, it’s important to have diverse teachers. While there’s lots to be learned from books or online resources, that can be “a dangerous road. It doesn’t give you as much resilience in your toolbelt as just going through a season with one farmer locally in the region you want to farm.”

Grounded Acres Organic Farm Family: Hannah, Mel, Juniper, and River. Credit: Grounded Acres Organic Farm.

Community has been more important to their early success than Mel would ever have dreamed. Between Hannah and Mel, they have an incredible—and complementary—set of skills that are different and complete each other. Mel loves people but describes herself as “a blunt Quebecer who tells it like it is, which doesn’t always fly on the coast,” while she says “Hannah has this incredible way to put things in words. She’s spent a lot of time building who we are for the community.”

They landed in a new place mid-winter with small children. “We only had so much time to go around mingling and meeting people,” Mel says. Hannah spent the winter building the farm’s website and social media, telling their story. Coming from a teaching farm where Hannah was running a volunteer program, they wanted to open up their new farm to folks wanting to connect with the land. Between the pandemic and working from home, people were “aching to get out into nature. Our story spread like wildfire and we got so many volunteers. Our investor came out of that, too.”

A handful of the folks who started coming in that first year are still coming—“they are really committed and became our community,” Mel says. “We call them friends, we know everything about each other from weeding.” Mel has lived in small communities before, and knows that when you’re new somewhere you have to prove yourself. “People have to ask themselves, ‘Am I going to invest energy in building a relationship with this person?’ I think we’re in the book now!”

Overall, they have found that the community has been very welcoming. “Despite the fact that it’s small here, it’s mighty,” Mel says. “The farmers we’ve met have been very supportive. We can borrow from each other when we run out of pint containers, for example.” This kind of collaboration is especially essential because the Sunshine Coast is not in an agricultural area, and there’s a ferry between them and any supplies.

Community extends beyond their neighbours on the Sunshine Coast. Grounded Acres is certified organic. “The community that raised me as a farmer in BC was the certified organic community,” Mel says. “At a really young farmer age, I got into the importance of organic, and the importance of that community in itself.” Mel went to her first BC Organic conference her first year farming in BC. “It’s always a highlight of my year, not necessarily what I’m learning but who I’m connecting with, who I’m getting to rant with, have a beer with. That precious moment that every farmer needs, to feel that you’re not alone.”

Mel and Hannah started out with laying hens right away to respond to the community’s needs. Credit: Grounded Acres Organic Farm.

For Mel, being certified organic is about more than just what organic means. “At the end of the day we can make those practices happen without having certification, but certification is investing in keeping that community alive, that one thing that gives us a voice, makes us visible, makes us not just a trend.” The organic community in BC specifically has been together for many years, and Mel has “so much respect for the folks that put that system together, and the folks keeping it together.”

While there’s no one recipe to farming, Mel and Hannah have certainly pulled together many key ingredients, from their diverse skills to the people who support their farm in many different ways. “Diversity in the field, diversity in skills” is important, Mel says. “The jack-of-all-trades farmer thing is romanticized a lot, but it’s a harsh reality.” Bringing multiple skill sets and interests to the field is so important—even if someone is just looking for a business partner, don’t look for people who like doing the same things you do, Mel recommends.

“That’s one thing I appreciate about our farm every day. Hannah will put time into doing wholesale with chefs and going to market on the weekend. My favourite thing is to be alone on the farm, and she comes back so excited, it feeds her—and that in turn feeds me.” The foundation of Grounded Acres is the relationship between Mel and Hannah, “romantic partners who are good business partner matches as well, how lucky we are!”

groundedacresfarm.ca


Darcy Smith is the editor of the BC Organic Grower, and a huge fan of organic farmers. She also manages the BC Land Matching Program delivered by Young Agrarians.

Feature image: Queer community setting up tomato tunnels. Credit: Grounded Acres Organic Farm.

Biodynamic Farm Story?

in 2022/Climate Change/Crop Production/Current Issue/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Summer 2022

Anna Helmer

The title of this column is borderline pretentious and potentially misleading. We are not a certified biodynamic farm. I am certain we do not meet the requirements and have faint hope of doing so because we fall well short of the ideal farm Rudolph Steiner describes in his lectures: we have no cattle, we purchase cover crop seed and cow manure, and we don’t make our own preparations. We’re working on it though. It could be called Aspiring Biodynamic Farm Story, or In-Transition to Biodynamic Farm Story.

For the sole sake of accuracy, it should be called: Biodynamically-Challenged Farm Story. This is more on point because I do believe that most farms and gardens where the growers believe in the availability of fertility forces greater than what comes in a bag or bucket are on the biodynamic path. Probably, like us, they just aren’t doing enough.

That’s where we are at. We just aren’t doing enough, but being a sensible middle-aged lady, I have no trouble decreeing that this is good enough. In fact, rather than risk failure, I work to lower standards until I meet them. That should explain the pretentious nature of the title.

Removing the word biodynamic entirely from the title would entirely remove the challenge of writing this article. Every time I go through the process, I learn a little bit more about both our practice, and the practice of biodynamic farming in general.

Skirting pretentiousness then, and hoping to have prevented any misleading impressions, I’ll leave it at that and continue my mission to convince everyone to run a biodynamically-challenged operation.

I have an earnest belief in two practical and effective biodynamic practices: firstly, the application of the compost and field preparations, and secondly, striving to make the farm its own source of fertility. That my conviction is endlessly undermined by difficulties explaining the wilder flights of biodynamic fancy is the challenge to be borne. I really can’t blame people for questioning all that—I just wish I could do a better job of explaining the useful bits.

To that end, I’ve started reading the Rudolph Steiner lectures again. I wouldn’t say it’s a punishment, exactly, because that would give the wrong impression. Penance would also be a poor choice of words, because I am not atoning for a mistake. It’s remedial. I need remedial reading.

Unfortunately, what happened is that someone recently asked me the old chestnut: so, what is biodynamic farming exactly—planting by the moon? My response was jumbled and garbled, confusing and unclear.

I can do better—and to do so, I am sending myself back to the beginning. The goal this time is to confidently deliver a concise and accurate biodynamic pitch: one that would convince a curious farmer to delve a little deeper, one that would indicate to a consumer that there is more to organic farming than they might imagine.

In the meantime, I am basking in the glory of my successful biodynamic cull potato compost pile. It has been completely transformed into very useful dirt. I can barely believe it. The greenhouse and the tissue culture seed potatoes were the initial beneficiaries and there has been much plant revelry.

Not so glorious has been the use of the other preparations this year. Such a cold wet spring would surely have called for the liberal and frequent application of BD501 (horn silica) but we are very reluctant to give the plants any extra warmth and light. It seems risky when at any moment a heat dome, or at the very least a heat wave, could descend, rendering it unnecessary and perhaps even detrimental.

I also held back on the BD500 (horn manure) because it did not even occur to me to use it. A rather bold admission, and perhaps penance was a good word choice after all. We were fairly consumed with trying to coax cold Pemberton mud into something more likely to grow potatoes. It was extraordinary. I am not sure Steiner really could relate.

