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Organic Stories: Lasser Ranch, Chetwynd BC

in 2020/Climate Change/Current Issue/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Organic Community/Summer 2020/Tools & Techniques

The Lasser Legacy: Raising Healthy, Nutritious, Environmentally-Friendly Cattle

Jolene Swain

Charlie Lasser’s plan was to retire at 100. Just three weeks short of his 89th birthday, he’s been considering extending that to 110—there’s so much to learn and so much knowledge to share when it comes to raising cattle, and he’s just not quite finished.Farming is part of Charlie’s DNA. Coming from a long line of Swiss ranchers, he finished up with school in grade nine and bought his first work horse when he was 14. “I never went to school long enough to learn that there are things you can’t do,” says Charlie. Running a team of horses by the time he was a young teen, he earned money mowing, ploughing, raking, and hauling hay to make the next investments towards having his own land to farm.

Over the past 70 plus years of farming, Charlie has had his share of side hustles in local politics and public service. “You have to get out there and help people, that’s what life is all about,” says Charlie. From the longest-serving mayor of Chetwynd (22 years), to founding or serving on numerous boards and councils, including BC Hydro, Northern Lights College, Lower Mainland Municipal Association, the University of British Columbia, the Chetwynd Communications Society, and even the local thrift store, it seems he’s done a little of everything. But his true calling and passion has always been farming, and it was important that anyone he dated understood that.

When he met his life partner Edith, she not only understood Charlie’s draw to the land, but came from a ranching background herself, and knew just as much about cattle as he did. Together, they made a great team—too busy farming and surviving to argue: “We used to laugh, we could never remember when we had an argument. It was hard work starting out, and we had to work together to survive.”

Edith passed in 2016, after 62 years and three days of marriage, and it is clear that she is dearly missed. After many years working at the family dairy in Pitt Meadows, Charlie and Edith brought Lasser Ranch in Chetwynd in 1971, and moved the family up in 1974.

Dream team: Charlie and Edith of Lasser Range. Credit: Rod Crawford

Charlie is known as one of the early pioneers of the organic industry in BC. “When I was young, everything was organic, that’s how we farmed,” he says. When commercial fertilizers came to market in the ‘50s, he sprayed once on their farm in Pitt Meadows, and didn’t like it. He’s been setting the standard for organic cattle ranching ever since.
“The land and earth is like a bank account, when you build it up, it will produce and you can live off the interest,” says Charlie. “If you use fertilizer, your land becomes a drug addict, it has to have that commercial fertilizer or it will not grow.” According to Charlie, it might take a bit more time at first to build up your land, but the returns are fantastic. Fellow organic pioneer in the fruit industry and good friend Linda Edwards knows Charlie as someone always eager to try something new. “He made money as a cattle farmer, and more importantly, he had a good time doing it,” says Linda.

Of course, farming has changed a lot since Charlie’s ancestors ran cattle in the 1400s, and even since Lasser Range was established back in 1971. Antibiotics were discovered, a game changer for the dairy industry. Horses, once relied upon to round-up cattle, have been replaced by smaller and more numerous pastures in a practice and a grazing style now known as management-intensive grazing. And finally, amongst organic, grass-fed, and animal welfare certifications to name a few, it seems that Charlie might be on a mission to grow what he suspects will be the world’s most environmentally-friendly and nutritious cattle with his latest new feed ingredient. Call it a hunch.

Actually, it’s more than a hunch. Dr. John Church and his team at Thompson Rivers University discovered that organic grass-fed can supply an extra 30-40 mg of healthy omega-3 fatty acids per serving than conventional or ‘natural’ grain-finished beef.1 In this study, over 160 sources of beef were sampled from grocery stores on Vancouver Island, and one sample stood out from the rest when it came to healthy omega-3 fatty acids. The source of that beef? You guessed it: bred and raised on Lasser ranch. But there’s more to the story. These cattle had been grass-finished at Edgar Smith’s Beaver Meadows Farm near Comox, BC. Upon further investigation, Dr. Church found that there was another interesting component of the nutrient rich beef: storm cast seaweed. Now, in collaboration with farmers like Charlie and Edgar, they are digging deeper into the nutritional differences of meat from cattle fed seaweed from an early age.

Feeding seaweed to cattle may not only lead to beef that is more nutritious, but also better for the planet. Cow burps and flatulence are well known for adding methane, a greenhouse gas that traps considerably more heat than carbon dioxide, to the atmosphere. While the number of cows on the planet is a contentious topic these days, reducing the methane production in individual cows might be a step in the right direction.

Charlie Lasser (right) with Ron Reid on the COABC Vanguard of Organics panel in 2018. Credit: Michael Marrapese.

Not all seaweed is created equal. It turns out that certain strains can reduce methane output by up to 60% in live animals. And that’s not all. According to Charlie, who has started feeding Smith’s seaweed to a select group of weaned calves on his ranch, not only are methane levels reduced, but the calves getting seaweed snacks appear to be putting on more weight than their gassy siblings.

Dr. Church and his team at TRU are working on a detailed microbial community analysis of the rumen to demonstrate that the seaweed product is able to shift activity away from methanogenic bacterial species found in the digestive tract, towards those that benefit from excess hydrogen, resulting not only in reduced methane, but an increase in production. This could confirm Charlie’s observations that adding seaweed to the diet results not only in a reduction in methane but also, an increase in beef production. But is the market ready for a low carbon footprint ‘Sea Beef’?

Feeding seaweed to cattle is not new. Coastal ranchers in places like Japan and Scotland have historically fed seaweed to their livestock. Conveniently, Charlie’s cows appear to be big fans of the variety of invasive red seaweed, Mazzaella japonica, harvested and baled by Edgar. “Once they get used to that seaweed, boy they go for it,” says Charlie. Other species studied down in California are not quite so palatable and require grinding and mixing with molasses to convince the cows to eat. Mazzaella japonica shows a lot of potential, but Charlie says “there’s a whole plethora of other seaweeds” that Dr. Church and his team are eager to try.

While we’re just now adjusting to what the global Sars-CoV-2 pandemic means for our food system, farming strategies that tackle climate change and food security have always been important to Charlie. “I want people to remember that we worked the land, and took care of the land, we didn’t abuse it,” says Charlie. “With this virus, everything that happened before will be changing, our whole way of life will be changing. As a result, you’re going to see more people concerned about organics, and more people concerned about where their food comes from and how it is raised.” By the time you read this, he may have already celebrated his 89th birthday. On that day, and the days to follow, you’ll find him out checking on the cattle, experimenting, and learning—willing and eager to pass his lifetime of knowledge on to the next generation.


Jolene Swain farms at WoodGrain Farm, a wilderness farmstead in the Kispiox Valley north of Hazelton in the unceded lands of the Gitxsan First Nation. Here she has spent the last five seasons growing organic vegetables for two local farmers’ markets and an increasing array of seed crops available through the B.C. Eco Seed Co-op, as well as helping get the hay in for the milk cow and small flock of sheep. Jolene works off-farm as an organic verification officer and consultant, and is the Central & Northern BC Land Matcher for the B.C. Land Matching Program delivered by Young Agrarians.

Feature image: Cattle on Pasture at Lasser Range. Credit: Rod Crawford.

