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Regenerative Agriculture is the Way of the Future

in 2021/Current Issue/Grow Organic/Organic Community/Organic Standards/Spring 2021

Certification is Helping Define Best Practices

Travis Forstbauer

This article first appeared in Country Life in BC and is reprinted here with gratitude.

Soil health is the foundation of any healthy organic farm. While modern agriculture has primarily focused on nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, soil health from an organic perspective focuses on the health and diversity of microscopic and macroscopic life in the soil.

The foundation of all life is carbon, so on an organic farm, soil health can often be directly related to soil organic matter (soil carbon). So, it is with cautious optimism that the BC Association for Regenerative Agriculture (BCARA) welcomes the renewed focus on regenerative agriculture.

Use of the term “regenerative agriculture” has exploded over the past few years. However, this is not a new philosophy. In North America, Indigenous peoples had been practicing forms of regenerative agriculture for thousands of years before the Europeans came and settled. In more recent times, during the early 20th century after the industrialization of agriculture, European farmers were noticing significant decreasing crop yields. Rudolf Steiner attributed this in part to depleted soil health and gave instruction that laid the foundation for biodynamic agriculture, a regenerative system of agriculture dedicated to building soil life.

Then through the mid to late 20th century, pioneers like J.I. Rodale, Lady Balfour, Robert Rodale, and the lesser-known Ehrenfried Pfeiffer championed organic agriculture practices that, at their heart, were regenerative. Through the 1980s and 1990s this movement blossomed to what is known as organic agriculture.

In 1986, as part of the early organic agriculture movement, a group of farmers in the Fraser Valley organized themselves to create the BCARA. An early definition of regenerative agriculture that they settled on was:

BCARA went on to become a leader in the early organic movement in BC, where, at the grassroots of organic agriculture, was the belief that every organic farm should strive to be regenerative in its practices. Soil health expressed as life in the soil, has always been the foundation of organic agriculture.

“Regenerative Agriculture is both a philosophy and a farm management system. Philosophically, it says that there is within people, plants, animals and the world itself a way of recovery that both comes from within and carries the recovery process beyond previous levels of well-being. Robert Rodale says, “Regeneration begins with the realization that the natural world around us is continually trying to get better and better.

Over the past 30 years much has changed in both organic and conventional agriculture and over the past few years the term “regenerative agriculture” has been loosely used for a variety of farming systems. There is a general understanding that a regenerative farming system captures carbon and helps to mitigate climate change. There are many organizations that have jumped onto this wave of regenerative agriculture. But the term “regenerative agriculture” is not regulated like the term organic. There is no governing body overseeing the use of this term and as a result it has been loosely used and often misused and this is of concern to BCARA.”

Travis Forstbauer on the farm. Credit: Forstbauer Farm

There are some that believe that no-till agriculture systems are more regenerative than organic systems that perform some tillage. However, we fundamentally disagree with this assertion. Many of these no-till systems still rely on toxic herbicides such as glyphosate, and while we applaud agriculture producers’ actions to build soil life, capture carbon, and mitigate climate change, BCARA holds the position that any form of agriculture with the goal to be regenerative should have a foundation of organic practices.

BCARA believes that the healthiest, cleanest food is produced in a regenerative agricultural system, without the use of herbicides, pesticides, and agrochemicals. Regenerative agriculture strives to be a closed loop system whereas the production of these agrochemicals is CO2 intensive and are often produced long distances from the farm.

In the US, a regenerative agriculture standard has been developed called Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC). This certification requires the operation to be certified organic to be designated as regenerative. Certification is on a tiered system of bronze, silver, and gold. The farm is granted certification based on how many regenerative practices they use on their farm as defined in the ROC standard. It is our view that this is the gold standard of regenerative certification.

Currently, there are countless researchers, soil advocates, and organizations doing the much-needed work to shift the collective focus of agriculture towards regenerative practices. These people and organizations include Gabe Brown, Elaine Ingham, Matt Powers, Zach Bush of Farmers Footprint, Maria Rodale and the Rodale Institute, Ryland Engelhart and Finnian Makepeace from the film Kiss the Ground, the Regenerative Organic Alliance, the Canadian Organic Trade Association, and the list goes on and on.

Much like organic agriculture has evolved, the understanding of regenerative agriculture will continue to evolve and BCARA looks forward to being a leading voice for regenerative agriculture in BC.


Travis Forstbauer is president of BCARA, an organic certification body that certifies farms and businesses across the province of BC. He farms alongside his wife and children, his father Hans, his brother Niklaus and his family, sister Rosanna and many other family members throughout the growing season. Together they steward Forstbauer Farm, a multigenerational, certified organic, biodynamic farm located in Chilliwack.