I am never going to forget the compost preparations. I have a lot of cull potatoes coming online, a pressing need for good compost, and I know just what to do.

If only I understood why.

P.S. The Biodynamic Agriculture Association of BC will be hosting a preparation workshop this fall, likely at Helmers Organic Farm in Pemberton. Please email info@bcbiodynamics.ca to get on the mailing list.


Anna Helmer farms in Pemberton and realizes she had middle age all wrong. helmersorganic.com

Feature image: Cleaning potatoes. Credit: Helmers Organic Farm.

The More the Better? Multi-Species vs Single-Species Cover Crops for Carrots

in 2022/Crop Production/Current Issue/Grow Organic/Seeds/Summer 2022/Tools & Techniques

By Frank Larney, Haley Catton, Charles Geddes, Newton Lupway, Tom Forge, Reynald Lemke, and Bobbi Helgason

This article first appeared in Organic Science Canada magazine and is printed here with gratitude.

In recent years, diverse cover crop mixes or ‘cocktails’, which contain as many as 15 different cover crop species, have gained popularity. Are these multi-species cover crop mixes any better than their less sophisticated counterparts (e.g., fall rye or barley/pea)? It’s a complicated system to untangle. Our early data suggests that the multi-species mixes can foster more active soil life, but that they could also have impacts on the following crop: they caused more forked carrots, which decreases profit. We also looked closely at how weeds in the cover crops affected soil fertility. Spoiler alert, they may be helping…

Cover crops can provide many benefits including enhanced soil organic matter and soil health, nitrogen retention, weed suppression, soil moisture conservation and, as a result of these, higher subsequent crop yields. Cover crops can be grown in the main season (replacing a cash crop in rotation) or seeded in fall to protect the soil from wind and water erosion throughout winter and early spring. In our study funded by the Organic Science Cluster, we compared how different cover crops impacted the soil, pests, and the following crop.

The control cover crop treatment which was essentially a fallow predominated by lamb’s quarters, cleavers, and redroot pigweed, July 30, 2018. Maybe weeds are not all that bad? …as long as they don’t go to seed before soil incorporation. Credit: Frank Larney.

Our research team collaborated with Howard and Cornelius Leffers who run an irrigated organic farm near Coaldale, Alberta. They specialize in carrots and red beets for restaurants, farmers’ markets and organic grocery stores, and they also grow alfalfa, winter wheat and dry beans. We evaluated seven cover crop treatments ahead of carrots. We have completed two cycles of the two-year cover crop–carrot rotation (Cycle 1: 2018 & 2019, Cycle 2: 2019 & 2020), with a third cycle (2021 & 2022) currently underway. Cover crops were established in June during the first year of each cycle as follows:

Buckwheat;

  1. Faba bean;
  2. Brassica (white + brown mustard);
  3. Mix*;
  4. Mix* followed by barley which grew until the first killing frost;
  5. Mix* followed by winter wheat which survived the winter, regrew in early spring, then was terminated by tillage; and
  6. Control (no cover crop, weeds allowed to grow).
  7. *Mixture of five legumes, four grasses, two brassicas, flax, phacelia, safflower, and buckwheat (15 species in total)
Fagopyrum esculentum Moench, Polygonum fagopyrum L. Credit: Johann Georg Sturm.

In August, all treatments and the control were incorporated into the soil by disking. The control and treatments 1-4 were left unplanted over the winter; weeds were allowed to grow. Treatments 5 and 6 were seeded to other cover crops. In the second year of each cycle, carrots were planted in June and harvested in the fall. We took cover crop and weed biomass samples just before disking in August of the first year of each cycle. We measured the carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) concentrations of the cover crops, as well as the main weed species. In 2018, the multi-species, brassica, and buckwheat cover crops were more competitive with weeds. The faba bean cover crop was not competitive with weeds and had the same amount of weeds (by weight) as the control treatment.

Weeds can be a troublesome part of organic systems. In this case, we wanted to see if they were redeeming themselves as part of the cover crop, or in the case of the control treatment, by taking the place of a seeded cover crop. Weeds are no different from any other plant: they take up soil nutrients and when they break down, they put carbon (including organic matter), nitrogen, and other nutrients back into the soil. As long as annual weeds don’t go to seed, maybe they are making a useful contribution to soil health, similar to a seeded cover crop.

Since weeds were incorporated into the soil in August along with the seeded cover, the less-competitive faba bean treatment and the weedy control actually returned more total carbon to the soil (average, 2220 kg/ha C) due to greater weed biomass (weed “yield”) than buckwheat, brassica or the multi-species mixture (850–1330 kg/ha C). Moreover, being a nitrogen-fixing legume, the faba bean cover crop (including its weeds) returned the most nitrogen to the soil at 99 kg/ha N. After the carrot harvest, our team rated carrots into Grade A (visually appealing with no deformities: ideal for restaurants, farmers’ markets, and organic grocery stores) and Grade B (downgraded due to wireworm damage, forking, scarring or misshaping: suitable for juicing only). Grade B carrots are worth about one third of Grade A carrots.

Vicia faba. Credit: Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé, Flora von Deutschland.

Despite the differences we measured in the C and N contributions of the cover crops and the weeds, it wasn’t enough to affect the carrot yields. In 2019, Grade A carrot yield was statistically the same with all the cover crop options. For soil health, the multi-species mixture had more microbial activity than either brassica or buckwheat cover crops (this is based on microbial biomass C – an index of microbial mass – and permanganate oxidizable C – the active or easily-decomposable C). However, a possible downside of the multi-species mix showed up when we looked at the following carrot crop. In 2019, treatments 4, 5 and 6 resulted in a greater proportion of the Grade B category, including forked carrots. Forking and misshaping are caused by many reasons, including soil compaction, weed interference, and insect or nematode feeding on root growing tips.

We also looked at the value of fall-seeded cover crops (Treatments 5 and 6) and their impact on wireworm and nematodes. These pests might actually be helped by cover crops; they appear to have greater survival during the winter season when living roots are present. But having winter cover may lead to better carrot yields, too: in 2020, total carrot yields (Grades A and B) were 10% higher after the fall-seeded cover crops when compared to the spring – seeded brassica cover crop, which led to the lowest yielding carrots. So far, we haven’t seen any effect of the different cover crop treatments on root lesion nematode populations, but the fall-season cover crops led to a small increase in wireworm damage on the carrots (this only showed up in 2019). More soil analyses and the results from the 2021-22 season are still to come. The additional information will help us tease out the pros and cons of multi-species vs single-species cover crops for irrigated organic carrots.

To learn more about OSC3 Activity 8, please visit

dal.ca/oacc/osciii


The Organic Science Cluster 3 is led by the Organic Federation of Canada in collaboration with the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada at Dalhousie University, and is supported by the AgriScience Program under Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Canadian Agricultural Partnership (an investment by federal, provincial and territorial governments) and over 70 partners from the agricultural community.

Feature image:  Left to right: Charles Geddes (Weed Ecology & Cropping Systems, AAFC-Lethbridge); Howard Leffers (farmer-collaborator, Coaldale, AB); and James Hawkins (visiting Nuffield scholar, Neuarpurr, Victoria, Australia) in the 15-species cover crop, August 7, 2018. Credit: Frank Larney.