References:
1. Canadian Journal of Animal Science, 2015, 95(1): 49-58, doi.org/10.4141/cjas-2014-113

A New Conservation Model for Pollinators from Southern Alberta

in 2020/Climate Change/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Seeds/Spring 2020

S.K. Basu

Pollinators have an important ecological role in securing the stability of all natural ecosystems, through ensuring cross pollination and reproduction across a wide diversity of higher plants. This unique pollinator-plant relationship is a key aspect of maintaining the dynamics of both our ecology as well as our economy.

From an ecological perspective, pollination is important because it helps achieve reproduction in plants. This includes not just wild plants, but a significant array of plant species that are important to humans as food and industrial crops, numerous ornamentals, forage and vegetable crops, and forest species. According to one estimate, over 80% of global plant species are dependent on pollination for reproduction and survival. One can appreciate that this fact has an impact on our economy too. Pollinators have a significant role in three industries, namely: agriculture, forestry, and apiculture. Thus, pollination and pollinators have important stake in our life by integrating the stability of our ecosystem with the dynamics of our economy.

Wild radish flowering Credit: S.K. Basu

While insects perform the most significant role of natural pollinators in our ecosystem, other animal species that also help in the process of pollination are often overlooked. These include some species of snails and slugs, birds (such as humming birds) and mammals (like bats). Insects such as bees (honey bees and native bees), moths and butterflies, some species of flies, beetles, wasps, and ants all play a highly significant roles in our natural ecosystem, without a doubt. But unfortunately, the insect pollinators, predominantly bees and more specifically, native wild bees or indigenous bees, are showing alarming decline in their natural populations due to the synergistic or cumulative impacts of several overlapping anthropogenic factors.

Some of these include excessive use of agricultural chemicals and aggressive agroindustrial approaches in rapid land transformation, rise of resistant parasitic diseases, colony collapse disorder, high level of pollution in the environment, lack of suitable foraging plants to supply bees with adequate nectar and pollens to sustain them throughout the year, and climate change, to mention only a handful factors. Hence, it is important that we develop comprehensive sustainable, ecosystem, and farmer-friendly, and affordable conservation strategies to help secure the survival of insect pollinators to directly and indirectly secure our own future.

Balansa clover in full bloom. Credit: S.K. Basu

Farming Smarter, an applied research organization from Southern Alberta, has come up with a simple, sustainable, and nature-based solution for this grave crisis. They have successfully established experimental pollinator sanctuary plots using local crop-based annual and/or perennial pollinator mixes with different and overlapping flowering periods to extend the bee foraging period across the seasons.

The major objectives of this unique and innovative research work has been to identify specific crop combinations with different flowering periods adapted to the local agro-climatic regime and their potential in attracting insect pollinators. Furthermore, various agronomic parameters such as seeding dates and seeding rates, crop establishment and weed competition under rain-fed conditions, identifying the floral cycles and biodiversity of local pollinator insect populations attracted and visiting the pollinator sanctuary experimental plots across the growing season are being also monitored and evaluated. This unique pollinator sanctuary project has been funded by the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP) program.

A drone fly pollinating alfalfa. Credit: S.K. Basu

The results have been promising. The experimental plots have been attracting insect pollinators in large numbers and the crops have been well established and performed well against local weed competition. The implications of this study could be far reaching as Pollinator Sanctuaries can not only cater to pollination services; but also help in acting as cover crops, preventing soil erosion, contributing to soil reclamation, and, since they are predominantly crop-based, can be used in grazing. Thus, the benefits of this innovative and sustainable method are not restricted to pollinator conservation alone, and could cater to multiple users.

Such low-cost and low-maintenance pollinator sanctuaries could easily be established in non-agricultural and marginal lands, hard to access areas of the farm, around pivot stand and farm perimeters, shelter belts, along water bodies and irrigational canals, low lying areas, salinity impacted areas, unused spaces in both rural and urban areas, in boulevards parks, gardens, and golf courses, to mention only a handful of potential application sites. Locally adapted crop-based pollinator mixes could fill a vacuum in the market and serve as viable alternatives to exclusive use of wildflower mixes, since they are relatively cheaper, easy to establish, and do not run the risk of becoming a weed or invasive species.

A pollinator insect visiting flax flower. Credit: S.K. Basu

Saikat Kumar Basu has a Masters in Plant Sciences and Agricultural Studies. He loves writing, traveling, and photography during his leisure and is passionate about nature and conservation.

Feature image: A bumble bee pollinating Phacelia flowers. Credit: S.K. Basu

Changing the Climate Conversation through Agriculture

in 2020/Climate Change/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Spring 2020/Water Management

Julia Zado

Tackling climate change is a daunting task. With each season we see drastic weather events affecting farmers across Canada. The food we eat and how it is grown can and does have a significant impact on climate.  Farmers are on the frontline of the climate crisis and are in a unique position to positively impact climate change.

In 2019 FarmFolk CityFolk released “Climate Change Mitigation Opportunities,” a report researched and written by Shauna MacKinnon. This report aims to change the narrative that climate change cannot be stopped. Although some agricultural practices create significant greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture has the potential to deliver fast and effective climate solutions.

“Our report is eye opening. We want to move the conversation from adapting to climate change, to mitigating and stopping climate change,” says Anita Georgy, Executive Director for FarmFolk CityFolk.

According to MacKinnon, changing the climate conversation is possible and already in motion: “individuals and communities are already shifting energy use and changing land management in ways that can prevent climate change from reaching its worst potential.”

The report demonstrates that in order for Canada to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets, policies and programs must include agriculture and food systems. This will allow for a much larger and inclusive conversation between communities to make necessary changes, “helping shift the climate conversation from abstract to tangible, inadequate to meaningful. Agriculture and food systems are one of the keys to unlocking a lower carbon future and motivating action.”

Mark Cormier_ Glorious Organics. Mark with green cover crop which helps reduce evaporation and soil loss. Photo by Michael Marrapese

The agriculture industry produces greenhouse gas emissions; however, it also has the unique ability to absorb carbon and incorporate it into the soil, which in turn improves the health of the soil. Much research is being done about exactly what practices are most effective, and how to store carbon for the long term. Healthy soil with higher carbon levels not only increases crop yields, it also holds more water and can better withstand the extreme weather effects of climate change such as drought or heavy rainfall.

The report details how certain farm-level management practices can increase or deplete organic carbon in the soil, using regenerative methods of farming and grazing that focuses on rebuilding and restoring soil. Without the use of synthetic fertilizers or inputs, restored soil health can improve productivity and carbon drawdown.

“There are a wide range of on-farm practices that can help both reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and mitigate climate change that many BC farmers are already using, and saving money at the same time,” says Georgy.

Glorious Organics, a cooperatively owned and operated farm in Aldergrove, is dedicated to soil conservation techniques including low-till, cover cropping, and intercropping. Committed to climate solutions, Glorious Organics has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by switching to a solar water pump system from a gas system, which has the added benefits of reducing water use, thanks to partial funding from the Environmental Farm Plan.

Drip Tapes in Upper Field at Glorious Organics. Photo credit: Michael Marrapese

With its emphasis on carbon storage to rebuild soil health, regenerative agriculture offers different strategies to manage and reduce reliance on external inputs. “These practices can also provide additional co-benefits, such as improved water holding capacity and increased habitat for biodiversity,” says MacKinnon. “The integration of livestock and annual crop production is an important part of these approaches, diversifying production, breaking up pest cycles, and providing manure to replace synthetic fertilizers.”  For example, Shirlene Cote, of Earth Apple Farm in Glen Valley, rotates her chickens through the fields, both to control pests and provide natural fertilizer.

