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Organic Stories: Grounded Acres, Skwxwú7mesh territory

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

Digging into Community

Darcy Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

groundedacresfarm.ca


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

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

Biodynamic Farm Story?

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

Anna Helmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only I understood why.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buckwheat;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To learn more about OSC3 Activity 8, please visit

dal.ca/oacc/osciii


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

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

Footnotes from the Field: Nature’s Electromagnetism

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

A Cooperative Energy Flow

By Marjorie Harris

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

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

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

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

Climate Changes and Nitrogen Fertilization

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

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

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

Electromagnetic Energy of Lightning

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

The Birds & the Bees

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

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

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

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


Marjorie Harris, IOIA VO and concerned organophyte.

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

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

Climate Mitigation through Agroforestry

in Current Issue/Uncategorized

Emily Lorenz

This article first appeared on the FarmFolk CityFolk website and is printed here with gratitude.

Agroforestry integrates trees or shrubs with other crops and/or livestock. Trees can capture greenhouse gases through their branches, leaves, trunks, and roots, making them an important climate solution and aid in reducing emissions in agriculture. In addition to sequestration, trees improve soil structure with their root systems and add nutrients to the soil with fallen leaves. Trees prevent flash flooding on agricultural lands by slowing down water with their root systems. Agroforestry systems create diversified habitats for wildlife with hedges, fruit trees, dead wood, grazing animals and other crops. Woodlands are a place for climate solutions, beneficial outcomes for farmers, and a calming space to promote farmer well-being.

George Powell, previously employed by the University of Alberta and the Ministry of Forests research program, is now an independent consultant offering his depth of knowledge as an agrologist specializing in integrated production systems. Powell describes agroforestry as, “a whole family of land-use practices that in some way involve the purposeful integration of trees or shrubs with other agricultural production, other crops or with livestock systems.” Agroforestry systems are diverse and complex and often “not defined by what you’re producing, but more like how you’re producing it,” says Powell. Clear cutting for agriculture and eliminating native tree species has severe environmental consequences. Powell says, “That’s probably one of the bigger environmental issues we’re still facing in BC. A lot of small and large stream networks [are suffering]. Forest cover was eliminated up to the water’s edge, which has big consequences for water quality and wildlife habitat.”

Cattle thriving in the margins of woods and field. Credit: Big Bear Ranch.

Maintaining and planting woody plants has beneficial results for our climate. Trees and other woody perennials are a significant source of carbon capture. Powell has experience testing carbon levels in test plots of agroforestry models. He says, “Every tonne of woody material that you grow, about 50% of that is carbon. Large perennials turn over about 50% of their fine root material every year, which means huge soil organic carbon pools could be created. It’s a sequestration monster.” There are benefits for farmers to maintain trees on their land; benefits that include savings on time and labour as well as increasing soil health. Powell says, “With a forested system cleared for agriculture, the more trees and shrubs you retain there, the more you’re mimicking that structural setting and natural flows. The nutrient dynamics and the water dynamics completely change when you bring trees and shrubs into the picture. The soil erosion risks drop off because you have those deep-rooted components that you don’t have from most crops.”

Not only are trees and large woody perennials a climate solution, but agroforestry is an effective adaptation tool for farmers. Powell says, “I think the real strength of agroforestry for BC is in adaptation.” One of the largest benefits of agroforestry modelled farms is the diversification of species on the land. Powell says, “Having a diverse range of things that you’re producing is your first best strategy against climate change and annual variability in the climate extremes.” Windbreaks and temperature control are beneficial results of trees. Powell encourages the use of trees and shrubs for soil moisture conservation in terms of windbreaks.

Farmers can adopt several categories of agroforestry to diversify and strengthen their agricultural system. The list includes alley cropping, silvopasture, shelterbelts, hedgerows, timberbelts, forest farming, and integrated riparian management. Each method offers unique benefits and is typically chosen according to the qualities of the farming operation.

Alley Cropping. Credit: Big Bear Ranch.