Footnotes from the Field: Nature’s Electromagnetism

in 2022/Climate Change/Current Issue/Footnotes from the Field/Summer 2022

A Cooperative Energy Flow

By Marjorie Harris

Mother Nature is an ocean of electromagnetic waves traveling at the speed of light. It is now understood that nothing happens in the natural world that isn’t an electromagnetic event at some level.

It was just over 175 years ago in 1846, that Michael Faraday, known as the father of electromagnetism proposed the electromagnetic theory of light. He had discovered that light and electromagnetism were inter-related. The flow of light, charged particles, and electric currents were all governed by the same natural laws of electromagnetism. Shortly before Faraday’s passing in 1867, something spoke to him in the colours of the spectrum of light. While he looked out his western window past the distant rainfall he saw a beautiful rainbow that spanned the sky, and exclaimed, “He hath set his testimony in the heavens.”

Electromagnetism makes the world go round and round—every visible action starts with an invisible electromagnetic foundation, observed in the far distant cosmos macro displays of exploding supernovas, in the nearer Sun’s solar flares and coronal mass ejections, in our terrestrial atmospheric displays of northern lights, rainbows and lightening, and all the way down to microscopic movements of nutrients in the soil and phytoplankton pastures of the oceans, all demonstrating electromagnetism in motion.

On an electromagnetic level, nature operates cooperatively; this is far from the Darwinian concepts of competition and survival. Nature can be witnessed as the flow of energy dedicated to an incorruptible cooperative system set in motion by celestial events in galaxies far, far away.

Climate Changes and Nitrogen Fertilization

Galactic cosmic rays (GCR), are highly energetic, mainly positively-charged protons, whizzing through space at nearly the speed of light. Most of these charged particles have their origins outside of our solar system, coming from our own Milky Way galaxy, and beyond from distant galaxies. It is thought that they are the remnants of exploded supernovas. The climate and cloud cycle on earth is influenced to some degree by events occurring outside of our solar system that create galactic rays.

The earth is shielded by a magnetosphere as well: the Sun’s solar magnetic field helps to block incoming GCR’s. When our Sun is in a low sunspot period of its 11-year solar cycle, more galactic rays are able reach the earth’s atmosphere, increasing the low cloud cover. The result of more cloud cover is a cooler climate and more lightning storms. When clouds develop ice crystals the clouds separate into positively-charged tops and negatively-charged cloud bottoms. Lightning strikes are not random; lightning is guided to soils with high accumulations of positive charges. The soil develops positive charges for a number of reasons including microorganism and fungi activity. Fungi mycelium hyphae grow from positively charged tips and prefer to grow in the alkaline soils which result after fires.

Lightning is known to emit significant electromagnetic energy. Credit: Windows to the Universe.

Electromagnetic Energy of Lightning

Lightning is known to emit significant electromagnetic energy. These energy bursts react with the air, releasing atmospheric nitrogen aerosols that are washed down in rainfall to the soil and are bioavailable as nitrogen fertilizer for plants. Galactic cosmic rays create cooler temperatures, more rain, and nitrogen fertilization which promotes abundant plant growth.

The Birds & the Bees

The Earth’s magnetosphere also plays a vital role in bird migrations. It was recently discovered that some birds use the lines of the Earth’s magnetic field to find their way to their breeding and wintering grounds—they navigate the globe by actually being able to see Earth’s magnetic field lines.

Bees have a positively electric relationship with flowers. Bumblebee wings beat more then

200 times per second. The flight is so rapid it causes the bees to collide with the tiny air particles. As the bees collide with the air particles, electrons are knocked off of the bees creating a positive static electrically-charged aura around the bee. Flowers rich in nectar have an invisible negatively charged electric fields which stimulate the sensory hairs on the bee’s head and draw the bee toward them. As the bee lands on the flower, the negatively-charged flower pollen leaps onto the bees, sticking to the bee’s positively-charged hairs. Some of the bee’s positive charge shifts onto the flower, changing its electric field aura and telling other bees the nectar bounty has been plundered and to forage elsewhere. This helps bees be more energy efficient in their foraging activities.

We live in an electromagnetic soup that is influenced by forces on earth, the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy, and beyond—into a universe full of supernovas. Even the honey made by the humble bee depends on galactic cosmic rays originating in galaxies far, far way. Life truly is a cooperative, magical, and mysterious electromagnetic creation beyond comprehension!


Marjorie Harris, IOIA VO and concerned organophyte.

Feature image: Electric fields of flowers stimulate the sensory hairs of bumblebees. Credit: Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

References:
Faraday and the Electromagnetic Theory of Light. bbvaopenmind.com/en/science/leading-figures/faraday-electromagnetic-theory-light/
Electric fields of flowers stimulate the sensory hairs of bumble bees, Bumblebee Conservation Trust bumblebeeconservation.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/03-StaticElectricity.1_v2.pdf
7020–7021, PNAS, June 28, 2016, vol. 113 no. 26 pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1607426113
Kaplan, M. Bumblebees sense electric fields in flowers. Nature (2013). doi.org/10.1038/nature.2013.12480
NASA Researchers Explore Lightning’s NOx-ious Impact on Pollution, Climate, 10.22.09
National Earth Science Teachers Association windows2universe.org/earth/Atmosphere/tstorm/lightning_formation.html&edu=high
The bee, the flower, and the electric field: electric ecology and aerial electroreception link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00359-017-1176-6

Agriculture Policy: What is All the Hoopla About?

in 2022/Climate Change/Current Issue/Grow Organic/Organic Standards/Standards Updates/Summer 2022

Mary Paradis

Most of Canada’s agricultural policy is delivered through five-year policy frameworks, co-developed and co-negotiated by the federal, provincial, and territorial governments. Meant to strengthen and grow Canada’s agriculture sector, the framework is agriculture’s primary policy document that guides how government supports farmers and has historically encompassed approximately $3 billion in public spending.

Farmers for Climate Solutions (FCS) is a national farmer-led coalition advocating to make agriculture part of the solution to climate change. In February, they submitted evidence-based recommendations for the next APF to scale-up the adoption of climate-friendly practices that reduce GHG emissions, increase carbon sequestration, and strengthen resilience on farms across Canada. As a member of Farmers for Climate Solutions, Organic BC has been supporting their efforts to make action on climate change central to the new APF.

The new agreement, called the Sustainable Canadian Agricultural Partnership (SCAP), was announced in July. Some of the positive outcomes of SCAP include:

  • $500 million in new funds for cost-share programs, a 25 percent increase from the current framework.
  • A commitment to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by three to five megatonnes over the lifespan of the framework.
  • A commitment to increase funding for Indigenous farmers and food providers, women farmers, and youth farmers.
  • $250 million for the Resilient Agricultural Landscape Program to fund farming practices that support carbon sequestration, adaptation, and other environmental co-benefits.
  • A one-year review period of current Business Risk Management (BRM) Programs to better integrate climate risk.
  • The requirement for large farms to perform an agri-environmental risk assessment or Environmental Farm Plan by 2025 to participate in AgriInvest.
  • A reiteration of the commitment to reduce emissions from nitrogen fertilizer by 30 percent.