In the report, MacKinnon recommends prioritizing “agricultural practices that can store carbon, produce nutrient-rich food, improve water management, and provide greater biodiversity.”

The report calls for policymakers at all levels of government—federal, regional, and municipal—to fully engage in a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors, agriculture and food systems included. The changes suggested represent a major shift in Canadian agriculture—a shift that requires support from all of us.

MacKinnon concludes, “there is much room for improvement in Canadian agriculture production, from reducing nitrous oxide emissions in the Prairies to reducing livestock methane. Beneficial management practices have already been identified to begin to reduce emissions and reduce the reliance on external inputs, and producers are continuing to push the boundaries in finding more sustainable production methods.”

“Agriculture and food systems contribute less emissions compared to the transport and energy sectors and for that reason have potentially not been a focus of federal and provincial level mitigation strategies as of yet. The time has come for us to join the conversation,” says Georgy.

In February 2020, FarmFolk CityFolk announced its participation in Farmers for Climate Solutions, a new national alliance of farmer organizations and supporters. “The ultimate goal for Farmers for Climate Solutions is to impact policy change,” says Georgy. The alliance is calling for Canadian agricultural policies that help farmers mitigate and adapt to climate change, and support the increased use of low-input, low-emissions agricultural systems.

Farmers for Climate Solutions is a collaborative effort led by the National Farmers Union, Canadian Organic Growers, FarmFolk CityFolk, Rural Routes to Climate Solutions, the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, Equiterre, and SeedChange.

This new alliance will give farmers a platform to share stories about climate impacts, practical solutions and policy recommendations, and engage Canadians to support their vision. Farmers for Climate Solutions includes a pledge for both farmers and the general public. Farmers and supporters are encouraged to sign the alliance’s pledge and add their voices towards achieving climate-friendly agriculture while maintaining farm livelihoods.

“Individuals can support change through their everyday food choices. This is an opportunity to strengthen the connection between food products and climate change, and promote further dialogue,” says Georgy.

So far over 600 farmers and engaged citizens have signed the pledge.


Julia Zado is the Engagement Manager for FarmFolk CityFolk and is passionate about supporting local farmers and small scale producers. farmfolkcityfolk.ca

Feature image: Shirlene Cote, operates Earth Apple Organic Farm and is one of the Western Canada spokespeople for Farmers for Climate Solutions. Photo by Brian Harris

Adapting at Fraser Common Farm Cooperative

in 2019/Climate Change/Crop Production/Fall 2019/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Organic Community/Pest Management/Seeds/Soil/Tools & Techniques/Water Management

Photos and text by Michael Marrapese

In 2018 Fraser Common Farm Co-operative—home of Glorious Organics—undertook a year long on-farm research project to explore how small farms could adapt to climate change. Seeing the changes in seasonal rainfall, climate predictions by Environment Canada, and new ground water regulations from the provincial government, the cooperative could see that water availability would eventually become a significant limiting factor in farming operations. 

The discussions about adaptation were complex and multi-factored. Every operation on the farm is connected to something else and many systems interconnect in differing ways throughout the season. Changing practices can be difficult, time consuming, and sometimes risky. 

During the year-long project, funded by Vancity, Co-op members worked to evaluate farming practices and areas of opportunity and weakness in farm management. The project generated several feasible solutions to decrease the demand on groundwater, buffer water demand, harvest rain water, and use irrigation water more efficiently. Some solutions were fairly straightforward and easy to implement. Others required more expertise, better data, and further capital.

Mark Cormier: Improving Water Practices

Mark Cormier explains how Glorious Organics uses edible, nitrogen fixing peas, and Fava beans for cover crops. He’s moved away from overhead spray irrigation to drip tape for the bulk of Glorious Organics’ field crops. He puts drip tape under black plastic row mulch. The plastic mulch significantly increases water retention and suppresses weeds. After the first crop comes off the field he rolls up the plastic and plants salad greens in the same row without tilling. Glorious Organics plans to double the size of the artificial pond and and dredge out a smaller natural spring basin to provide more water for the longer, drier summers the region is experiencing. Cormier notes that this year they are selling a lot of plums, a crop that they don’t water at all. 

Mark Cormier with Fava bean cover crop.
Mark with black plastic mulch and drip tape irrigation.
Plums in the upper orchard
Artificial pond and solar powered pumping station.

David Catzel: Developing Diversity

Catzel has several plant breeding and selection projects on the go to develop populations of productive, flavourful, and marketable crops. Preserving and expanding bio-diversity on the farm is vital for long-term sustainability. With his multi-year Kale breeding project, David has been seeking to develop a denticulated white kale and in the process has seen other useful characteristics, like frost-hardiness, develop in his breeding program. He’s currently crossing varieties of watermelon in order to develop a short-season, highly productive variety. His development of seed crops has also become a significant income source. He estimates his recent batch of Winter White Kale seed alone will net $1,500 in sales. As the Co-operative diversifies its product line to include more fruit and berries, organic orchard management practices have become increasingly important. Catzel has been instrumental in incorporating sheep into orchard management. A critical component of pest management is to keep the orchards clean and to remove any fruit on the ground to reduce insect pest populations. The sheep eat a lot of the fallen fruit and keep the grass and weeds in check making it easier to keep the orchards clean. 

David Catzel and the Kale Breeding Project.
David Catzel crossing Watermelon varieties.
David Catzel with his Winter White Kale seed crop.
David tending sheep.

Barry Cole: Gathering Insect Data

With the arrival of the spotted wing drosophila fruit fly, Fraser Common Farm was facing a management crisis. There seemed to be little organic growers could do to combat the pest, which destroys fruit before is is ripe. Infestations of Coddling Moth and Apple Maggot were making it difficult to offer fruit for sale. Barry Cole set about to gather meaningful data to help understand pest life cycles and vectors of attack. He’s set up a variety of traps and tapes and monitors them regularly to determine when pests are most active and which trees they prefer. The “Bait Apples” attract a large number of Apple Coddling Moths. The yellow sticky tapes help determine which species are present at various times in the season. Since many of the fruit trees are more than 20 years old, he also monitors and records tree productivity and fruit quality to better determine which trees should be kept and which should be replaced. 

The fake apple trap.
Identifying active pests.
Inspecting Early Harvest.
Barry Cole inspecting walnuts for pests.

Michael Marrapese is the IT and Communications Manager at FarmFolk CityFolk. He lives and works at Fraser Common Farm Cooperative, one of BC’s longest running cooperative farms, and is an avid photographer, singer, and cook.

Feature image: David Catzel’s watermelon varieties.

Clockwise from left: ; the fake apple trap; identifying active pests; Barry Cole inspects walnutd for pests; Mark Cormier with fava bean cover crop; plums in the upper orchard; David Catzel with his White Winter Kale seed crop. Credit: Michael Marrapese. 

Biodynamic Farm Story: Putting the Dynamic in Biodynamic

in 2019/Crop Production/Fall 2019/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Soil/Tools & Techniques

Anna Helmer

I used to write a small weekly column for the local paper, telling stories about the farm each week. I kept it going through the busy times and the not busy times. I hardly remember how I managed to write the required 600 coherent words during those intensely busy summer weeks. Maybe they weren’t coherent. Likely not, now that I think about it. Maybe coherence was not a goal. If you can’t do it, don’t make it a goal, I always say.

