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Biodynamic Farm Story: Convergence & Composting Chaos

in 2022/Climate Change/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Soil/Winter 2022

By Anna Helmer

Well, I am thrilled to discover that the likely theme for this edition of BC Organic Grower magazine is: Composting Chaos. The suggestion that chaos may be composted is encouraging and practical…and it is always a treat to find something compostable that is in such good supply. Further thrills at the possibility of extending the concept to include the composting of lived experiences, especially those whose silver lining is perceived to be absent, invisible, or inadequate. The composting metaphor is very supportive: just stash it all in a heap until a more palatable, useful, and frankly understandable state is revealed.

I am obviously over-thrilled, and I will now tone it down. Composting takes ages, of course. These things don’t happen overnight.

I am certainly not over-thrilled at what I feel was a weak performance this year on the farm, biodynamically speaking. I didn’t accomplish very much of what I set out to do. I had grand plans to make some preparations, attend more zoom lectures, plant the garden according to the Celestial Planting Calendar, and generally advance myself towards being thought of as a wise, middle-aged, biodynamic farmer.

In fact, I didn’t do any of that, and I even took steps backwards. Not in ageing, unfortunately. Still relentlessly marching along that path, sorry to say.

The season started with a good old case of undermining myself: I did not apply BD 500 to the carrot field even though I have always known that a good carrot crop is conditional upon a spring application of BD 500. Other factors contribute of course: a June 1 planting date, into moist soil prepared just so; the crop to be hand-weeded twice, mechanically weeded thrice; judiciously watered but not wantonly; and harvest commencing no earlier than the third Monday in August. All that and very little more often guarantees a successful carrot crop in terms of yield, storability, and most importantly taste.

Early in the spring I improperly mixed BD 500 using assorted batches of stale-dated preparation—just to get rid of the clutter, really. I applied it within flinging distance of the barrel in a non-intentional manner. I didn’t go anywhere near the carrot-field-to-be, assuming I could be relied upon to complete the task closer to the planting date, at a more propitious time indicated by the calendar, and with something a little fresher and properly prepared. I did not do that.

I thought for sure the carrot crop was doomed but that was just the beginning. We proceeded to somehow insert change into just about every other aspect of successful Helmer carrot cropping procedure. Planting dates, seeder set-up, spacing, cultivation plan, mechanical weeding plan, and watering schedule: it was carrot chaos, really.

Jumping to the end of what has become a boring carrot story, we got a big crop of great-tasting carrots that seems to be storing well. It is an absolute mystery of variables, and I must kick myself for failing to properly apply BD 500 because now that doesn’t get to be part of the success calculus.

Hence, I am extra keen to flatter myself that the cull potato compost pile, carefully finished with some lovely compost preparations from our friends at the Biodynamic Association of BC, is quite gloriously successful. In terms of structure and appearance it does indeed look promising: it looks like a heap of rich dark soil and there are no longer potatoes visible.

It did not look at all promising to begin with, and although it reached temperature twice, I think that just encouraged the potatoes to grow more, seeing as they were nice and warm. With great gobs of them merrily sprouting and creating new potatoes it all seemed a bit futile.

My final move was to mix it, pile it nicely, cover it with hay, and apply the compost preparations. Since then, it has been through a heat dome and three heat waves, then three months of solid rain. It sits perched on a bit of high ground in a flooded field. It has basically been abandoned.   

The current plan, then, is to ignore it till next spring. I’ll open it up for a look and decide if it is ready for that most stern test of quality: application to soil. Expectations are managed.

In the meantime, I am building the next cull potato compost pile, adding a few hundred pounds every other week or so as we wash and sort the crop. It looks like more culls than last year. There are whacks of maple and birch leaves layered in, and hay. I’d like to get some seaweed, next time I am at the seashore, and I am considering drenching it from time to time with BD 500, the Biodynamic gateway drug of which I’ve got extra.

My biodynamic journey chugs along, I suppose, although I am refraining from setting biodynamic goals for next season. I am still far too busy composting the last one.