Each province and territory will now negotiate specific agreements with the federal government on how the policies and funding will be implemented in their respective regions. Programs and services that are tailored to meet regional needs are cost shared, with the federal government contributing 60 percent and the provincial or territorial government contributing 40 percent.

As the bi-lateral negotiations take place over the coming months, Organic BC will continue to advocate for strong and responsive supports for all scales of farm operations in our province, to help both mitigate and adapt to climate change.

bit.ly/3woAIBx

farmersforclimatesolutions.ca


Feature image: Brassicas bursting with life. Credit: Thomas Buchan.

Organic Stories: OMRI

in 2022/Organic Standards/Organic Stories/Summer 2022

Behind the Scenes of Input Approvals

Matt Sircely

This year marks 25 years since the birth of the Organic Materials Review Institute, commonly known as OMRI. Two and a half decades in the organic sector means many lessons learned and advice to keep in mind as organics looks forward to the next quarter century.

Bridging the Certification Gaps

Founding OMRI board member Emily Brown Rosen remembers “when there was no national program, and multiple systems of certification with no accreditation, we had to rely a lot on each other…to try and bridge the gaps and differences. It was all very grassroots, and sometimes the separate tunnel-vision of each group caused problems.”

Early certifier councils helped iron out regional differences and OMRI’s founders intentionally sought broad geographical representation. Brown Rosen served as Policy Director at Pennsylvania Certified Organic before working at the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP). The lesson, she says, is “to continue building or participating in new alliances and consensus-building among the various sectors wherever possible.”

In her early 20’s at the time OMRI started, Kim Dietz supplied a handler’s perspective and support from Bill Knudsen’s juice company for preliminary discussions before OMRI’s founding. Review of materials for organic production was “disjointed” before federal regulation, says Dietz. “We brought the standards to the USDA and at the same time, this very active group of people saw that we could fill the gap with material review. I always say we started the National Organic Program with a skeleton and we slowly put the meat on the bones. And it was hard,” she says. “We all brought a strength to the table, and everybody was open to listening. Collectively we agreed on how OMRI should be founded, and the organic community the same way.”

Red Kuri squash. Credit: Moss Dance.

In the early days, Lynn Coody and the late Yvonne Frost from Oregon Tilth were already collaborating on materials lists with Brian Baker and Zea Sonnebend from California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). Coody explains that OMRI’s founders sought to standardize procedures for reviewing materials by “creating a national generic list, articulating criteria used to review materials, and documenting the steps in the materials review process.”

While not easy, she says, “there was a common understanding among the OMRI founders that we needed to come to solid agreements in order to support the evolution of the organic infrastructure, as well as a crucial trust in the goodwill, experience, and intelligence of our colleagues. I think some of these basic elements of cooperation are largely missing now, and that refocusing on them is the most important thing we can do to prepare for future challenges and opportunities.”

The first certifier councils introduced the West Coast founders to Bill Wolf, then board president of the Organic Foods Production Association of North America (OFPANA later became the Organic Trade Association, or OTA). OFPANA was developing its own organic input list, as was the Organic Crop Improvement Association in the Midwest, represented by the now late Peter Murray. Bill Wolf was elected as OMRI’s first board president, and Murray became vice president. Still farming in Virginia, Wolf says we are at a “critical juncture in the attempts to have harmony in the organic community, because the disharmony has become fractious enough so that there isn’t a good vehicle for having the different forces and belief systems within organic have a conversation. And in a way, OMRI served early on in that role, where everyone was at the table. OMRI could look to be a facilitator for some of that,” says Wolf. “So there’s an opportunity there, not to take a position necessarily, but to have a place for dialogue.”

The now-late Peter Murray, representing OMRI at the Expo East trade show in 1999. Murray held an early certifier seat on the OMRI Board of Directors. Credit: OMRI.

Trust and Unity

In classic startup style, Brian Baker drove with CCOF files in the bed of a pickup from California to Eugene, Oregon to open OMRI’s first office in Coody’s garage. “OMRI had to forego its advocacy role to build a reputation that it is fair, objective, and evidence-based in its evaluations. It was a price worth paying,” Baker says. “The development of organic standards was an inclusive, bottom-up approach that was open and transparent, so OMRI fit within that context. While not entirely based on consensus, the standards reflected broad agreement in many areas.”

Baker describes how the organic movement united in response to the USDA’s first proposed National Organic Program rule in 1997: “The organic community succeeded in meeting that threat head-on. It has not achieved that level of unity since.” Baker reflects that “ever since then, the organic community has been divided over standards issues, many of which are related to materials review.”

Dietz says OMRI should consider how to “step into the ring” to participate and even help facilitate. “The service that OMRI brings is these technical reviews. Very strong, scientific-based minds that can ground—can really bring people to understand a complex issue. If anybody can do it, OMRI can do it.”

Baker remembers OMRI’s initial work to convince organic product manufacturers of the value of sharing information with one trusted entity to gain broad acceptance among certifiers. Now, he sees a similar need for cooperation and information sharing: “Fertilizer and pesticide fraud pose a threat that cannot be ignored. OMRI can’t handle it alone. It will need to collaborate with other materials review organizations, regulatory agencies, and law enforcement. It is now clear that organic fraud is a persistent problem, not as isolated as once thought, and that we are dealing with international organized crime. International cooperation is needed to address a global problem.”

Dietz worked on an OTA task force to develop new anti-fraud tools. “We’ve opened ourselves up for vulnerability in those areas,” she says, noting higher organic prices intrinsically invite fraud. “So we have to protect the supply chain.” She hopes the movement worldwide sees the National Organic Program as “the foundation” for organic standards. “If a country makes their stance and says, ‘You’re not doing that in our country,’ then it could change the other rules, because you want everybody to try to be as harmonious as possible for trade.” OMRI can help, she says, “in those areas where there’s controversy and it’s not settled yet.”

Lettuce seedlings. Credit: Moss Dance.

Building New Bridges

With an eye toward the future, Baker notes the “growing number of OMRI Listed® products that are made, sold, and used entirely within Mexico. It is not clear when or even if the USDA will reach an equivalency agreement with Mexico, or what issues will need to be addressed.” He says a renegotiation between the US and European Union (EU) is “nearly certain” before 2025. “Producers in developing countries would benefit from consistent standards in the US and EU, and many of these are inputs-related,” he says, adding: “I have long seen Canada and Australia as key to the harmonization of international organic standards.”

Towards this international harmonization, Brown Rosen advises to “keep abreast of new developments domestically and internationally. Look for partners and allies that can expand OMRI’s presence.” She notes OMRI could engage the advisory boards of state and federal regulatory agencies in the US and abroad. “It will help if OMRI becomes appreciated by more of the traditional ag regulatory groups, since organic is going more and more mainstream.” Brown Rosen cites “ongoing concerns” about fumigation issues at border crossings and “recent agreements between APHIS, US Customs, and NOP,” and wonders “if there is any role OMRI can provide with education, information, or research.”