Those winter columns, though. I remember writing those. They were the ones where I had done precious little farm work during the week and now had to write about it. They were a challenge to compose. At least in the summer weeks there was lots of material. However, I did learn how to make 600 entertaining words out of, say, a flat tire and a quiet market.

I am feeling reminiscent of those lazy days of winter and cobbling together something interesting about scant farming activities because I have agreed to do another installment of Biodynamic Farm Story, but I really haven’t done much Biodynamic stuff lately.

The blame for this lies entirely with the farm. In addition to non-descript regular farm work, each tractor has broken down several times, we’ve poured new concrete, built a new shed, and started attending our local market about six weeks earlier than ever before. The events have very much taken precedence over Biodynamic activities. The original Biodynamic lectures don’t seem to specifically address what to do when this happens.

Those lectures contain a fair amount about the importance of talking with other farmers about Biodynamic methods, however. I gather Steiner, the lecturer, understood that much of his content was untested in real farm-world situations. There is also acknowledgement that every single farm, being its own entity consisting of its own unique people, soil, and environment, will have to find its own way.

(Cosmic) Hightland Cow. Credit: Nilfanion (CC)

I think that’s the story this time: how does it work to be a Biodynamic farm (or farmer!) when events overtake intentions? This is about how we can’t seem to follow the Biodynamic calendar very well, and how in actual fact, we seem to forget all about being Biodynamic when the fur starts flying on a busy farm season. Perhaps this is when the “dynamic” part comes into play.

I would like to think that the work we do in the shoulder seasons—creating composts, using the preparations, planning planting around propitious dates in the calendar—all contribute to the strength of the farm now, when it is being fully taxed. I suppose it possibly might be so.

Theoretically, what would a biodynamically active farmer not like me be doing right now on the farm? I would have two things on the list: compost management and Biodynamic Preparation 508.

Priority one: turn the cow manure pile and bung in more Biodynamic preparations, purchased in a set from the Josephine Porter Institute—nettle, yarrow, dandelion, oak bark, chamomile and valerian. They are intended to not only stimulate the biological breakdown of the material into humus and whatnot, but also to create a source of energy for the farm. How cool is that?

I came across a metaphor for the Biodynamic compost heap several years ago, the source regretfully forgotten, the actual meaning mangled: Cosmic Cow. Consider the cow that can transform the energy of the sun (via green grass) turning it into precious manure that may be used to grow our eating plants. It is a remarkable feat that is accomplished in a complex digestive system. Even more remarkable, the function carries on despite the animal eating all kinds of garbage along with the lovely grass. And through thick and thin, the animal maintains a more or less even disposition, emanating a particular energy that is quite powerful, in its own way.

So the Cosmic Cow Biodynamic Compost heap can do the same sort of thing. Its digestive system is powered up to produce the desired dirt, and the whole thing is solidly grounded to be able to broadcast the infinite energy of the universe to the farm.

If I had some time, and if the loader tractor hadn’t developed a leak in the axle and the right seal had been sent from the source of seals and if it therefore had a wheel, I totally would have done that job by now. Pretty certain it is high on Dad’s list too. The wheel will eventually go back on, surely. Meanwhile, the pile sits patiently in the field, the essential activity continuing despite neglect.

I am also looking into the preparation called 508. It uses horsetail in either a tea form (very easy to make) or a more complicated distillation. There has been a lot of rain, heat, and wind lately and fungal issues may arise. The 508 may help cope with that. Plus, it is all the rage right now in Biodynamics and I am nothing if not keen to fit in.

If there is one weed we have plenty of in the potatoes this year, it is horsetail. Do I go to the effort of picking it, boiling it up and spraying it around? So far, I do not.

A look into my farm notes for the past couple of months reveals at least a passing nod to the Biodynamic Calendar. I have noted when something I did was done because it was a good day to do it according to the position of the moon and the planets. It still means nothing to me, but I think the plants get it, so that’s good. For example, the carrots were done right. As that field also had a good helping of BD 500 both last fall and this spring, I could expect one of our best crops ever. I don’t, however. Biodynamics is a method, not a guarantee.

Unlike chemical fertilizers. They are more of a guarantee. It is very plain to see the appeal of popping in a wee bit of N, P, and K at planting time. Conventional farmers in Pemberton who planted potatoes weeks later than us are pleased that theirs came into flower right at the same time and achieved row cover well ahead. It’s just a fact of science.

A fact that means nothing to me. Today when I walked through our potato field, I would have needed a machete to get through the White Rose and Fingerlings. As an aside, did you know that potato flowers smell delicious?

I boast like this because I think Biodynamic farming can be a difficult sell to…well…most farmers. Let’s face it. The positive results are heavily anecdotal. I must add my own.


Anna Helmer farms with her family and friends in the Pemberton Valley and could have submitted the picture that featured a lot of weeds but instead chose the one that did not.

Feature image: Tractor wheel in a beautifully weed-free potato crop. Credit: Anna Helmer

Soil Health & Cover Crops

in 2019/Climate Change/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Seeds/Soil/Spring 2019

A Recipe for Success in Achieving Long Term Soil Conservation

Saikat Kumar Basu

Why Care for our Soils?

Soil is an important constituent of both agriculture and forestry; unfortunately, it is taken for granted most of the time. It is a cheap, easily accessible or available global resource for which we have often forgotten to take the necessary care. We have used it non-judiciously without proper planning and vision for the future.

The concept of soil health has always been there since the dawn of human civilization—but only quite recently have we started to better understand, appreciate, and care for our soils as part of sustainable agriculture. We as humans have possibly matured over time and realized that our exploitative and non-judicious use of our soil resources can limit our long-term agricultural productivity and jeopardize successful crop production.

Unless we are serious enough to take good care of one of our most abundant yet highly sensitive natural resources of this planet, the soils, we ourselves will be solely to blame for the degradation of our soils—thanks to the self-destructive approaches we’ve used to achieve very short-term objectives of making easy profits without thinking deeply about the long-term consequences.

Soil health today has emerged as an important aspect of proper soil management as a component of sustainable agriculture to help in quality crop production without depleting or damaging soil quality and helping in proper soil conservation at the same time (Fig. 1).

What Impacts Soil Health?

Several factors impact soil health, among the most important being over application of fertilizers and pesticides. The soil represents a dynamic ecosystem and an intricate playground of delicate physics, chemistry, geology, and biology. Any chemical application on the soil therefore has some positive or negative impact on the soil quality by interfering with the physicochemical and biogeological processes associated with soil formation. These changes include shifting the soil pH due to various anthropogenic activities that slowly impact the soil quality. Drastic reduction in pH makes soil acidic, while rapid increase in pH leads to alkalinity or salinity; both conditions make the soil unsuitable for a long time for quality crop production. Furthermore, increased emphasis on monoculture associated with our modern industrial agriculture year after year depletes the soil of essential macro and micro nutrients necessary for maintaining optimal soil health (Fig. 2).

Fig 2. Increased emphasis on crop monoculture is detrimental to long term soil health.