Anna Helmer farms with her family in Pemberton, BC where the current mission is finding the right winter work gloves.

Feature image: Compost in hand. Credit: Thomas Buchan.

What is Agriculture’s Legacy?

in 2022/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Organic Standards/Tools & Techniques/Winter 2022

Book Review: Toxic Legacy by Stephanie Seneff

By Hans Forstbauer

I recently read Toxic Legacy by Stephanie Seneff, a quintessential book on the agricultural chemical glyphosate. Her book has assembled and consolidated decades of research and data giving an in-depth explanation of the devastating impact this chemical has had—and continues to have—on not only human life, but all life on earth.

When glyphosate was patented as an herbicide in 1974, they said it was as safe as drinking water. My first thought was, how could something that kills everything be as safe as drinking water?

I was introduced to this chemical at a horticultural short course in the late ’70s. The instructor of the course was the head of the Federal Research Centre in Saanich, where they tested pesticides for approval for use on agricultural crops for Health Canada.

At the end of his presentation, the instructor said there is one caveat: do not use the chemical glyphosate in your greenhouses because it will take three to four years before anything will grow again. This led me to the conclusion that it doesn’t disappear; in fact, it remains in the environment for many years after use. In a greenhouse setting, water evaporates and condenses on the plastic or glass of the greenhouse and falls back down on the plants. The plants die. The glyphosate doesn’t disappear; it remains in the water and continues to kill. The lie that it disappears was exposed, yet the marketing machine continued even when they knew what they were selling was a lie.

Despite the known dangers of glyphosate, today close to 4.2 billion pounds are being used annually worldwide. Bayer, the chemical company who is now responsible for the use of glyphosate, agreed to pay over 10 billion dollars to end glyphosate-related law suits in the USA. Currently, 32 countries are in the process of fully or partially banning the use of glyphosate. But just this year, Canada and the USA approved the use of glyphosate for another 13 to 15 years! By 2023, Bayer will be withdrawing glyphosate from the retail market; it will only be available for agricultural use. Which leads me to ask: if it isn’t safe for the average person to use, how is it safe for it to be used on the food we eat?

Hans Forstbauer. Credit: Forstbauer Farm

Today as I sit here and try to make sense of the apparent insanity of what seems to be the “zeitgeist” of our time, I feel the sting of smoke-filled air in my nostrils, my mouth, my lungs, and my eyes. Yes, it is 1:30 in the morning and it is 26 degrees outside. This surely must be a record high/low. Earlier it was 38 degrees Celsius and as the sun went across the western sky, it looked like a filtered moon because of all the smoke.

Global warming is really kicking in. There are floods, winds, fires, and a pandemic across the entire globe like never experienced before. The reasons for this seeming catastrophe of global warming is the excessive use of fossil fuels and the way our agriculture and the world food systems are set up. Studies show that chemical farming not only makes us sick, but also makes everything it comes in contact with sick or dead. Furthermore, it stops carbon sequestering. Studies show that organic practices can sequester up to 16 tonnes of carbon per acre per year. One of the deadliest chemicals ever approved for use in agriculture is glyphosate, more commonly known as Round Up. A chemical that kills all living plants and a whole range of bacteria probably isn’t that safe. We were told it disappears rapidly, but because it is water soluble, it only appears that way.

Genetically engineered crops, such as corn, soy, and cotton are modified to be glyphosate-resistant which guarantees the use of glyphosate. More than 65 countries label GMO foods, including the USA (using QR codes). Despite more than 80% of Canadians wanting GMO foods labeled, two free parliamentary votes to label GMO foods in Canada failed to pass both times. What is wrong with our country? Why is glyphosate so bad and why is it still so widely used?

Einstein said, “Don’t do anything that goes against your conscience even if your government says so.” Many world governments, including our own, say the use of glyphosate is safe, but there is overwhelming evidence that it is not. To change the world, we have to become more active, more organized, more passionate, and more vocal about how our life is directly impacted by the life around us and in us. It is not good enough to just farm organically and regeneratively when the overwhelming majority of agribusiness which is so closely linked to the fossil fuel industry is making our earth, us included, sick.