Baker explains how OMRI historically hired and trusted talented people, adding that the Advisory Council and Review Panel helped attract expertise. The organic industry is currently experiencing a shortage of qualified people, and “materials review requires a specialized set of skills that requires training. It comes down to having a team of talented, dedicated people who know their stuff.” Baker suggests more technical outreach “to train extension agents and producers to understand the place of materials within an ecological systems approach. OMRI’s role in research and education are vital,” he says, to help producers “be more successful and better stewards of the land, water, and other natural resources.”

“Fundamentally, organic has become a much faster-moving industry than 25 years ago,” says Wolf. “So, capacity to move labels and decisions through the system is really critical.” Organic industry growth represents a “60-fold increase in a fairly short period of time, and to try to measure what that means, and what has to happen to change the paradigm, the fact is the system wasn’t designed to deal with the volume that exists today.”

The proposed standard for inert ingredients signals that many new operations will be brought into the sphere of organic verification, and oversight requirements will increase for some OMRI reviews. The industry now produces “mostly very complex products,” Wolf says. “Pet food, fish, aquatic standards” are among the issue areas that require inputs, along with understanding of those inputs. Streamlining systems is critical, he says, also suggesting flexibility around creating a “Miscellaneous” listing category to accommodate products outside standard listing categories. Hearkening to the naming of OMRI, Wolf stands by his original notion of including “Research.” OMRI could provide efficacy research with “comparisons, trials, and tests to verify that the inputs are exactly what they say they are.”

Coody suggests OMRI convene a think tank to approach challenges both “expansively” and “practically,” and including “organic elders to retain institutional knowledge.” In government-run organic programs, “the regulation of the organic inputs sector is in its early stages, and OMRI can offer extensive experience,” she says, specifically identifying “material review organization accreditation, improved auditing of materials review systems, and preventing and identifying fraud in the input sector. OMRI’s technical expertise is essential in ensuring that inputs are used not only in compliance with organic regulations, but in line with organic principles.”

Brown Rosen recommends more proactive consultation with certification agencies. “Perhaps a small committee of the materials experts from each member agency could meet periodically,” identify unsolved problems, and contribute insights on important issues to the OMRI advisory council. “In addition to certifier materials experts, it would be nice to get some university scientists with appropriate expertise.” If possible, “getting a NOP person on board the advisory council would be very helpful—I did it for a while when I was at NOP (as a non-voting member), so there is precedent.” She says it would help foster communication and offer “insight on potential problem areas coming down the road.”

For each step of organic evolution, “we have to keep the intention, and go back to those organic principles.” Dietz describes an increasing reliance on the private sector to act and lead in accordance with the organic principles. “For OMRI to be successful, for the trade to be successful, we have to continue to do what we think is right.”

Dietz cheers the founders living today: “Active! We’re still active. That was a long time ago, but we’re just as passionate as we were back then. There is no difference. We’re still fighting the good fight. It’s fun. It’s good. We believe in it.”

omri.org


Matt Sircely has written for OMRI since 2006. Most at home in his garden on the Olympic Peninsula, Matt writes songs and performs and teaches mandolin. Over the years he has become a familiar face in the BC fiddle scene.

OMRI supports organic integrity by developing clear information and guidance about materials, so that producers know which products are appropriate for organic operations. OMRI is a non-profit that provides an independent review of products, such as fertilizers, pest controls, livestock health care products, and numerous other inputs that are intended for use in certified organic production and processing. OMRI also provides technical support and training for professionals in the organic industry.

Featured image credit: OMRI

Finding the Rhythm of Agroforestry

in 2022/Climate Change/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Summer 2022/Tools & Techniques/Water Management

Andrew Adams

Trees, shrubs, and seeds all wait to begin a lifetime or two of photosynthesizing sugars for human and animal consumption and enjoyment.

The road where Walter’s backhoe broke in a muck of two summers of nonstop rain is now ditched and has a new layer of gravel. Part of me broke in that spot. I walked away from that machine until the following spring when I magically got it out despite its broken axle.

The field has its drainage ditches dug for freshet or non-stop rain.

There are many ponds on the property now and I want more.

My back is feeling well and my heart still says go forth and plant.

For several years, I was always happy working way more acres than someone should with basically no machines. I had always been athletic and loved to challenge my body as well as my mind. Three hard summers in a row, a handful of years working in the bush while farming, and two kids later, I am no longer 25.

I sat on an advisory committee on climate change adaptation for farmers a few years ago and the models were stark. As soon as I saw the models, what was predicted to happen in 10 years started happening now. And we felt it.

The shake up in the world’s food system and transportation system over the past few years was jarring to most individuals within reach of a satellite dish or radio wave. We were no different.

Glorious tomatoes. Credit: Andrew Adams.

I had a local friend and restaurant owner come to me during the beginning of the pandemic and say, “It’s happening just like you said it would with food shortages. I thought you were crazy.” I likely am crazy, as it runs in my family, but I think it’s been obvious to many that our system of growing and transporting food is a bit broken.

There was nothing like facing record-breaking weather events, disasters, a pandemic, and supply chain disruptions—and now having two kids—to spur me into thinking long-term a bit harder.

Two things became apparent to me: we needed to expand our greenhouse side of the farm to mitigate the effects of our already harsh environment (we are on class 7 land), and we needed to make plans for long-term resiliency and move quickly because I am not getting any younger, as they say.

We expanded our greenhouse operations with loans, sweat from friends and family members, and lots of studying. Now, we can grow large volumes of annual vegetable crops relatively safe from the major challenges of the season. Basically, we reduced our risk on our annual income.

It was time to start the long-term project.

The soil is alive. Credit: Andrew Adams.

We had read of Indigenous food forests being found in what is known to many as British Columbia and standing the test of time.

We had dabbled over the years in trialing various varieties of berry plants, fruit trees, etc., just by placing them in our clay soil and watching them year by year. We watched some die and we watched some thrive and we watched some just exist in a state of almost cryogenesis in our gleysolic clay and we knew their native cousins in the forest.

We watched native species of fruit-bearing shrubs and nut-producing trees provide nearly every year to our family and to the wildlife despite the type of season it was weather-wise.

A good dear friend who I would call an adopted mother and mentor in the world of local botany and growing in difficult climates had a library and then-some of all the information we needed to pursue this adventure.

We began studying more often about trees and shrubs and visiting my mentor every week to soak up as much information as I could, and then we made the decision. This past year, I purchased prodigious amounts of seed, shrubs, flowering plants, and equipment.

The field will be laid out with wind breaks of willow and red osier dogwood to provide not only wind break but food for wildlife if they out-sneak the guard dogs. A wall of dessert to keep them from browsing the more valuable human-destined crops. It will encircle the field like a horseshoe with the open end facing the south.

A forest of food starts with good intentions and seed. Pictured here are butternut seeds, related to walnuts and pecans. Credit: Andrew Adams.

The next interior layer will be flowering shrubs for pollinators and nesting song birds, followed by apple trees and small “thickets” of butternut trees. The next layer of the agroforest will be the Saskatoon and then Haskap berries. And within the all layers, various native plant species will be reintroduced within the population for more diversity.