The integration of livestock and forest systems through silvopasture is a popular method of integrating trees on a farm. The approach of blending trees and animals in a system has numerous positive effects that benefit animal livelihood and our climate. In the winter, animals have an area to shelter from harsh temperatures and weather that is too extreme for them. Powell notes, “Trees and shrubs are largely water, they become big pools of long wave radiation and they radiate out that energy all around them. In wildlife terms, it’s called a thermal cover and the same principles apply to livestock.” Powell suggests setting up “living barns”, which are, “block or strip cuts into forests where you winter your animals in those strips and they benefit from the sheltering from the wind and the thermal radiation coming from the trees.” More importantly, in summer, shade is an important benefit that animals receive from tree cover. Heat stress occurs when an animal takes on more heat than its capacity to lose it. When they begin to experience heat stress, they seek shelter which a forest can provide easily.

Trees and shrubs offer a variety of nutrients that animals may not otherwise get. Fallen leaves and species that produce nuts and berries are nutritious to an animal’s diet. Beyond the numerous reasons that forested areas benefit livestock, the simplest encouragement is that certain species are meant to be integrated with trees. Powell says, “Livestock species were selected from forest-dwelling species. Cattle and chicken’s native predecessors are forest species. So they’re just happier with forest cover around. There are definite animal welfare benefits there.” Heather Young from Under the Oak Farm is preparing her farm for a silvopasture system. She strategically plants species of nut trees with the native and already established forest species and will introduce cattle onto in the coming years. Young plans to provide her cattle with the benefits of shelter from extreme climate variability and nutrients from the fallen nuts and foliage from the trees.

Forest farming is a unique technique for farmers to cultivate a high-value production crop under a canopy of trees. In addition to maintaining their forested area, they have planted numerous fruit trees with crops underneath to create a food forest. There are numerous benefits to forest farming. Young says, “In nature, trees grow with an understory of plants. If we reproduce that and let nature do its thing, it makes our life easier. We don’t have to weed as much, we don’t need to use nitrogen fertilizer, especially if you have nitrogen fixers. And, the trees provide habitat for birds that will eat your bugs.”

Hens as part of the agroforestry system. Credit: Big Bear Ranch.

Many small-scale farmers use alley cropping to optimize space on their farms. This agroforestry method involves planting rows of trees and/or shrubs to intentionally create alleys where crops are produced. For farmers who row-crop, this is a unique way of increasing income using a different profit source than their regular crops. Alley crops reduce erosion and can be a positive use of space where other crops cannot be planted. Strategically planted rows of trees can act as windbreaks and microclimates for other crops and livestock, increasing yield and quality of life. Alley cropping increases biodiversity and provides additional habitat for wildlife.

One or more rows of closely spaced trees and/or shrubs planted at the right angles to protect crops, soils, animals, and buildings from wind pressure are referred to as shelterbelts and hedgerows. These can be utilized along fence lines or as buffers between crops or animals. According to Powell, we need to restore the damaged waterways caused by agricultural clearing. He suggests, “Restoring those [waterways] in an agricultural setting would involve reestablishing buffers,” like hedgerows and shelterbelts. Rainer Krumsiek at Big Bear Ranch uses shelterbelts and hedgerows on their farm to create windbreaks for both their animals and wildlife. For Krumsiek, agroforestry is an important part of their farming operation. Krumsiek says, “Agroforestry helps with erosion control and nutrient balance. The moisture from snow accumulation and the fallen leaves from trees bring nutrients to the soil.”

Whichever approach farmers choose, agroforestry is regarded highly as a climate solution in agriculture. Trees are massive carbon sinks, add biodiversity to the farm ecosystem, and provide wildlife habitat, all contributing to climate mitigation. Farmers like Young note, “Our ability as agriculture to sequester carbon is more far-reaching than any technology we have so far.” Agroforestry systems benefit farmers in many ways. This includes saving time, labour, and financial costs over time; reducing erosion and increasing soil health; providing a natural canopy and windbreak for grazing livestock and poultry; providing nutrients to the ground below; spreading the risk in agriculture and increasing climate change variability.

When considering an agroforestry approach on a farm, it’s important to keep in mind that not all areas are appropriate for planting trees. Powell says, “When trees are applied to an area, you need to understand what varieties are native to that area and ecosystem, whenever possible. If the goal is to integrate livestock, it’s important to consider that not all livestock are appropriate for certain areas and species of trees. Find a local expert, speak to the local council and consult with First Nations communities.”