Become educated, become aware. Read Toxic Legacy by Stephanie Seneff and as Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Just thoughts,

Hans Forstbauer, the natural earth farmer.

Feature image: Spraying pesticides in California. Credit: USDA Photo by Charles O’Rear.

Extension in BC?

in 2022/Climate Change/Crop Production/Land Stewardship/Soil/Tools & Techniques/Winter 2022

The Untapped Potential for Agriculture

By Chris Bodnar

At the end of a recent visit to my colleague Lydia Ryall’s farm in Delta, we agreed that having the opportunity to visit each other’s farms and talk shop is an incredibly valuable practice. But in reality, it’s tricky to fit into a busy schedule. It was the first time I had made it back to Cropthorne Farm for a visit in a decade.

“I mean, it takes time to plan and organize. Being able to get together as larger groups is more efficient and offers more opportunities to network,” Lydia says. “Whose job is that? Really, that’s what extension would be for, but we don’t have that.”

The Big Gap in BC Agriculture

What Lydia referred to that day had me thinking about the missed opportunities we have in agriculture. Being able to share knowledge through on-farm field days, practical research participation, and collective problem solving is invaluable. But it’s all too rare that these opportunities come about.

Extension services in BC are rare, but not far from the minds of many in the sector. A decade ago, the organic sector had a provincially-funded extension agent for a short period. Certain sectors and regions have examples of excellent extension services.

Recent research by Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Institute for Sustainable Food Systems shows a clear desire for extension services amongst organic growers in the province, but also a gap in understanding the potential services that could be provided. Only 52% of respondents to the survey had previously heard of agricultural extension, but 80% saw a clear benefit to the organic sector of having a province-wide, coordinated extension service.

The main areas of need growers identified were around soil health stewardship, pest management, and vegetable production. Those who see a benefit to extension identify three primary barriers that limit access: lack of available services, cost, and distance from services.

In a province as vast as BC with significant climactic differences and geographic barriers, now facing rapid climate change, the need for networking and sharing knowledge might be the key to developing resilience in the sector.

Orchard demonstration. Credit: Molly Thurston.

Boots on the Ground: It’s About Connection

When Molly Thurston talks about doing extension work, her enthusiasm is obvious. And after working for 13 years doing extension work with BC Tree Fruits Cooperative, Molly has enjoyed the hands-on experience of working with farmers.

“Extension is really boots on the ground, connection between what’s happening in the research community and what’s happening on the farm level,” she explains. “It often bridges the gap between the farm level and the industry itself.”

During her time with BC Tree Fruits Cooperative and now as a farmer and horticultural consultant, Molly appreciates the relationships extension services can build amongst farmers. The value of extension services is having local experts supporting growers with problem-solving and information-sharing.

“I’ve always been attracted to extension because it’s science, it’s communication, it’s understanding the needs of the growers and being able to communicate those needs up to researchers and industry to advocate for that work to be done,” says Molly. “And it’s then taking the information that comes out of the research and policy realms and breaking it into pieces that are manageable at the farm scale. I would call that technology transfer—growing techniques, growing practices, policy changes, economics that are applied by the farmer.”

What are Agricultural Extension Services?

Kwantlen’s 2020 report outlined how extension services could benefit the organic sector in BC. The report explains that the concept of extension originated in Europe in the 1850s. The term “extension” comes from the idea of extending or disseminating useful information from universities to the greater population.

In Canada, extension services were funded by the federal government and delivered by provincial governments until cutbacks in the 1980s reduced and eventually eliminated extension services. Extension programs continue in many parts of the US through over 100 land-grant colleges and universities.

The Kwantlen report describes extension as “strategic applied research, information transfer and communication, and knowledge/method/tool adoption programming,” where “sector and community development is the primary purpose.”