The orchard will take a few years to begin bearing fruit physically but it will continue do so with minimal input—as opposed to our annual vegetable crops—once established. Much of the maintenance of the field can be done with our implements and tractor which is a huge bonus, because apparently you can’t work 18-hour days on the farm and be the best dad in the world.

I hope my boys and the community (which includes the local ecosystem) will benefit from the orchard but like all projects, only time will tell, and the time will be marked in the rings of lignified carbon.

If it works financially once up and going, we have plenty more acres that will receive the same silvicultural prescription based on local ecosystem observation.

Is this regenerative agriculture? Is this permaculture? I really don’t like to place labels on anything and some folks are down right cultish about some of those words. How about we call it a slow dance with the ecosystem in which we are all in step.

Transportation disruptions. Credit: Andrew Adams.

hopefarmorganics.com


Andrew Adams is the co-founder and farmer at Hope Farm Organics in Prince George. Andrew has a Bachelor’s of Science in Agriculture from Kansas State University and his partner Janie has a Bachelor of education. After seeing the state of food security and agriculture in the north the two felt obligated to make real change in the form of organic food production and thus created Hope Farm in 2011.

Feature image: Walking through the potato patch. Credit: Andrew Adams.

Biodynamic Farm Story: (Still) Waiting for Spring

in 2022/Climate Change/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Summer 2022/Tools & Techniques

Anna Helmer

I have found it too cold to even consider applying Biodynamic Preparations so far this year. There’s no rule about it being too cold—it’s just a feeling I have. A shivery one. Instead, I have been contenting myself Biodynamically with further fiddling in our forested areas. The idea is to open things up so that there is a little more airflow. It’s hugely symbolic work, although there is an argument to be made around reducing flammable brush. Optional Biodynamic forestry work will be dropped in a hot minute as soon as the fields are dry enough for cultivating and planting.

I am sure that will be any day. Usually by now the potatoes are all in, but not this year. Today we started with some tentative cultivating—just enough to mix the cover crop into the very top layer of clammy soil. Of course, now it is pouring rain so back to square one. This is unheard-of lateness. Theoretically, everything will catch up. I’ve also been reading, and just finished, Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard. In it, the author describes a lifetime of study that began with the realization that a forest is more than sum of its parts. It culminates in a deep scientific understanding of the complexity of connection and symbiosis that must be established to allow re-planted forests to thrive.

Obviously, these conclusions have been drawn before. In agriculture, Rudolph Steiner and his Biodynamic lectures are the case in point. He died before fleshing out his arguments to the same extent, unfortunately. They follow a similar theme: when you are trying to grow things in nature, you had better consider nature.

When I wasn’t busy being enthralled by her narrative and picking up interesting little forestry tidbits (did you know that birch mulch tastes sweet?), I was busy being despairing. All these things matter so much. And yet.

I fear the weather this spring is causing me to get in touch with my inner pessimist, and  lately, it has unfortunately been coupled with a holier-than-thou mindset. This charming self-righteousness stems from the high price of fertilizer and the fact that we don’t use it. Just cover crops and the power of the universe here.

My moodiness won’t settle in for long because there is exactly zero basis for superiority, and I am sure the next fuel bill will provide an effective attitude adjustment lever. We are not at all a proper Biodynamic Farm—one that provides everything needed from within the farm. Those farmers may legitimately gloat. I, meanwhile, am a farmer with virtually no cash crop in the ground in May. I should have no trouble feeling humble.

There. Humbled. Moving on.

My big excitement today was realizing that I have a lot of juicy potato sprouts to add to my compost. This is the upside of waiting so long to get planting—the potatoes have sprouted and they get knocked off when we run them over the sorting table. They are accumulating quickly and making a solid layer on the compost pile. I don’t know what sort of a compost feed stock they will be, but it’s what I got.

Tomorrow, my favourite spring job: cutting seed potatoes. I am hoping for company. It’s an excellent talking task, and the very epitome of many hands making light work. This year, we’ll huddle under cover as the wintery spring deluges pass though the valley. In the sunny breaks, we’ll admire the fresh snow on the mountains.

The bad mood will be gone.


Anna Helmer farms in the Pemberton Valley and discovered there’s morels under the Cottonwoods. helmersorganic.com

Feature Image: Fawn Lily. Credit: Dean Diamond

A Canadian Organic Program to Grow Sustainable Agriculture for Canada and the World

in 2022/Organic Standards/Standards Updates/Summer 2022

Organic Federation of Canada

Canadian farmers are already experiencing serious negative impacts of climate change due to extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, forest fires, and ocean acidification—but resilient agriculture delivers ecological services and sets the path for food security amid climate change turmoil.

In alignment with what the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations proposes in terms of climate-smart agriculture, the Canadian Organic Standards prescribe effective strategies to foster the emergence of a carbon-neutral economy in the food sector.

The Canadian Organic Standards include practices that contribute significantly to reducing our agricultural sector’s greenhouse gas emissions, sequestering atmospheric carbon in soils and increasing biodiversity, while encouraging the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices, increasing agricultural resilience to the effects of climate change (particularly flooding and drought) and increasing farm income.

Canada is considered to be the 6th largest organic market in the world, and organic sales are growing at an impressive rate ($8.1 B in 2020). Despite a steady increase in production, supply is not keeping up with demand, both domestically and internationally. This offers great opportunities for the future.

The Canadian Organic Standards, referenced by law, define ecological agriculture as the basis of the whole industry; the standards need to be maintained and updated. Under the Canada Organic Regime, the Standards Interpretation Committee harmonizes the certification process by providing independent guidance to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) on issues related to the standards.

Since 2017, the Government of Canada has drastically reduced its support for organic agriculture:

  • The Canada Organic Office, created in 2009 by the CFIA to address regulatory issues, was dissolved in 2017.
  • The Organic Value Chain Round Table, mandated to analyze the Canadian organic sector’s competitive position and improve its performance and profitability, was dissolved in 2019 by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC).
  • The Standards Interpretation Committee, created by the CFIA in 2009 and funded by CFIA to provide independent guidance to the industry on issues related to the standards, will see its funding ended in 2023 (reduced by 54% in 21-22 and in 22-23).
  • The Canadian Organic Standards are referenced in the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations. The Canadian General Standards Board, which owns the Standards, requires a mandatory review every five years. But the federal government has not budgeted for future revisions. AAFC clearly states that they will not fund any future review.

The organic industry needs a Canada Organic Program to increase the sustainability of Canadian agriculture, assure access to markets and continue to ensure competitiveness. Other jurisdictions have implemented such programs to support their respective organic industries. The USDA and EU fund the maintenance of their organic standards.1 The USDA funds the Organic Cost Share Certification Program which provides cost share assistance to producers and handlers, and has created the USDA Organic Integrity Database to promote the growth of agricultural ecological practices and prevent fraud. The European Commission has set a target of at least 25% of the EU’s agricultural land under organic farming and a significant increase in organic aquaculture by 2030. In Europe, many countries offer direct support to their organic producers with an annual subsidy per hectare, with the objective of encouraging the maintenance of organic management practices over the long term.