Approaching agroforestry by studying local agroecology is a good first step. Natural systems are thriving for a reason and farmers can learn a lot from natural ecosystems. Powell says, “It’s less energy to maintain a system the more of the natural cycles and processes you can retain. That’s what agroforestry does.” This approach can hugely benefit our climate, especially if more agricultural lands in BC incorporate agroforestry practices. Young says, “I am a firm believer that if we change parts of how we live, our emissions would decrease. A big part of how we live is choosing better agricultural practices.”

farmfolkcityfolk.ca


Emily Lorenz is the Engagement Coordinator for FarmFolkCityFolk and is passionate about supporting farmers and ranchers across BC.

Feature image: Alders fix nitrogen in wooded areas. Credit: Farm Folk City Folk.

Footnotes from the Field: Cause and Effect

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

The Relationship Between Religions, Agriculture, and Civilizations

Marjorie Harris

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

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

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

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

Reframing History

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

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

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

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

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

Losing Ourselves to “Feed the World”

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

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

The sixth extinction is on the horizon.

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

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

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

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

Expanding Our Approach

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

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

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

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


Marjorie Harris, IOIA VO and concerned organophyte.

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

Dispatches from the Future

in 2022/Climate Change/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Summer 2022

Our Best Case for a Climate-Changed Food System

Brian MacIsaac and Rebecca Kneen

Fifty years ago, the combination of climate crisis, income inequality, and environmental toxification led to a massive change in North America. The polar ice melt raised the ocean by several feet, drowning cities all over the coast, including all the coastal agricultural regions of BC. Wildfires burned the uplands of the province, and heavy rains fell on the destabilized landscape, changing waterways and flooding river valleys. Survivors of the death of cities to flood and heat moved inland, putting pressure on the remaining livable areas and forcing a dramatic social restructuring. While other regions fell into enclaves of military rule and oligarchs controlling resources and food production in an almost feudal manner, BC’s social history led it down a different path.

Settlements now are within a narrow zone of uplands, with dense communities surrounded by food and forest land under communal management. Land, Seed, Water, Community and Forest Stewards are trained from youth, and guided by Indigenous leadership and principles of reciprocity and responsibility. There is no private land ownership as we know it: people tend to work in the same area of land and skill for generations, but are free to move into a different region or skill to suit their personal needs. New forms of science have arisen, using the skills of the before-times in the context of over-riding ecosystem health, as people have learned that human health is utterly dependent on ecosystem health.

While ocean desalination has killed a lot of ocean life, plants and creatures evolved for living in brackish water are thriving, and there is evidence that some species are rebuilding populations and ecosystems. The oceans remain out of bounds for most, however, in an attempt to let them regenerate. Lakes and rivers have become the primary source of fish, with strict protections over watersheds and waterways in place to support this vital food supply. There are no petro-powered motors allowed on any waterway, and fishing is strictly regulated to prioritize the needs of the water-life systems rather than human consumption.

Lettuce transplanted in summer heat. Credit: Moss Dance.

Centralized mass power production failed completely during the “Spasm,” as wildfire, flood, and mudslides tore the distribution system apart and showed its essential weakness. Electricity is created by steam, solar, wind, and tidal power, in local systems with local distribution. Petrochemicals are almost non-existent, saved for lubrication, gaskets, and bushings, and parts for solar panels. Solar panels themselves are rare, made mostly from reclaimed materials mined from dumpsites all over the province. Steam, wind, and run of the river hydro are the most common forms of power after human and horse power.

Forest replant programs, already beginning to change when the Spasm happened, now focus on planting a wide diversity of species. Watersheds and stream banks are always replanted first, but all replants go in cycles of succession to first stabilize the land and build soil, then adding species that would naturally follow to build canopy and long-term stable systems. Mycorrhizae are planted along with the trees to encourage living soil. Stable slopes, protected watersheds, and vibrant ecosystems are the primary goal, and many species are nurtured which have no direct human use. Forests are harvested for food and timber, but with selective logging only for wood which will be turned into finished products within the local region. Food harvesting is done under the supervision of Indigenous ecosystems managers.