Over application of synthetic chemical fertilizers and various pesticides to secure crop production adds too much pressure on our soil, impacting not only the physicochemical and geological processes active in the soil, but also negatively impacting the soil macro and micro flora and fauna devastatingly over a long period of time. Several beneficial microbes like soil bacteria, Cyanobacteria, soil fungi, soil borne insects, spring tails (Collembola), earthworms, and other critters essential for maintaining soil health suffer population collapse due to non-judicious over application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Many such chemical residues remain in the soil for prolonged period and often percolate deep into the soil, reaching the groundwater table or adjacent surface fresh water resources via surface run off, with long term negative impacts on both soil and water. Often the beneficial soil macro and micro flora and fauna are altered or replaced by harmful species that prove detrimental to soil health and significantly impact crop production and forest ecology. Random unplanned crop rotations and fallow harm our soil more than we actually realize; making them susceptible to weed and pest infestations (Fig. 3), loss of precious top soil and lower crop production due to poor soil health.

Fig 3. Untended soil is subjected to weed infestation that interferes with quality crop production.

Best Management Practices (BMPs) for Promoting Sustainable Soil Health

To maintain optimal soil health for long term success in achieving quality crop production we need to take necessary steps and plan carefully. This takes needs patience, and deeper understanding, as well as painstaking observations to implement good soil health practices on cropland.

Regular soil tests are important to ensure that we are aware of the excesses as well as depletion of necessary macro and micro nutrients in the soil. We also need to look into the topography of the crop field, the low and high spots in the field, the areas impacted by acidification and salinity issues, detailed history of fertilizer and pesticide applications over the years and the successive crops grown. Any past issues associated with the soil should be recorded for future reference. The nature of pest and weed infestations should be recorded to identify any specific patterns with respect to local pest and weed populations. Such detailed record keeping together with advanced GPS- and GIS-generated high-quality images of the field over the years will provide a farmer or crop producer or a professional agronomist ample reference to make judicious decisions to secure comprehensive soil health strategy and crop management for the future.

Based on the above information, we need to adopt a specific crop rotation plan to ensure that the soil is not exhausted of essential soil nutrients. Application of fertilizers and pesticides should follow manufacturer’s guidelines stringently to avoid over application (Fig 4).

Fig 4. It is important to keep track of weed and pest species impacting crop production in a particular field for making judicious decisions regarding appropriate chemical applications at the appropriate stage and dosage following manufacturer’s instructions.

It is also important to note if soil compaction is causing a problem for the field. If this is an issue, then highly mechanized farming activities and movements of heavy vehicles need to be restricted to a specific easily accessible area to reduce negative impacts of soil compaction on the field.

Intercropping could be practised depending upon the farming need and also to use the soil resources judiciously. This can enhance crop production and add crop diversity to the field important for maintaining soil health.

Role of Cover Crops in Promoting Long-Term Soil Health and Soil Conservation

Cover crops are an important aspect for maintaining general soil health if used with scientific outlook and proper planning. Several cover crops choices are available. Annual and perennial legumes, various clovers and sweet clovers, bird’s-foot trefoil, hairy vetch, common vetch, cicer milkvetch, sainfoin (Fig. 5), fenugreek, fava beans, soybeans, field pea or forage pea, cowpea, chickpea, green pea, black pea, different species of beans, oil crops such as annual and perennial sunflower, safflower, flax, forage canola, different mustard species (Fig. 6), brassicas such as forage rape, turnips, collards, radish, forage crops such as tef grass, Sudan grass, sorghum, sorghum x Sudan grass hybrids, corn, cereals such as winter rye, wheat and triticale, different millets, such as Proso millet, Japanese millet, German millet, red millet, special or novelty crops such as hemp (Fig 7) , chicory, plantain, phacelia, buckwheat, and quinoa are only a handful of choices to mention from a big basket of abundant crop species currently available across Canada.

Fig 5. Mustard cover crop in full bloom.
Fig 6. Perennial forage legume sainfoin is an excellent cover crop that can be successfully used in crop rotation cycles. Sainfoin is also exceptional for pollinators, attracting bees and other insects in large numbers.
Fig 7. Hemp is a new speciality crop for Canada and has been generating serious interest among farmers for agronomic productions. Hemp has been found to attract diverse species of insect pollinators too.

Several grass species such as orchard grass, tall fescue, short fescue, meadow fescue, creeping fescue, chewing fescue, festulolium, timothy, annual and perennial rye grass, Italian rye grass, and various other forage and native species are being used in specific legume-grass mix, in highly planned and organized crop rotations or in soil reclamation and pollinator mixes for attracting insect pollinators to the crop fields and in checking soil erosion effectively.

Cover crops should be selected based on the agro-climatic zone and soil zones of the region and used in planned rotations. Species or different appropriate cover crop mixes are to be selected based on the long-term objective of the crop production. For example, cover crop mixes used as pollinator mixes could not only be planted in the field during a fallow; but can also be used in agronomically unsuitable areas, along field perimeter, under the centre pivot stand, hard to access areas of the farm, shelter belts or adjacent to water bodies or low spots in the field too.

Forage cover crops could be used where the field is partly subjected to animal foraging or grazing or ranching. Similarly, oil crops, pharmaceutical or neutraceutical crops, or specialty or novelty cover crops could be used in crop rotations with major food or industrial crops grown in the particular field in a specific agro-climatic region.

Fig 8 Cover crops rotations can be an effective long term solution for managing optimal soil health with long term positive impacts on soil quality and soil conservation.

Cover crops not only play an important role in crop rotation cycle; but, also help in retaining soil temperature and moisture as well as protect top soil from erosive forces like wind and water. The presence of live roots in the soil and a rich diversity of crops stimulate the growth and population dynamics of important soil mega and micro fauna and flora for sustaining long term soil health, soil quality and soil conservation. Cover crops help in balancing the use of essential soil macro and micro nutrients in the soil, as well as promoting better aeration, hydration, nitrogen fixation, and recycling of essential crop minerals, assisting bumper production of food or cash crops due to improvement in soil quality for successive high-quality crop production.

It is important for all of us to understand and appreciate that soil is a non-renewable resource and needs special care and attention. Unless we are careful to use this special resource so deeply associated with our agricultural and forestry operations judiciously, we may be slowly jeopardizing crop productivity—and our common future—in the not so distant future.

Proper planning and scientific soil management practices can play a vital role in keeping our soil productive as well as healthy. Use of crop rotations and cover crops are some of the important approaches towards long-term soil health, soil conservation, and crop productivity. We need to learn more about our local soil resources for our future food security and incorporate more soil friendly practices to prolong the life and quality of our soil.


Saikat Kumar Basu has a Masters in Plant Sciences and Agricultural Studies. He loves writing, traveling, and photography during his leisure and is passionate about nature and conservation
Acknowledgement: Performance Seed, Lethbridge, AB

Featured Image: Fig 1. Scientific management of soil health contributes towards long term high quality crop production as well as soil conservation. Image Credit: All photos by Saikat Kumar Basu

Healthy Soils Yield Resilient Operations

in 2019/Climate Change/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Soil/Spring 2019/Tools & Techniques/Water Management

Three case studies examine soil management practices in the face of climate change

By Rachel Penner, BC Agriculture & Food Climate Action Initiative

Improving soil health is one way producers can increase the resilience of their operations in the face of climate change. The BC Agriculture & Food Climate Action Initiative (CAI) has supported multiple projects, with funding from the provincial and federal governments, evaluating practices to maintain or improve soil health. Case studies in three regions of the province offer some practical takeaways for farmers looking to adapt to changes in climate.

Okanagan: Adding Compost and Reducing Irrigation

Climate change is expected to increase average temperatures and lengthen the growing season in BC’s Interior, enabling cherry producers to expand production northward and grow crops at higher elevations. However, expanding production may be limited by challenges with managing soil pathogens and by water availability.