Michelle Tsutsumi in the fields at Golden Ears Farm. Credit: Thomas Buchan.

What a Canada Organic Program will Accomplish

Different support measures are needed to increase Canadian agriculture’s sustainability, assure access to organic markets, and continue to ensure the competitiveness of our organic industry through a Canada Organic Program. An effective Canada Organic Program should include support measures addressing four elements:

  • Market access through a sound regulatory framework
  • Growth in capacity
  • Increased funding for organic research and knowledge transfer
  • Recognition of the organic sector’s contribution to sustainability
  • Market Access Through A Sound Regulatory Framework

The Canadian Organic Standards are owned by the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) and establish the requirements that agricultural producers and food processors must meet to ensure the legitimacy of Canadian organic products. This allows Canadian businesses to access markets, both in Canada and internationally, by ensuring that their organic claims are true. The Standards, put in place by the Safe Food for Canadians Regulation are thus the basis of the entire regulatory and certification system surrounding organic products, both for products sold outside their province of origin and for imported and exported products.

The CGSB Policy and Procedures Manual states that every standard shall be reviewed every five years. An unrevised standard is no longer relevant and a standard that has been published for more than five years cannot be amended (CGSB Manual clause 6.11.9). The CGSB may withdraw a standard if there are insufficient funds to update it (6.12.1), or if maintenance of the standard no longer meets CGSB requirements (6.12.2.3).

Canada establishes organic equivalency arrangements with other countries only if the signatories determine that the two regulatory systems involved, including their standards, assure that equivalent principles and outcomes are achieved in both jurisdictions.2 The Canadian organic industry cannot remain competitive if the Standards are not reviewed periodically to remain comparable to the standards of other countries, and equivalency agreements could be withdrawn. This would compromise access to international markets for Canadian organic products.

Funding for Five-Year Reviews of the Standards

The Canadian Organic Standards have been reviewed twice, once in 2015 and a second time in 2020.

For the first review in 2015, the Assurance Systems Stream under the AgriMarketing Program through AAFC contributed $297,414 to the Organic Federation of Canada (OFC) to cover part of the cost. Fundraising to industry stakeholders led by the OFC contributed $83,490 in cash, while stakeholders’ in-kind contributions amounted to a total of $16,062. The costs incurred by the CGSB were covered by the Standards Council of Canada.

For the 2020 Standards review process, AAFC’s Canadian Agricultural Adaptation Program, a program that has since been terminated, funded a total of $292,554 to the OFC. Industry cash contributions amounted to $59,000 and in-kind contributions were $39,000. AAFC also covered CGSB costs, a budget of over $200,000.

Government funding of the Standards review through ad hoc programs is not viable in the long-term. In 2022, the federal government is asking industry to pay for the costs of future Standards review work itself. However, industry funding of the Standards review is seen as a threat to the independence and integrity of the process. Also, there is no funding mechanism, such as a check-off program, that allows all operators and industry stakeholders to contribute equitably to the funding of the review work.

The USDA and EU publicly fund the review of their organic standards without any financial contributions from industry. If the Canadian organic sector were to attempt to cover the cost of reviewing the Canadian Organic Standards, Canada will be at a competitive disadvantage with stakeholders in competing countries.

Considering all these factors, the Canadian government needs to implement a Canada Organic Program that assures the independence of the review process by instituting permanent government funding for the mandatory five-year reviews of the Standards imposed by CGSB.

 

The Regulatory Role of the Standards Interpretation Committee

The Standards Interpretation Committee harmonizes the certification process by providing clarification to the CFIA when certified operators and Certification Bodies ask questions about the standards.

The Standards Interpretation Committee must be an independent, credible and impartial entity. The Committee must be funded by the CFIA, not by industry. Rather than abolishing the funding provided to the Standards Interpretation Committee since 2009, the Canadian government should maintain and even increase funding. This support is important to harmonize the certification process, maintain its independence, and accelerate the work of the Committee so questions can be answered in a timely fashion.

A Canada Organic Regime Integrity Database

Listing the certified organic operators under the Canada Organic Regime on a national database comparable to the USDA Organic Integrity Database will promote the growth of agricultural ecological practices and prevent fraud. This can only be accomplished by government.

Growth in Capacity

The government of Canada invests in organic businesses through various programs that are not specifically targeted towards organic production and processing. However, businesses producing organic products may have specific needs. Investing in organic processing and distribution capacity is essential to guarantee the supply to meet a growing demand for organic products, both in Canada and internationally.

Also, AAFC’s AgriMarketing Program provides funds to facilitate market connections between farmers and buyers and increase international market development. This type of funding needs to be increased through the Canada Organic Program to focus on organic market connections and development.

Increased Funding for Research and Knowledge Transfer

Organic agriculture should be recognized as a driving force in developing agricultural practices designed to conserve soil, water, and biodiversity. To support the adoption of such practices by the greater farming community, the government of Canada needs to aim long-term resilience of agroecosystems to climate change and to share the risk between farm businesses and society. This involves substantial support for research and knowledge transfer in organic practices.

Offering more government funding for research that seeks a greater understanding of agroecosystems, looks to develop alternatives to fossil fuel-based inputs, and increases on-farm technical assistance for organic practices, through a Canada Organic Program, is thus more than justified.

Recognition of the Organic Sector’s Contribution to Sustainability

The European Commission’s “Farm to Fork” strategy for a fair, healthy, and environmentally friendly food system aims to allocate at least 25% of EU farmland to organic farming by 2030. To achieve this, an action plan includes direct support for organic production, on the basis of an annual payment per hectare, to encourage the maintenance of practices associated with organic farming, ensuring their implementation over the long term. This type of measure applies significant leverage on the rate of conversion to organic agriculture. Very often, the payments per hectare are justified by the reward for positive externalities and partly financed by the deployment of taxes on pesticides.

A Canada Organic Program needs to include the recognition of, and financial compensation for, ecological goods and services and health and societal benefits associated with organic farm management practices.

In North America, although there is more support focused on investment assistance and relatively less action in favour of environmental payments, the USDA funds the Organic Cost Share Certification Program, which provides cost share assistance to producers and handlers of agricultural products who are obtaining or renewing their certification. Certified operations may be reimbursed for up to 50% of their certification costs paid during the program year. Because this program is based on recurrent assistance, not just support for transitional growers, it supports the practice of keeping land certified for years to come.

In order for Canadian organic businesses to remain competitive, a Canada Organic Program needs to implement a certification cost-share program to organic operators, offering, at minimum, the same benefits as those in the equivalent Farm Bill program.

Towards an Organic Future

In all countries with a structured organic sector, the budget devoted directly or indirectly to the development of organic agriculture is increasing. In general, assistance programs in favour of maintaining good practices are multiplying to sustain a form of agriculture that meets the challenges of sustainable development and climate change.

A Canada Organic Program is a must: organic agriculture maintains soil health, prevents climate change and promotes biodiversity. This is the responsibility of our federal government as this affects organic consumers, processors, and the thousands of farmers who grow organic food and feed.