Polyculture farming in small fields has replaced large scale agriculture, as the giant monocrop farms all drowned along with the large flatland areas of the province. All farming is based on organic principles and techniques developed and proven over the last century to have the most regenerative value. Organic farms using mixed or polyculture systems along with cover crops and extensive mulch systems were the only farms to have survived the Spasm relatively intact, as their lively soils were covered to protect from erosion and their many species provided weather, pest, and disease resilience. The knowledge inherited from these regenerative farms provides the basis for new farming techniques.

Farms are organized and managed for each local community in a mix of food, fodder, fibre, and trade crops. The village model keeps housing on rocky land, saving deeper soil for growing crops, and everyone participates in farming—some year-round, some seasonally while their main tasks take them into other areas of expertise—unemployment is not a problem, as every hand is needed to ensure survival. Co-operative farming also means that farm machinery is used efficiently, with new technology constantly being invented by workers to suit the needs of small, diversified farms. Crop patterns and cycles meet community needs, with centralized storage and processing, all of which allow for plenty of labour, skills development, and efficiencies of scale and technology. Food storage makes use of passive systems, from canning and drying to underground cold storage which needs no electricity whatsoever.

Wild bee on phacelia. Credit: Moss Dance.

Polyculture farms make use of terracing for field crops in hilly areas and slopes, as well as involving goats, sheep, and cattle in small flocks and herds. Communities keep only a few cows or goats for meat and milk, depending on their ability to grow the needed winter fodder. Heritage breeds have been selected for their hardiness and heat tolerance, and ability to thrive on pasture and forage only. Sheep are kept in other highland areas, valued for their milk, meat, and wool, as well as their use in grazing cover crops while leaving trees intact. Livestock are highly valued for their concentrated protein, fibre, and manure, so necessary in small-lot agriculture. Pigs and chickens are raised by most households, living on scraps and integrated into crop rotation systems, turning food waste and harvest detritus into precious food and fertilizer, while breaking pest and disease cycles. Meat is a much smaller part of the daily diet, with legumes, eggs, and vegetables taking over, but dairy and meat are cherished for their ability to provide sustenance when the now-common wild shifts in weather devastate field crops.

The expense and waste of shipping fresh foods out of season has shifted everyone’s diets to focus on local, seasonal foods, with a great reliance on preserved foods for cold seasons, and a lot of investment in low-tech season extension techniques. Coffee and chocolate have become the longest-distance trade goods, and are saved for special occasions, while other foods once considered staples of specialized “earth-friendly” diets are unheard of: coconuts are traded whole only, and very rare, cashews are never seen, and almonds’ high water consumption killed most of them during the repeating droughts.

As economies have become more locally focused, so have diets. Trade begins with neighbouring areas, focusing on goods and foods which cannot be produced locally—wild rice, grains, bison meat and robes, and materials mined from scrap in other regions are all high value, as well as high-tech items and finished goods like cloth. Southern BC’s wool is traded for linen from the Peace and prairies.

Fibre for clothing comes primarily from wool, with hemp and linen being grown only in limited areas due to their extensive space and nutrient requirements, but they are always included in long cycle crop rotations. Local craftspeople and mills provide the needed processing, while excess cloth, thread, and yarn are valued trade goods.

Pole beans adorn the southern and eastern walls of any house not covered in espaliered fruit trees, as legumes become the workhorse of everyone’s diet, and provide both shade and food. Long cycle crop rotations include grains, legumes, fodder, fibre, and vegetable crops, with zero use of toxic pesticides and herbicides. The mass die-off of pollinators and 80% of insect life due to the use of agrotoxins also killed off many tree and plant species, but new insects are starting to fill in the ecosystem gaps, and Land Stewards are learning to adapt to reduced and changed insect life.

Beekeeping is a critical new profession, as the death of insects and use of agrotoxins devastated both honeybees and native bees. Beekeepers breed both honeybees and solitary bees, and are venerated for their social teachings as well as the vital pollination and, of course, honey. Groups of children help with pollination, being encouraged to run through flowering crops to spread pollen while they play.

Seed Stewards are constantly adapting varieties, but everyone grows several crops for seed, as so many varieties are needed to create the genetic variations for constant adaptation. GMO traits and terminator genes keep surfacing, requiring constant attention and rogueing out of affected varieties, while always trading seed and breeding from those varieties that show the most local resilience and adaptation. Seeds provide another valuable source of trade goods, sharing crop resources, genetic variation, and skills.