A three-year research project focusing on cherry production in the Okanagan resulted in two key findings: 

  • adding compost to old and new orchards helped maintain soil health
  • reducing post-harvest irrigation by 25% did not impact fruit yield or quality

Gayle Krahn, the horticulture manager at Coral Beach Farms, participated in the project. “It’s through these trials that growers gain the confidence needed to invest in mulches,” says Krahn. “As well, the results from the deficit irrigation studies gave us a good handle on how much water we need in our orchards. Climate change could affect our water supply, so we need to be mindful of our water usage while ensuring we can continue to grow healthy crops.”

Louise Nelson with the Biology department at UBC Okanagan led the three-year experiment. Researchers monitored the effects of compost and mulch applications, comparing results with controls in two new and one established orchard, and assessed the impacts of post-harvest deficit-irrigation.

The study, completed in 2018, revealed that adding compost to cherry orchards had the following impacts on the soil:

  • increased soil organic matter, total carbon and nitrogen, other mineral nutrients and pH
  • increased percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in leaves after two years
  • increased fruit firmness and stem pull
  • tended to increase total nematode abundance in soil
  • tended to decrease plant parasitic nematodes in plant roots and soil
  • decreased colonization of roots by arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi

“I would definitely recommend that growers invest in compost as it helps build soil structure, reduce moisture loss and keep soils cool during summer heat,” says Krahn. “The result is increased root growth and a healthier tree, which equates to growing quality fruit.”

The study also found that a 25% reduction in post-harvest irrigation had no impact on fruit yield and quality, stem water potential, tree growth, or leaf mineral content, giving producers greater assurance that they can safely decrease water usage in their cherry orchards post-harvest.

Delta: Using and Maintaining Tile Drains

Climate projections indicate that winter rainfall will increase and extreme rainfall events will double in frequency by the 2050s in BC’s Fraser River delta. This increase in moisture could prevent farmers from getting onto waterlogged fields, either to plant or to harvest, and could also increase soil erosion, nutrient runoff, and damage to crops.

However, effective spacing and maintenance of tile drains can increase the ability of producers to work their fields.

A project in Delta, completed in July 2017, evaluated practices for improving on-farm drainage management as a way to adapt to wetter spring and fall conditions. The project, led by three researchers in the Faculty of Land & Food Systems at UBC in collaboration with the Delta Farmers’ Institute, the Delta Farmland & Wildlife Trust and local farmers, set up demonstration sites on two fields and monitored practices across a total of 30 fields in multiple locations.

The results of the two-year project indicated the following:

  • Using tile drains in vegetable crop fields increased workable days by 8% and by 14% when pumps where also used. (The impact was negligible for blueberry fields.)
  • Drain tiles spaced at 15 feet allowed soil to dry faster in the spring than drain tiles spaced at 30 feet.
  • Cleaning tile drains resulted in 12 extra workable days per year at a cleaning cost of $10/additional workable day/acre.

Central Interior: Practising Management-intensive Grazing

Management-intensive grazing, a practice that involves planned grazing and rest periods for pastures, is a context-dependent practice that can vary from one rancher and pasture location to the next, making it difficult to test the impact it has on soil.

A four-year project in BC’s Central Interior, completed in spring 2017, compared grazing practices and used traditional soil sampling methods, plant community composition and remote sensing to measure soil carbon. Results confirmed that management-intensive grazing increased soil carbon, which has important implications for soil health.

“What got me interested in grazing-management practices was the enthusiasm of the ranching community,” says Lauchlan Fraser, a professor at Thompson Rivers University who led the project. “I wanted to see if some of the claims that were being made held up.”

The data showed that, for intensively managed pastures, total carbon was 28% greater and organic carbon was 13% greater when compared to extensively managed pastures. It is widely agreed that this stored carbon is linked to soil health, and a fact sheet for the study stated that: “Benefits associated with greater soil carbon include soil moisture retention, erosion control and species biodiversity.”

These outcomes were experienced by the producers who participated in the study. All the ranchers reported that they saw improved soil moisture retention, which would help them cope better in a drought year. They also thought the practice would work as a tool to control invasive species and improve plant and animal diversity, both important contributors to resilient grazing systems.

“It would be worthwhile to follow up with doing the research required to test how biodiversity and soil moisture are influenced,” says Fraser.

While carbon sequestration is primarily associated with climate change mitigation, the project’s final report found additional implications for climate change adaptation: “Flexibility of electric fencing, and actively managing cattle on a daily basis, was identified to be an adaptation strategy, since a rancher is able to adapt his or her practices based on conditions which vary from one year to the next,” says Fraser.

Project Funding and Detailed Reports

For all three of the projects, funding was provided by the Governments of Canada and British Columbia through the Canadian Agricultural Program as part of the Farm Adaptation Innovator Program delivered by CAI.

Complete project results and fact sheets can be found on the CAI website at:

bcagclimateaction.ca


Rachel Penner is the Communications Specialist for the BC Agriculture & Food Climate Action Initiative. She grew up on a grain farm in southwestern Manitoba, received her journalism diploma in Alberta and spent time as a writer and editor in Saskatchewan. She now resides in Victoria, BC, where she works and volunteers as a communications designer and strategist.

Feature photo: Farm field in Delta, BC. Photo credit: CAI – Emrys Miller

Organic Stories: UBC Farm, Vancouver, BC

in 2019/Climate Change/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Stories/Past Issues/Seeds/Winter 2019

Cultivating Climate Resilience in a Living Laboratory

Constance Wylie

Surrounded by forest and sea, the University of British Columbia is a quick 30 minute bus ride west of downtown Vancouver. A city unto itself, more than 55,800 students and close to 15,000 faculty and staff study, work, live, and play there. A small but growing number also farms. Countless hands-on educational opportunities are offered at the UBC Farm: from internships and research placements for university students, to day camps and field trips for school children, to workshops and lectures for interested community members. There is something for everyone, including bountiful amounts of fresh organic produce.

Globally, agriculture accounts for 25% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Half of that is from land use changes such as deforestation, while the other half is attributed to on-farm management practices and livestock. Moreover, our food systems are contributing massive amounts to our ecological footprint. Food accounts for about 50% of Vancouver’s footprint, according to UBC Professor Emeritus William Rees. Evidently, food can, and must, be an agent of change. In our rapidly changing world where the future of yesterday is uncertain, farmers are on the front line.

The folk at UBC’s Centre for Sustainable Food Systems are digging into these challenges using their very own “living laboratory,” aka UBC Farm, as a testing ground. It is a hotbed of leading agricultural research with “aims to understand and transform local and global food systems towards a more sustainable food secure future,” according to the farm website. It is also a green oasis where everyone is welcome to find a quiet moment to connect with nature; the hustle and bustle of campus dissipates on the wings of beneficial insects and chirping birds.

At 24 hectares, this certified organic production farm makes for a unique academic environment. As Melanie Sylvestre, the Perennial, Biodiversity, and Seed Hub Coordinator, puts it, “having a farm that does research in organic production is unique in BC and vital for the future of organic agriculture” in the province.

We can all whet our farming practices by reviewing some of the 30 ongoing research projects at UBC Farm. It should come as no surprise that many of the projects relate coping with the effects climactic changes have on agriculture, locally and globally.