Feature image: Cows in field. Credit: Forstbauer Farm

Biodynamic Farm Story: What Steiner Said

in 2021/Crop Production/Current Issue/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Spring 2021

Anna Helmer

I exhibit a strong spring Biodynamic practice. I have all the time in the world for stirring BD 500, tending to compost piles, and dutifully attempting to follow the planting calendar. In the summer things will likely slide, and the fall is very Biodynamically weak for me. Winter comes and at that point it’s out of my hands as that’s when the influence of the distant planets of the cosmos takes effect in the soil. For real.

But that is neither here nor there, for the purposes of spring. Don’t get hung up on that. What’s important now is that this spring I have already vacuumed the farm truck and washed it twice. I am well on my way to cleaning up the shop and tidying the upstairs of the barn. And I have not lost my interest in learning more about Biodynamic farming.

A couple of earnest, active, and idealistic springs have passed since I decided to develop a more learned and deliberate approach to Biodynamic farming. Prior to that, I had been a willing, but not a very wondering, participant in our farm’s practice. I would have happily kept going like that, but my inability to articulate even the basic concepts was undeniably denting my preferred image as a modern, hip organic potato farmer.

Anna, what is Biodynamic farming? Anna of yester-spring: uh, well, you know how the moon and planets and stuff are there…and the soil is important…you have to look after the soil…and make good soil in compost. It’s sort of homeopathy for the soil. Beyond organics.

You see the problem.

Biodynamically-woke Anna: agriculture involves taking crops off the land and is therefore inherently exploitive. A Biodynamic grower knows this and works to replenish and strengthen the life and energy of the soil so that the crops continue to be imbued with taste and vitality.

Oh well, then. That explains that.

I did not make this up, of course. It is in the lectures, buried deep in Lecture 5. Finally, after countless readings, I have picked up on what Steiner was putting down. If you ask me, he should have led with this idea, rather than launching Lecture 1 with a description of the relative effects of cosmic energy on plants, animals, and humans.

The thing is, though, he didn’t. He died only a year after delivering these lectures and he may have known he was mortally ill at the conference. There may in fact have been a sense of urgency to his delivery. So, he probably started exactly where he meant to start and finding a powerful mission statement in Lecture 5 does not absolve me from figuring out what he is talking about leading up to that point. For now, however, I am agog with dawning comprehension.

Now. You will point out to me that regenerative farming is all about replacing in the soil what has been used, and what’s so special about Steiner saying it? Well, I guess that would be the compost preparations he describes. They are special.

Steiner is not insisting that farmers stop regenerating soil in whatever way they are doing it, from cover cropping to (just short of) using synthetic chemical fertilizers, and the massive number of options in between. He is, however, suggesting that these are not adequate measures. They are driven by science, which is not enough.

The biodynamic method is driven by observation, experience, and a belief in the existence of forces that cannot be immediately seen or measured, but whose presence is proven in the resulting product. It is these cosmic influences, collected in the soil and taken up into the plant, that are removed along with the crop and therefore must be replaced. He is not denying the efficacies and even necessities of science in agriculture but rather saying that it stops short of completing the regeneration necessary to maintain the production of healthy, tasty food.

Steiner’s Lecture 5 describes the Biodynamic Compost Preparations, which when applied in very small doses, enliven and provide stimulus for the soil to again be able to collect the streams of cosmic force. They consist of common and recognizable plants variously treated and applied to compost heaps, the soil of which is then applied to the field or garden. There was no scientific underpinning then, or even now; he expected that the science would catch up eventually.

Look, it is a scientific fact that the moon causes the tides of the ocean and that the sun warms our atmosphere. These influences are easily perceived of course, and science is there to confirm the obvious and fill in the details. Can we propose that other planets and cosmic bodies take effect on earth too, although not in a way we can easily see, feel, touch, or smell? Can we do this ahead of science telling us it is so?

Heavens above, it has taken me a long time to write this article. I had to go back into the lectures quite a bit to see if I was on the right track. I even read a bit of Steiner poetry. I wrote long, meandering paragraphs about the contrasting yet inseparable dualities of matter and spirit, of science and spirituality. I did a lot of deleting.

I’ll have to leave it here. I must go outside and get giddy over spring.