Shorter and more violent winters have changed diets as well. Hydroponics and indoor “farms,” once touted as the saviour technologies, were far too dependent on electric power and petrochemicals for everything from irrigation to fertilizers to lighting and other infrastructure. Instead, every family grows sprouts to provide the bulk of winter greens, as well as hardy crops like kale, chard, spinach, and corn salad raised over winter in cold frames. Cold storage keeps a multitude of root vegetables, fruit, and cabbage fresh all winter, while meat provides any missing vitamins, and canned, fermented, and dried food create lots of variety. High-tech, energy intensive systems have failed over and over again, while passive systems of cold storage have proven value.

In many ways, this is a change back to a much earlier lifestyle, without many of the modern conveniences we take for granted. In other ways, we have managed to bring with us the best of contemporary technology and scientific advancement. Medicine has changed, as the vast array of pharmaceuticals is not accessible, but specialized production is supported by groups of communities, with pharmaceuticals being a highly valued trade commodity. Many other modern technologies (washing machines, for example) have been adapted to human power, and are being built for long-term use rather than planned obsolescence. Dumpsite mining, while dangerous due to the high levels of toxins, provides an unbelievable resource for otherwise scarce chemicals and materials.

What has really changed is our attitude: life is no longer disposable, and we live in the constant awareness of the value of the ecosystems in which we live.


Brian MacIsaac creates art and beer and instigates revolution at Crannog Ales, on unceded Secwepemc Territory. He spent years as a social worker and on the front lines of anti-fascist and anti-poverty work, actively working against British colonialism and for the re-unification of Ireland.

Rebecca’s parents led her down the sheep track to food sovereignty and food systems analysis through their Ram’s Horn magazine and Brewster’s many books. She farms and brews in Secwepemc Territory at Left Fields/Crannóg Ales and is Organic BC’s representative to the Organic Federation of Canada.

Feature image: Sunflowers at Burgoyne Valley Community Garden. Credit: Moss Dance.

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.

Let’s Hold Hands

in 2021/Fall 2021/Land Stewardship/Organic Community

By Natalie Forstbauer

The emptiness of the Earth’s desertified soils is palpable.
The insidious poisoning of our water is profound.
The toxic air filling our lungs is suffocating.
The mass extinction of life is alarming.
The dis-ease in human bodies is dominating.

We wonder, “What can we do? What can I do?”
To change the course of the destruction of earth, humanity, and all living creatures.

Is Global Regeneration even possible?

Is it possible to bring life back into soil?
Is it possible for our waterways to run clean?
Is it possible to purify the air we breathe?
Is it possible to reverse the illness and disease raging through humanity, our pets, and wildlife?

I sit in wonder…

And with certainty – I see it is possible.

Now is the time to engage in Global Regeneration.
There has never been a better time to have your hands in the soil working with nature.
Now is the time to deepen into nature’s wisdom and guidance and rise.

It’s time to shine as a farmer, steward of the land, seed saver, gardener, and lightworker in unity for Global Regeneration.

It starts with you.
It starts with me.
It starts with conversations.
It starts with meeting yourself, each other and the Earth where we are, at this very moment in kindness, compassion, and reverence.

Here’s the thing.
Earth does not need us.
We NEED her.
Let’s Hold Hands.

What if we turned towards helping each other?
What if we turned towards what we want to create?
What if we turned towards being intentional in our actions?
What if we turned towards being conscious of our choices?
What if we turned towards being aligned with nature?
What if we turned towards listening to the wisdom of our bodies?
What if we turned towards amplifying the amazing work being done locally and globally in our homes, communities, and countries?

When we go looking, we see Global Regeneration is in manifestation…

Soil has shown us she comes to life with billions of organisms in just one teaspoon of healthy soil when supported with living biology.

Rain has shown us it returns when supported with agroecology and soil health.
Water has shown us it is stored, purified and resourceful in healthy soil.
Air has shown us carbon is naturally stored in soil rich in organic matter with a diverse soil food web.
Our bodies have shown us they are designed to be healthy and heal when fed a plant-based chemical free diet.

Nature has shown us she seeds, nourishes, restores, regenerates, and renews everyday in every way.
When things aren’t working, she deconstructs, composts, harvests and regenerates—in her way.