UBC Farm. Credit Constance Wylie

Organic Soil Amendments

One such project is Organic Systems Nutrient Dynamics led by Dr. Sean Smukler and Dr. Gabriel Maltais-Landy. Their research compares the performance of typical organic soil amendments: chicken and horse manure, blood meal, and municipal compost. Depending on the type and amounts of organic soil amendment applied, crop yield will vary, and so too will the environmental impact. They found that often the highest yields result from over fertilization of Nitrogen and Phosphorus, which leads to greater GHG emissions. For example, chicken manure releases potent levels of GHG emissions.

It is a challenging trade-off to negotiate. This information is critically important for the organic grower trying to decrease their environmental impact. Another topic of study was the value of rain protection for on-farm manure storage: for long-term storage, it is always best to cover your manure pile!

Climate Smart

Were you aware that the application of black or clear plastic mulch with low longwave transmissivity can increase soil temperatures by about 40%? Conversely, a high reflective plastic mulch can reduce soil temperatures by about 20%. These are some of the findings of the Climate Smart Agriculture research team, composed of Dr. Andrew Black, Dr. Paul Jassal, and PhD student and research assistant Hughie Jones. In an interview for his researcher profile, Hughie explains that through his work he is “trying to get direct measurements … so that people have access to hard, reliable data” for enhancing crop productivity with mulches and low tunnels for season extension. “By increasing the amount of knowledge available we can reduce the amount of guessing involved for farmers, increasing their predictive power.” When it comes to getting the most out of a growing season, less time spent with trial and error can make a huge difference to your yields and income.

Fields of curcubits at UBC Farm. Credit Sara Dent @saradentfarmlove

Seed Savers

With the fall frost of 2018, the first phase of the BC Seed Trials drew to a close. The collaboration between UBC Farm, FarmFolk CityFolk, and The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security kicked off in 2016 to run these trials. Lead scientist and project manager Dr. Alexandra Lyon explained that the first phase asked, “What are the most hardy, resilient, well adapted varieties that we already have access to?”

More than 20 farms from across the province were involved in trialing seeds including kale, beets, leeks, and spinach. These varieties were chosen as crops that are already known to perform well in BC. The seeds in question are all open-pollinated varieties which boast “higher resilience then hybrid varieties in the face of climate change,” says Sylvestre, who has also been a leading figure in the seed trials.

While farmers may choose hybrid seed for their higher yields and other selected traits, Sylvestre explains that they lack “horizontal resistance, the concept of having diversity within a population allowing it to withstand various climatic changes. Through our selection process, we try to achieve horizontal resistance and therefore offer new varieties that would be better suited in various growing scenarios. It is important to understand that goal of horizontal resistance is among multiple other goals to reach varieties with agronomic traits that will be desirable to farmers and customers.”

“Community building around our local seed systems has been significant through this research project,” Sylvestre adds. The seed trials are also contributing to community building at UBC Farm itself. Rather than compost the crops grown for the seed trials, they are harvested and sold at the weekly farmers market.

With new funding secured from the federal government, the BC Seed trials will continue for at least another five years. Going ahead, the “role of UBC Farm is to train and connect farmers for farmer led plant breeding” says Lyon. While institutional academic research will play a significant role in seed selection and adaptation, “lots of types of seed trialing will be really important.” This means that farmers across the province “supported with tools and knowledge for selecting and saving seed” can contribute significantly to our collective seed and food security. Lyon encourages farmers to reach out with their experiences with regards to climate change and seed. She and members from the team will also be at the COABC conference February 22-24, 2019 with the intention to connect with BC farmers.

Ultimately, at UBC farm, “all the issues people are working on play into what we will need to adapt to climate change” says Lyon. The formal and informal networks made at UBC Farm are really starting to take root across the province. This is an amazing resource for us all to profit from. Take advantage of these slower winter months to dig in and digest the information available to us—it may very well change the way you approach your next growing season.

FOR MORE INFO

Check out UBC Farm online at: ubcfarm.ca

More on Organic Systems Nutrient Dynamics: ubcfarm.ubc.ca/2017/06/01/organic-soil-amendments

More on UBC’s Climate Smart Agriculture research: ubcfarm.ubc.ca/climate-smart-agriculture

For BC Seed trial results and updates: bcseedtrials.ca

Dr. Alexandra Lyon can be contacted at alexandra.lyon@ubc.ca

Seed grown at UBC farm is now available through the BC Eco-Seed Coop. Keep an eye out for two new varieties: Melaton leek and Purple Striped tomatillo.


Constance Wylie left her family farm on Vancouver Island to study Political Science and the Middle East at Sciences Po University in France, only to return to BC where she took up farming, moonlighted as a market manager, and got a PDC in Cuba and Organic Master Gardener certificate with Gaia College. She now lives, writes, and grows food in Squamish with her dog Salal.

Feature Image: UBC Farm. Credit: Sara Dent @saradentfarmlove

California Programs Show How Farmers Are Key to Reversing Climate Change

in 2019/Climate Change/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Winter 2019

Shauna MacKinnon

From extreme flooding to drought and previously unheard of temperature variability, climate change is a serious matter for BC organic growers. While agriculture is feeling more than its share of climate change impacts, a set of solutions exist where farmers and ranchers play a key role. Land-based climate solutions can avoid and absorb enough greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to be equivalent to a complete stop of burning oil worldwide.

This contribution is too important to ignore. An article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences assessed 20 cost effective land-based climate solutions applied globally to forests, wetlands, grasslands, and agricultural lands. These conservation, restoration, and land management actions can increase carbon storage and reduce GHG emissions to achieve over a third of the GHG reductions required to prevent dangerous levels of global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated emissions reductions are not enough to avoid catastrophic climate change impacts: we need to remove existing carbon from the atmosphere. Farmers and ranchers can help do this through practices that sink carbon in soil and vegetative cover.

In California, the fifth largest exporter of food and agriculture products in the world, climate change poses a major threat—drought, wildfire, and a reduction in the winter chill hours needed for many of the state’s fruit and nut crops are already taking a toll on production. California is a leader in climate change policy with ambitious GHG reduction goals, but the state is also recognizing that reductions alone are not enough. California is implementing programs and policies that put the state’s natural and working lands, including wetlands, forests, and agricultural lands, to work sinking carbon.

Field of green rye and legume with mountains in the background and blue sky
Rye & legume cover crop at Full Belly Farm, Guinda, California. CalCAN Farm Tour, March 2017. Photo by Jane Sooby

Carbon Farming: Agriculture as Carbon Sink

Dr. Jeffrey Creque, Director of Rangeland and Agroecosystem Management at the Carbon Cycle Institute in California, is a carbon farming pioneer. It all started with a conversation between himself and a landowner in Marin County. “We were talking about the centrality of carbon to management and restoration of their ranch and watershed,” explains Creque. “That led to a larger conversation about carbon as something they could market and then how exactly we could make that happen.”

The carbon farming concept was founded on early research in Marin County that showed land under management for dairy had much higher carbon concentrations than neighbouring land. This led to research trials by University of California, Berkeley in partnership with local ranches that showed a single year of compost application yielded higher annual carbon concentrations for at least 10 years. In the initial year the compost itself was responsible for some of those carbon additions, but additional annual increases in soil carbon came from carbon being pulled from the atmosphere. The one time, half inch application of compost stimulated the forage grasses to increase carbon capture for a decade or more.

This was enough for researchers to take notice. Producer partners were happy to see the increased yields in forage production that resulted from the compost application. Those first results led to the development of a carbon farm planning tool. “After seeing those results everyone was excited about compost. But we wanted to see what else we could do,” states Creque.