Extension can address any number of topics, ranging from soil fertility management through to economic factors to develop the sector. The focus of extension can include technical, social, environmental, economic, and other aspects of the food and agriculture sector.

Extension agents become a key link between growers and researchers.  They develop strategies to share applied research and techniques with and amongst growers. They also provide feedback from growers to researchers and policy experts to help them understand the needs of the agricultural sector.

What this looks like in a practical setting is informal education methods, such as on-farm research and demonstration, field days, technical publications, workshops, conferences, seminars, and short courses. In many instances, extension agents help coordinate farmer-to-farmer information sharing.

Orchard inspection. Credit: Molly Thurston

The Kootenays and Current Extension Programming

Although extension services are no longer provided through the province, there is an example of extension happening right now that has demonstrated a number of benefits.

Rachael Roussin has been a program coordinator for the Kootenay & Boundary Farm Advisors (KBFA) for over five years. The KBFA delivers extension services to growers throughout the Kootenays.

“The extension priorities were established by our funders,” says Rachael. “The emphasis was one-on-one technical support for commercial producers in all sectors. Boots on the ground was a big priority and we took it from there.”

The program is supported financially by the Columbia Basin Trust along with three regional districts.

Rachael explains that the experimental nature of problem-solving and innovation can be supported by extension.

“There is so much need to demonstrate what works on the ground for folks to adopt new methods. Producers are very curious and they are always trying new things but there is very little margin for error as profits are slim. For example, we cannot expect a small-scale organic farmer to invest $500 into a new type of cover crop that might not yield the desired results,” Rachael says.

“Every farm that I know is a living lab with continuous experimentation. We could speed up adoption and help producers avoid mistakes if we could share success stories. It includes sharing producer’s experiences in their region for their market and growing conditions.”

In Rachael’s work she has witnessed the improved communication in the agricultural sector between farmers as well as with provincial agencies, experts, and researchers. “There is a greater sense about who is doing what, the challenges, opportunities, and what farmers are interested in working on and what supports they require.”

For Rachael, their program has been able to meet the needs of growers in the Kootenays and offer opportunities that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

“We are bringing producers together and talking about the things that they are interested in through field days, workshops, and events. Networking is crucial in agriculture and farmers don’t usually have the time to self-organize. We have also been able to tailor extension services specifically to the topics and goals of our region’s farmers by talking with them and asking them what they want to hear about. Producers show up because they asked for it. It’s a collaborative approach to extension and support.”

The Need for Extension In BC

Andrew Adams of Hope Farm Organics near Prince George recognizes the need for extension services tailored to bioregions throughout BC. As a farmer and proponent of agriculture in the North, he has worked with other growers in the region to identify the opportunities for farming at higher latitudes.

“If we are to increase the agricultural production of BC and create a more resilient system, surely extension and research will be a bottleneck that will become necessary to open,” Andrew says. “With the lack of educational opportunities in university to train new farmers up here, there are no new farmers created here in this specific region with its specific needs.”

During his time in the North, Andrew has identified the need for on-the-ground regional expertise to support resilience in agriculture and the food system. This is the result of differences in everything from culture and geography to geology and climate.

“A gleysol in the Lower Mainland is not the same as a gleysol in the Omineca in its origin parent material. Its chemistry is different, which can affect methods of soil amending,” Andrew says. “Most labs and qualified individuals deal largely with soils of major agriculture centres and thus specific soil series.”

In the absence of provincial funding, whether extension services are developed going forward will be up to regional governments to decide whether they have the desire to support agricultural development. Alternatively, the organic sector could work with private donors, universities, and public agencies to gather resources to attempt extension services again.

Whether or not this happens, it’s clear that the province is losing out on developing the full potential of its agricultural sector without greater on-the-ground support.

Chris Bodnar co-owns and operates Close to Home Organics with his wife, Paige, at Glen Valley Organic Farm in Abbotsford.

Feature image: Molly Thurston inspects a cherry tree with a colleague Credit: Molly Thurston.

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