Anna Helmer farms with her family in Pemberton and would like to scientifically prove that the hundred-pound sacks of seed potatoes are getting heavier all the time. helmersorganic.com

Feature image credit: Helmers Organic Farm

Biodynamic Farm Story: Coping Without Cows

in 2021/Grow Organic/Marketing/Winter 2021

Anna Helmer

Lament: No in-person farming conferences and meetings this winter. No chance encounters in the Trade Show, no delightful perusal and purchase at the silent auction, and no (insert acute pang of nostalgia here) food and drink. I regret all the ongoing unfinished conversations with people I see only annually but think about all year—friendships that are continually enriched with shared stories of farming. All this seems lost to me online.

Solace: The online versions will quite likely result in luxuriously languid hours spent sprawled in a chair with tea
and cookies enjoying edification by interesting presenters. That experience, I believe, can be replicated. And there will likely be benefits yet unrecognized—easier to attend? Less driving? Certain efficiencies achieved?

Admission: Farming conferences can be quite boring; by which I mean, nice and boring. Being bored is an aspirational state for me, and farming conferences often deliver. I find it very relaxing. I hope they don’t get too efficient.

Get on with it: I am avoiding talking about what I intend to write about. The theme for this edition of the BC Organic Grower is: Seeding Wisdom: Collaboration & Relationships. Suitable seed beds are necessary for successful seeding and blah blah blah extend the metaphor yourself.
Uncomfortably for me, certain sage seeds are right now being deliberately picked out and set aside and the chickens have come home to roost in the form of cull potatoes.

For if there is one bit of wisdom a Biodynamic (or any) farmer would share, it would quite possibly be: keep cows. Cows process things like grass and cull potatoes into valuable usefulness. Grass and cull potatoes might otherwise be useless clutter. Cull potatoes, for example, claim valuable space, bins, and effort, and on a seed potato farm they need to be disposed of so thoroughly that they won’t regrow. Cows excel at this task, daily devouring large volumes in slobbery bliss. Well, we don’t have cows right now and we aren’t getting cows anytime soon. Ergo, wisdom kicked to the curb, problem still exists and getting bigger.

Now I have to build a compost heap that will digest potatoes. The plan is to layer potatoes, old hay, and dirt all winter long. The potatoes will, I think, freeze and thaw a few times in there and turn to mush. I hope the hay will create some pathways through that muck before it totally rots too, which will allow air, worms, microbes, and fungi to spread through and decompose everything. This is not a scientific explanation of what will happen.

No one is coming to me for scientific wisdom, right? Just checking.
I have some other things to throw in there: eggshells that I have been accumulating all summer, and, of course, Biodynamic Preparations 502-507. In the spring, once the root-houses are cleared of potatoes, perhaps the nettles will be up and I’ll cover the pile with all I can get. Finally, in a nod to the wise Biodynamic practice of a million farmers in India, I’ll cap it with a layer of fresh cow dung.

This is the step I am most excited about. I just miss so much the smell of fresh, happy cow manure and I am poised to poach the poop of a few local herds. One of them grazes on an airy grassy knoll with a stupendous view of the local massif, Mount Currie. Surely cows with that perspective will produce some very energizing manure. Another is the herd of a valued mentor. She is the one who taught me that if you don’t want to get behind in farming, you have to do a farming job every day. Even when you don’t want to. Even when there is a thunder-snow rainstorm going on. Especially then.

I am going to spread this manure by hand. That’s how it’s done.


Anna Helmer is going into winter in the Pemberton Valley with no lack of plans.

Feature image credit: Helmers Organic Farm.

Biodynamic Farm Story: Farming Amidst the Pandemic

in 2020/Grow Organic/Organic Community/Summer 2020

Anna Helmer

Biodynamically, there is nothing to be done but carry on. As far as I know, Rudolph Steiner did not articulate any advice on performing the pandemic farm pivot when he envisioned what has become Biodynamic farming. Mind you, he did live through the big flu of the early 20th century, so I think it quite possible that there is resilience to the effects of physical distancing built into his ideas.For evidence, I can tell you that at least one of his Waldorf schools has handled the necessary pivot to online learning with aplomb. The first day back from spring break, a five-day Grade 1 lesson plan plopped into my inbox: the product of an assortment of computer applications and teachers devoted to delivering school to the children. The student has remained engaged and the whole thing is somewhat magical, I have to say, especially given their previous abhorrance of screens.

Our farm has too performed a pivot—but it is too early to tell how it will turn out. It doesn’t look all that different from last year so far. Planting potatoes, planning on selling them. Further details to be decided later. It can’t be sorted out right now, with the information we have. Not to boast or anything, but I feel numb about it.