Using the existing USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service farm planning process as their template (the US equivalent of Canada’s Environmental Farm Plan), Creque and his colleagues re-formulated the approach by putting the goal of maximizing carbon sequestration at the centre of the process. The carbon farm planning tool was the result. The first farm in Marin County completed a Carbon Farm Plan in 2014; today, 47 farms across California have completed plans and about 60 more are waiting to begin.

Along with compost applications, other carbon farming practices include riparian restoration, silvopasture (the intentional combination of trees, forage plants, and livestock together as an integrated, intensively-managed system), windbreaks, hedgerows, and improving grazing practices. Over 35 practices are considered in carbon farm planning. For high impact, riparian restoration is one of the best performers. The high productivity of riparian ecosystems means a large amount of carbon can be sunk in a relatively small part of farmers’ and ranchers’ total land area.

Preparation for planting of a one mile windbreak on a Carbon Farm in NE CA. Photo by Dr. Jeff Cheque, Carbon Cycle Institute

Impact and the Potential for Scaling Up

The adoption of carbon farming practices on one California ranch is equivalent to taking 850 cars worth of carbon dioxide out of the air and putting it into the ground. This ranch has also tapped into new markets for their wool by being eligible for the Climate Beneficial program offered by Fibershed, a network that develops regional and regenerative fiber systems on behalf of independent working producers. A win-win at the farm-scale. But collective impact holds the most potential. “No one farm can ameliorate climate change, but collectively with many farms involved they can have a big impact,” Creque emphasizes.

The implementation of carbon farming practices in California is greatly helped by numerous federal, state, and county level programs that offer cost share contributions. Farmers and ranchers can receive direct grants to implement carbon farming practices from programs such as the national Environmental Quality Improvements Program and California State’s Healthy Soils program. But it has been challenging to convince the government agencies involved in managing climate change of the valuable role agriculture can play.

More and more local climate action plans are being developed, but most fail to consider what natural or working lands can offer to GHG mitigation strategies. “The beauty of agriculture land is that since we are already managing them, not as big of a change is required to manage them differently,” Creque concludes.

Rye & legume cover crop at Full Belly Farm, Guinda, California. CalCAN Farm Tour, March 2017. Photo by Jane Sooby

The Role of Organic Producers

Under their Climate Smart Agriculture initiative, California offers programs on irrigation efficiency (SWEEP), farmland conservation, manure management, and incentivizing farm practices that store carbon in soil and woody plants (Healthy Soils). Each of these programs, funded in part by the State’s cap and trade program, plays a role in either decreasing the amount of GHG emitted from the agriculture sector or increasing the amount of carbon stored in soil and woody plants.

The Healthy Soils program has been particularly popular among organic growers. In the first year of funding over 25% of applicants were organic producers, when they make up just 3% of the state’s total producers. Jane Sooby, Senior Policy Specialist at CCOF, a non-profit supported by an organic family of farmers, ranchers, processors, retailers, consumers, and policymakers that was founded in California, explains why: “Organic farmers have a special role to play because they are already required to use practices such as crop rotation that contribute to carbon sequestration, and they are rewarded in the marketplace with a premium for organic products.”

State programs like Healthy Soils and SWEEP are a start, but more can be done, suggests Sooby. These programs are competitive, and they can be complicated and time consuming to apply to which makes it difficult for smaller scale producers to access the available resources. Sooby would like to see California provide financial incentives to all farmers who are taking steps to conserve water and reduce GHG emissions.

CCOF has engaged directly with government to make their programs more accessible to organic farmers and ranchers at all scales. What more is needed?

Sooby likens the current climate change crisis to the all-hands-on-deck approach of the World War II effort: “Climate change is of similar, if not more, urgency. Governments need to draw up plans for how to support farmers and ranchers in sequestering as much carbon as possible and helping them transition to clean energy solutions.”

Learn more:
California Dept. of Food and Agriculture – Climate Smart Agriculture programs: cdfa.ca.gov/oefi
Carbon Cycle Institute: carboncycle.org
Climate Beneficial Wool: Fibershed.com
CalCan – California Climate & Agriculture Network: calclimateag.org/climatesmartag


Shauna MacKinnon has been working on food and agriculture issues for well over a decade. From social and economic research to supporting research and extension she has been honoured to work with many great food and farming organizations. She currently coordinates the Farm Adaptation Innovator Program for the BC Food & Agriculture Climate Action Initiative, but has contributed this piece as an independent writer.

Feature image: Implementation of a rotational grazing program on a Marin Carbon Farm. Photo by Dr. Jeff Cheque, Carbon Cycle Institute.

Ask an Expert: BC Seed Security

in 2019/Ask an Expert/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Seeds/Winter 2019

Scaling Up Organic Vegetable Seed Production in BC

Emma Holmes, P.Ag

The organic seed sector will be getting a boost through a comprehensive project that includes seed production, business, and market supports.

FarmFolk CityFolk, which has been working to cultivate local, sustainable food systems since 1993, will be leading the project with funding provided from the Governments of Canada and B.C. through the Canadian Agriculture Partnership. The five year, $3 billion Canadian Agricultural Partnership launched on April 1, 2018, and includes $2 billion in cost-shared strategic initiatives delivered by the provinces and territories, plus $1 billion for federal programs and services.

FarmFolk CityFolk will specifically be working on:

  • Developing a mobile seed processing unit to help small and mid-scale seed farmers efficiently and affordably process seed
  • Expanding seed production skills training in the Lower Mainland, Okanagan, Kootenays and North through focused in-person training and webinars
  • Supporting new entrants and small seed businesses with “Seed Enterprise Budgets” to help farmers plan and prepare for expenses, revenues and inventory management
  • Supporting Seedy Saturday events around the province by developing shared event planning resources

This project builds off of FarmFolk CityFolk’s previous work with the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, as well as Dan Jason’s Seed Resiliency report commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture this past winter. Jason’s report included an inventory of seed assets in the province as well as recommendations for increasing seed resiliency in BC.

Beet seeds. Credit: Chris Thoreau

British Columbia has the greatest diversity of crops and growing conditions of any province or territory in Canada. This provides a great opportunity to work with a wide range of ecosystems to create regionally tested and locally adapted seeds that support our local foodsheds in uncertain climates and that can also thrive in diverse climates around the world.

Seed production provides BC organic farmers with an opportunity to diversify their farm production and increase revenue. The market for certified organic seed is expected to continue to grow in the coming decades as the consumer demand for organic products increases and certifiers are adopting stricter enforcement around purchasing certified organic seed when available.

FarmFolk CityFolk will be collaborating with other organizations in BC focused on seed, such as the UBC Farm Seed Hub, KPU’s new lab for seed testing and cleaning (a major new asset for the province), and the BC Eco Seed Co-op. The strengths of these organizations, combined with the incredible passion and energy of local seed savers, farmers, and growers, will go a long way in supporting the development B.C.’s organic seed sector, the base of resilient communities and thriving food systems.

bcseeds.org


Emma Holmes has a BSc in Sustainable Agriculture and an MSc in Soil Science, both from UBC. She farmed on Orcas Island and Salt Spring Island and is now the Organics Industry Specialist at the BC Ministry of Agriculture. She can be reached at: Emma.Holmes@gov.bc.ca

Feature image: Examining carrots as part of the BC Seed Trials. Credit: Chris Thoreau

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