Feature image: Arzeena Hamir cleaning Annie Jackson beans. Credit: Thomas Buchan.

References
1. Union des producteurs agricoles (2021). Benchmarking of support measures for organic farming in Quebec to other jurisdictions. upa.qc.ca/wp-content/uploads/filebase/Benchmarking_support_measures_organic_farming_Quebec_to_other_jurisdictions_2021-04.pdf
2. Organic equivalency arrangements with other countries (CFIA, 2021) inspection.canada.ca/organic-products/equivalence-arrangements/eng/1311987562418/1311987760268

Footnotes from the Field: Cause and Effect

in 2022/Climate Change/Footnotes from the Field/Summer 2022

The Relationship Between Religions, Agriculture, and Civilizations

Marjorie Harris

“The way we see the world shapes the way we treat it. If a mountain is a deity, not a pile of ore…if a forest is a sacred grove, not timber; if other species are biological kin, not resources; or if the planet is our mother, not an opportunity… then we will treat each other with greater respect. Thus is the challenge, to look at the world from a different perspective.” – David Suzuki

David Suzuki has provided a provocative consideration about how we perceive the world and how that impacts our treatment of the world and each other. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Brian Snyder, a recently retired executive director of Ohio State University’s Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT) program, to discuss similar ideas about how agriculture impacts the world and ourselves.

Brian has 40 years of experience managing programs having to do with agriculture and food systems, with a business degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a theological degree from Harvard. He is just the expert to expand an understanding on the cause and effect of our world perceptions and the results we are harvesting.

Brian has been observing agricultural systems and their underlying religious philosophies, and he has come to the startling conclusion that all religions emerged to explain and justify cultural systems that run contrary to natural systems, and seek to overcome natural systems. Religion is often a justification for things that are contrary to nature, rather than a set of principles to build one’s life upon—as we have been led to believe by consumerist belief systems embedded into the foundations of the world’s religious systems.

Reframing History

For the bulk of human history people have been hunter-gatherers subject to the cycles of nature, whether they be feast or famine. With the archeological discovery of the Gobekli Tepe, the entire understanding modern scholars had about the origin of agriculture in relationship to religion was flipped upside down. The Gobekli Tepe temple structures are located in the Cappadocia region of northern Turkey and have been dated to 15,000 years old. They are now identified as the world’s oldest and first temples. The Gobekli Tepe temple complex was built before the beginning of agriculture, as agriculture is thought to have been established about 10,000 years ago. No evidence of domestic grains or livestock are present at the Gobekli Tepe site, only wild animal bones.

Until Gobekli Tepe’s discovery, it was thought that religion had been developed in response to the rise of agriculture. That theory has now been challenged, with an alternative interpretation being that agriculture developed in response to a religious presence—the rise of agriculture is coincident with the rise of religion. As Brian explains, religions can function to justify the use of agriculture to grow human populations beyond the natural carrying capacity of the land. The intentional raising of crops through tillage in an organized way created an abundance of food, providing more than was needed for the population.

From a cultural standpoint, this was an inflection point: the abundance of food led people to take the false belief that they were in control; yet nature is still, and always will be, beyond human control with regard to climate and the geological and celestial movements that control the growing seasons.

Brian observes that there is some sort of inherent divine presence that looks after all these things in the world. As depicted in the Christian Garden of Eden creation story, humanity started in the garden where nature took care of itself and provided for the people. At the point where people started to grow gardens and livestock for themselves, they seized governance for themselves, from nature. This is recorded in Genesis as the Fall of Man—human beings taking control of this natural process, with the idea of growing the population beyond what the land could naturally support.

The Cain and Abel story is an explicit struggle between livestock and crops over famine, water quality, and food security. Humanity hasn’t moved beyond these basic struggles, which have existed since the beginning of agriculture. In other religions, reincarnation offers a way to survive current problems and come back, without ever questioning what there will be to come back to if there is extinction?

Losing Ourselves to “Feed the World”

Today’s agricultural rhetoric is that we have to feed the world. We must be ready to feed people who are not here yet, have not been born yet—under the industrial corporate agriculture system the population will continue to grow unabated. The result of this rhetoric will be a further reduction in ecosystem biodiversity and biodiversity of crop-types, through the direct corporate control and ownership over the genetic materials for seeds and livestock.

Here is the challenge for humanity. It is both spiritual and scientific. What was divine was biodiversity propagating itself and creating ecosystem abundance in response to the natural environments. The population has grown beyond the carrying capacity of the earth already and reduction of species has been dramatic in recent decades. These events are playing out in the final Fall of Man—in the Christian mythos, as humankind’s punishment the ground will produce only thistles and weeds.

The sixth extinction is on the horizon.

There is controversy around humanity’s immense control over the quantity of food varieties, which have been radically reduced in number. In Pre-Columbian times in Peru there were over 3,000 varieties of potatoes growing in unique ecosystems. The Indigenous peoples would have considered each variety of potato to be a completely different type of crop. Over the past 500 years, with selective breeding programs and the spread of the potato worldwide, the global food system now depends on less than 30 varieties. Reliance on just three varieties of potato helped to precipitate the great Irish potato famine of the mid 19th century. Our ever-increasing dependence on soybeans and corn with reduced genetic diversity places humankind on the brink of the most tragic circumstance—that is, a worldwide catastrophe.

The organic agriculture ideal is to take spent land and regenerate it, to create sustainable agriculture systems. This highlights one of the challenges we face, the challenge of changing how we see the world.

Food companies are designed to maximize resources and monetary returns, rather than the methods used to regenerate the land and diversity of species. Corporate interests funnel genetics into a reduced sphere of diversity. Industrial farming with artificial commercially-produced inputs is all about farming as a necessity to continue to expand the population. From the Brazilian Amazon rainforest to the northern Boreal forests of Canada, generally accepted farming methods are to cut and burn the forest for land, strip the soils of nutrients by cropping, and then moving on to cut and burn more forests for more crop land.

At this point, there is no meaningful pushback from end consumers and farmers. The vast majority of people do not feel a strong inclination to turn the system around. Humans continue to consume unabated without concern. The consumer rhetoric is for the population to grow.

Expanding Our Approach

Hunters and gatherers were adapted to what nature provides. What was the trigger that catapulted humans into religion and agriculture? Perhaps there were evolutionary stressors that led humans to think that they could move beyond dependence on natural systems.

Genesis speaks of the knowledge of Good and Evil, where human beings think that they understand how things work, and then turn things to around to what they think most benefits humans. Bending nature to produce more than it naturally would, and then worshipping the human capacity to overcome natural processes.

Once you have the ears to hear the reductionist approach, it echoes in every news cycle. People are concerned about financial inflation first, then climate change and food security as afterthoughts. A shift is required in the way we see the world and each other. The solution is both spiritual and scientific.

“Thus is the challenge, to look at the world from a different perspective.” – David Suzuki


Marjorie Harris, IOIA VO and concerned organophyte.

Feature image: Göbekli Tepe detail. Credit: (CC) Davide Mauro.

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