The thing about COVID is that everyone is affected. I can’t possibly bang on about my own tough situation full in the knowledge that others must have it much tougher. When regular, run-of-the-mill, middle-class tax-payers are facing an uncertain future, one assumes one’s troubles are standard to the point of tediousness.

Suffice it to say, COVID-pression must be a widespread, underlying condition on almost every farm this spring. If you haven’t got it, I think you should. It’s time to slide. You just have to pass through the phase of despair to get to the numb phase, where you just keep plodding along. It’s easy to trigger if you ponder the fact that a lot of your customers don’t have jobs and have no prospect for a job. They have been homeschooling and entertaining their kids for weeks. Many of them have realized that these kids are difficult and have trouble hearing the word “no.”  Most of the things that generally offer happiness, satisfaction, and inspiration aren’t available right now, or possibly even soon: waving kids off to school (in retrospect, a personal favorite), office drama, alone-time (Oh! Oh!), conferences, vacations, etc etc. If this isn’t you, isn’t that nice. It is your customers. Thank goodness the mainstream food system is underperforming, and the people have to eat. They may go local afterall, so get to plodding along.

You’re welcome for bringing the bouyant down a few pegs. Someone had to do it. Nothing worse than perky positive types when one is trying to be resilient. Speaking for myself, I knew I had issues when my rough draft included the following in a list of pandemic upsides:

Cheap gas. Isn’t it fun to fill up? Nevermind the climate. Gas-guzzlers for the win!

Don’t worry. I came to my senses and edited it out.

The conventional food system is creaking and in some cases cracking. Turns out slaughtering and processing tens of thousands of animals a day by a low-paid, disposable —yet irreplaceable—workforce in an industry owned from top to bottom by billionaires keen on profits is a weak model. What could possibly go wrong? COVID. That’s what. Get real.

I am not editing out my scornful tone.

Back to farming. I am writing this May 13th. You are reading well into June or July. I wonder what’s happening now?


Anna Helmer hesitated for so long over writing this sign-off bit that it no longer made sense to put anything here at all.

Bonus: As part of their Growing Pains series, CBC’s On the Coast interviewed BC organic potato farmer Anna Helmer on how COVID-19 has changed the way she’ll sell her crop this year: “It hit like a ton of bricks. Those mid-March markets in Vancouver. All of a sudden, we were doing a quarter of the sales that I’m happy with.” Have a listen!

Photo courtesy of Helmer’s Organic Farm

Biodynamic Farm Story: Unfinished Conversations

in 2020/Marketing/Organic Community/Spring 2020

Anna Helmer

At the recent COABC conference I enjoyed an unfinished conversation with a peerless organic industry leader about how certain words traditionally associated with our alternative/organic farming movement are being co-opted by mainstream agriculture. Case in point: General Mills using the word “regenerative” to describe some decidedly non-organic, chemically supported farming practices. Some consumers don’t give a hoot one way or another of course, but a certain segment really wants to do the right thing and have previously associated the word “regenerative” with good farming. Using that word is an obvious ruse intended to reassure a large conscientious consumer group: General Mills wants to keep their business.

The galling thing, as far as being an organic farmer goes, is that we might feel “regenerative” is our word. For starters, we used it first; furthermore, we practice it; bottom line, we believe in it. We are using it to heal the earth. General Mills is using it to sell more sugar-cereal. It’s quite irritating.

And what are we to do about it? Cue the unfinished conversation.

Well, we can keep talking about it, amongst ourselves and in our marketplaces. Preaching to the choir ensures that everyone is on the same page, singing the same song. Very important that, but pretty much paves the way if not to rebellion, then certainly outbursts of inappropriate and/or unwelcome individuality, complicating the issue.

Private enterprise has thusly spawned several certifiers, with standards ranging from whimsical to fanatical, offering farms a chance to formalize their relationship with the word. This will remind the older set of the early years of the organic business and send shivers down a few spines.

The next obvious thing is to fight for it at the government level. Get some public policy developed around it. Some standards. We could be fighting for the use of that word like we have for “organic”.

Basically, the fight for “organic” is far from over and it’s not yet clear who is winning, despite all the hard campaigning. I think you can still have the word “organic” in your farm name even without certification. We are very lucky to have people fighting for this word and they do not need the burden of another word. Allow them to focus.

It is possible, left to their own devices whilst organic gets sorted, that these big companies will publicly stumble over the banana peels they will find littering the road to “regenerative” and all the rest of those words: “natural,” “whole grain,” “plant-based,” and of course “sustainable.” A lot of consumers are not stupid and will recognize marketing when they see it; and having done so, won’t buy it. Our fingers are crossed.