Will you join her?
Will you hold hands with Mother Nature?
Will you allow her to guide you?
Will you lean in?
Will you listen?
Will you watch and observe?
Will you learn and follow her lead?

Will we join her?

Globally.
In regeneration.
Global Regeneration.

This is an opportunity in history to show up intentionally, consciously, and regeneratively. Let’s be in this conversation because talking can change minds which can transform behaviours which can transform societies.

Local actions make a global impact.

Focus on what you CAN do, rather than on what you cannot do.
Be a champion for yourself advocating for what is important to you.
Focus on compassion for others on this journey.
Be a champion for others with your presence, actions, conversations—we are all learning, growing, and figuring this out together.

Focus on leading with wisdom and grace.
Share what you are learning and discovering and be encouraging towards others on the same path, others who are a few steps behind you and others on a different path altogether.

Global Regeneration is global healing at the deepest level.
Global Regeneration invites us to pause, to tune in, to observe, to connect, and to be in regeneration with ourselves, each other, and our home on earth.
It starts with awareness. It builds with conversations. It happens with action.

Global Regeneration is inviting you to take your next step in regeneration. What will it be?


Natalie Forstbauer, is the founder and editor-in-chief of Heart & Soil Magazine. She is a TEDx speaker, author, organic/biodynamic farmer and traumatic brain injury (TBI) survivor. She is passionate about human potential and seeing people live their best lives. Raised on an organic farm, trained in Polarity Therapy, alternative medicine, Neurofeedback and Transformational Leadership she brings a wealth of knowledge and life experience to her audiences.

heartandsoilmagazine.com

Footnotes from the Field: Waste Not, Want Not

in 2020/Fall 2020/Footnotes from the Field/Livestock/Preparation/Soil

Empowering the Human Micronutrient Supply Chain from the Soil Up

Marjorie Harris

I have long accepted that the saying “Healthy Soil, Healthy Plants, Healthy people” fully explained the human nutrient supply chain. Turns out, this is not entirely accurate. In fact, the mineral requirements for healthy plants, animals, and people are quite different.

During organic farm inspection tours, I met a BC farm family diagnosed with selenium deficiency syndromes. The local health unit had identified the conditions. One person suffered from a significant fused spinal curvature from a skeletal muscle disease caused by selenium deficiency.

The farm’s soil tests confirmed that the garden soils were indeed deficient in selenium. The farmer was aware that his newborn livestock required selenium shots to prevent white muscle disease and that his livestock were fed selenium-fortified commercial organic livestock feed.

That BC farmer’s “Aha!” moment came when he made the connection between his garden soils’ lack of selenium and his family’s health problems. My curiosity was piqued. What was going on here—what is selenium and where do we find it?

Selenium is recognized as an essential trace mineral for healthy livestock and it is standard best practice to give selenium shots shortly after birth. In the year 2000, the Canadian government, along with the rest of North America, mandated the addition of selenium minerals to commercial livestock feeds (poultry, swine, beef/dairy, goat, and sheep) as a way to increase animal health and fortify the human food supply in dairy, meat, and eggs. Canadian wildlife surveys have determined that wild creatures also suffer from selenium deficiency diseases. Chronic and subclinical selenium deficiency could be a contributing factor to recent wildlife population declines, as other causes have not been identified.

I was surprised to learn from the government of Alberta’s Agri-Fax sheet that plants do not use selenium and do not show deficiency symptoms from its lack in the soil. At the same time, there are a few plants, such as locoweeds, that can hyperaccumulate selenium to levels that are toxic to livestock when selenium concentrations are high in the soil.

It was only relatively recently that we realized selenium was essential for human health. In 1979, Chinese scientists made the discovery while investigating the deaths of thousands of young women and children in the Keshan County of North Eastern China. The condition associated with these deaths was named Keshan disease, after the county where it was first recognized. The Chinese scientists discovered that selenium supplementation could correct the disorder. Since then, much has been learned about how selenium acts as a mineral in the human body in conjunction with other trace minerals such as chromium and iodine, which are also not used by plants.

Selenium deficiency is regarded as a major worldwide health problem with estimates of between 500 million to 1 billion people living with selenium deficiency diseases. Even larger numbers of people are consuming less then what is needed for optimal protection against cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and infectious diseases.

Researchers have found that selenium is widely distributed throughout the body’s tissues and of high importance for many regulatory and metabolic functions. Selenium is very much like a “Goldilocks” micronutrient: you need just the right amount. Too much or too little can lead to serious health consequences. The Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) in Canada for adults and children 14 and up is 55 micrograms per day. Our dietary selenium is taken up in the gut and becomes incorporated into more than 30 selenoproteins and selenoenzymes that play critical roles in human biological processes. Selenium is considered a cornerstone of the body’s antioxidant defense system as an integral component required for glutathione peroxidase (GPx) activity. The GPx enzyme family plays a major role in protection against oxidative stress.

In addition, selenoproteins regulate many physiological processes, including the immune system response, brain neurotransmitter functioning, male and female reproductive fertility, thyroid hormone functioning, DNA synthesis, cardiovascular health, mental health, and heavy metal chelation. Selenoproteins have a protective effect against some forms of cancer, possess chemo-preventive properties, and regulate the inflammatory mediators in asthma.

Many chronic diseases have been linked to selenium deficiency. A short list includes: diabetes, Alzheimer’s, lupus, autoimmune disease, arthritis, schizophrenia, cardiovascular disease, degenerative muscle diseases, neurological diseases, and rheumatoid arthritis. The selenium GPX-1 immune defense system has demonstrated antiviral capability. GPx-1 is found in most body cells, including red blood cells.

Some lipid-enveloped viruses pirate host selenium resources as a strategy to outmaneuver the host immune selenium-activated GPX-1 antioxidant system. If a host is selenium-deficient the virus can overwhelm the host GPX-1 immune response. In selenium-competent individuals the GPX-1 initiates an immune response cascade which inhibits viral replication and clears the virus from host. Selenium’s antiviral defense ability has been documented for Ebola, coronavirus, SARS-2003, influenza viruses (swine and bird flus), HIV, herpes viruses, cytomegalovirus (CMV), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), hepatitis B and C, Newcastle disease virus, rubella (German measles), varicella (chicken pox), smallpox, swine fever, and West Nile virus. There are a number of studies showing that selenium deficiency negatively impacts the course of HIV, and that selenium supplementation may delay the onset of full-blown AIDS.

While the research is still unfolding and it is too early to make determinative conclusions about COVID-19 and potential treatments, preliminary research indicates several interesting lines of inquiry. COVD-19 researchers in China published new data on April 28, 2020 making an association the COVID-19 “cure rates and death rates” and the soil selenium status of the region. Higher deaths rates were observed in populations living inside soil selenium-poor regions such as Hubei Province. Regional population selenium status was measured through hair samples. Samples were collected and compared from 17 different Chinese cities: “Results show an association between the reported cure rates for COVID-19 and selenium status. These data are consistent with the evidence of the antiviral effects of selenium from previous studies.”

By now, you’ve probably figured out that we can’t live without selenium. The evidence is clear: human and animal health is dependent on selenium, and yet it is the rarest micronutrient element in the Earth’s crust. Selenium is classed as a non-renewable resource because there are no ore deposits from which Selenium can be mined as the primary product. Most selenium is extracted as a by-product of copper mining.

Selenium has many industrial applications because of its unique properties as a semi-conductor. The most outstanding physical property of crystalline selenium is its photoconductivity. In sunlight electrical conductivity increases more than 1,000-fold, making it prized for use in solar energy panels and many other industrial uses that ultimately draw selenium out of the food chain, potentially permanently.

Selenium is very unevenly dispersed on land masses worldwide, ranging from deficient to toxic concentrations, with 70% to 80% of global agricultural lands considered to be deficient. Countries dominated by selenium-poor soils include Canada, Western and Eastern European, China, Russia, and New Zealand. Worldwide selenium-deficient soils are widespread, and increasing.

Naturally selenium-rich soils are primarily associated with marine environments. Ancient oceans leave behind dehydrated selenium salts as they recede. Here in Canada the receding salt waters of the Western Interior and Hudson seaways left mineral deposits from the Badlands of Alberta, following along the southern borders of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Some countries, including Finland and New Zealand, have added selenium (selenite) to fertilizer programs to fortify the soils with some success. Results show that only a small proportion of the selenium is taken up by plants and much of the remainder becomes bound up in non-bioavailable complexes out of reach for future plant utilization. On this basis, it is thought that large scale selenium biofortification with commercial fertilizers would be too wasteful for application to large areas of our planet. The geographic variability of selenium content, environmental conditions, and agricultural practices all have a profound influence on the final selenium content of our foods. Iodine, which works hand-in-hand with selenium, is even more randomly variable in soils and food crops.

The Globe and Mail ran the following January 2, 2020 headline: “Canadian researchers combat arsenic poisoning with Saskatchewan-grown lentils.” In 2012, it was estimated by the WHO that 39 million Bangladeshis were exposed to high levels of arsenic in their drinking water, and the World Health Organization (WHO) deemed Bangladesh’s arsenic poisoned groundwater crisis the “largest mass poisoning of a population in history.” As it turns out, the lentils from southern Saskatchewan accumulate enough selenium that they could be used as a “food-medicine” in Bangladesh as a cure for arsenic poisoning. Clinical trials conducted from 2015 to 2016 found that participants eating selenium-rich lentils had a breakthrough moment when urine samples confirmed that arsenic was being flushed from their bodies. Other studies have also shown that selenium binds to mercury to remove it from the body.

Now that we are finally wrapping our minds around the fact that our personal health depends on just the right amount of selenium, we find out that the health of future generations may depend on it even more. It takes more than one parent’s generation to produce a single child. While a female fetus is growing in the womb, the eggs of the gestating mother’s grandchildren are also being formed in the ovaries of the fetus. The viability of the grandchildren’s DNA is protected from oxidative stress damage by antioxidant selenium. Oxidative stress on the new DNA could potentially result in epigenetic changes for future generations. The selenium intake of the grandparent directly affects the grandchildren. From this point of view, it is seen as imperative that all childbearing people have access to sufficient selenium. Selenium is essential for healthy spermatogenesis and for female reproductive health, as well as the brain formation of the fetus. In short, humanity is dependent on selenium for health—now and forever.

The world’s selenium resources are scarce and need to be carefully managed for future generations. Since both the human and livestock food chains are being fortified with this scarce resource, the manures from these sources are worth more then their weight in gold. The natural cycles of returning resources dictates that livestock manures need to be guided back into the soil for crop production. Human biosolids can be guided into fiber crops or forest production. Over time, livestock manures will fortify the soils with all of the micronutrients passing through their systems. Human manures passing through fiber crops can eventually be composted and recycled into crop production, returning selenium continually to the human micronutrient supply chain.

Waste not, want not.


Marjorie Harris, IOIA VO and concerned organophyte.

References:
Evans, I., Solberg, E. (1998). Minerals for Plants, Animals and Man, Agri-Fax Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development: agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex789/$file/531-3.pdf?OpenElement
Haug, A., et al. (2007). How to use the world’s scarce selenium resources efficiently to increase the selenium concentration in food, Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease: Dec 19: 209 – 228. DOI: 10.1080/08910600701698986
Jagoda, K. W., Power, R., Toborek, M. (2016). Biological activity of
selenium: Revisited, IUBMB Life – Review: Feb;68(2):97-105. DOI: 10.1002/iub.1466
Brown, K.M., Arthur, J.R. (2001). Selenium, Selenoproteins and human health: a review, Public Health Nutrition: Volume 4, Issue 2b pp. 593-599. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1079/PHN2001143
Harthill M., (2011). Review: Micronutrient Selenium Deficiency Influences Evolution of Some Viral Infectious Diseases, Biol Trace Elem Res. 143:1325–1336. DOI: doi.org/10.1007/s12011-011-8977-1
Zhang, J. et al. (2020). Association between regional selenium status and reported outcome of COVID-19 cases in China, Am J Clin Nutr. doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqaa095.
Carbert, M., (2020). Canadian researchers combat arsenic poisoning with Saskatchewan-grown lentils, The Globe and Mail: theglobeandmail.com/canada/alberta/article-canadian-researchers-combat-arsenic-poisoning-with-saskatchewan-grown/
Sears, M.E. (2013). Chelation: Harnessing and Enhancing Heavy Metal Detoxification—A Review, The Scientific World Journal. doi.org/10.1155/2013/219840
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