It’s a difficult conversation to complete, isn’t it?

Complete it I will, however, by simply moving on to another topic. And this one is affecting me very directly.

Any produce market vendor who understands retail will tell you that the surest way to sell something is to whack it into a plastic bag and put a price sticker on it. Just today at market, one of my staff spent the entire four hours making tidy little plastic bags of potatoes. Probably about 70% of sales today came from $6 bags of Sieglinde potatoes.

These are the bags the Vancouver Farmers’ Market management wants to ban. I have been moaning about this coming ban to anyone who would listen (and some who would not) for months now. And I will just stop you there as you come up with suggestions on how to replace them. You can’t replace them. It’s plastic: it doesn’t break down and there is no replacement.

Plastic is amazing. It has changed our lives in dramatic and important and lasting ways.

Unless I hear a little more celebration of plastic, I am not going down without a fight.


Anna Helmer farms in Pemberton where there are a surprising number of rules, policies, and standards for such a population of keenly individualistic farmers.

 

Biodynamic Farm Story: Peeking Behind the Wall

in 2020/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Past Issues/Tools & Techniques/Winter 2020

Anna Helmer

Before I get rolling on this, the fourth installment of Biodynamic Farm Story, I need to remind anyone still reading that I am pushing this farming method because I believe in it. It works for the plants, the soil, the farm, the people, and the world. I think it should be in the very thick of the mix at any conversation about the future of farming. Just so we are clear.

In this article, I will approach the odder, less willingly grasped aspects of Biodynamics. I am doing so because you can’t write about Biodynamic farming without talking about things like stars, planets, and esoteric life force theories. It’s like calling yourself a potato farmer but not growing a red potato. Further elaboration on this metaphor will not be provided.

There is an upside. While I cringe trying to seriously relate certain aspects of Biodynamic practice to skeptical farmers, I absolutely love that there is a farming method such as this one to hold in contrast to mainstream farming practices and the cheap, processed and ubiquitous food that emanates from them. For arguments sake, consider a Biodynamic can of pop. It would cost around $7,000, there would only be six produced per year, and probably it would be served in an earthenware bowl. The calculation is suspect. I had to account for all the Biodynamic Preparations and the years of using Biodynamic methods that would have to be applied to heal the earth from the assault of the chemicals necessary to make the high-fructose corn syrup. I have no idea. I know for certain, however, that the farms from which spring grocery store pop would struggle to produce even close to six other vegetables that could be eaten without processing.

The point, and I think I have one, is that Biodynamic farming offers a charming counterpoint. For every bit of nano-chemical, crop protection, and data science gobbledygook, Biodynamics has planetary conjunctions, compost preparations, and etheric formative forces. Both systems feed people but one is making them fat and sick, the other is not.

Digging up the horns containing BD 500.

I therefore insist that Biodynamic farming is totally legit, notwithstanding the fact that engaging in it requires leaps of faith, suspension of beliefs, and cognitive dissonance. It’s as easy as changing your mind. Those devoted to the cycle of soil testing and amending are not expected to cease those activities; they are merely asked to accept that they need to do more to enable their plants to access the infinite energies contained in the universe.

It’s secretly super easy to be a Biodynamic farmer. To start the transition, accept that lots of stuff goes on that you don’t know about and wouldn’t understand anyways. That done, move on to the idea that your plants probably understand the Biodynamic system better than you. Next steps: use the preparations, plan farming activities using the handy calendar provided, fill out your certification application papers, and provide the small fee in a timely fashion. That’s all there really is to becoming a Biodynamic farmer.

There is more, and some may wish to do more, and for them there is limitless scope and material available. Speaking for myself, I really have to admit that I find Biodynamic farming fun as long as I don’t have to think too hard about it.

As I expected would happen when I began this journey to acquire an understanding of how Biodynamics works, I have crashed hard into a wall of resistance around certain aspects of the practice. This is the same wall that most practical farmers, knowing it is there, avoid by avoiding Biodynamics entirely. I privately thought of it as the Wall of Woo-Woo. This was in error. I bungled through the Wall of Woo-Woo some time ago, right around the time I accepted as fact that the regular application of BD preparation 500 works both on the plants (allowing them to access the infinite energies of the universe) and also me (allowing me to understand that it’s been working all along whether I believed it or not).

The Wall of Woo-Woo was nothing compared to this one I find myself at right now. I might call this one the Wall of Wacko if I was in private. This is a different wall. It’s thicker, taller, and I have not found a way in.

I am not certain I want in.

I question whether I need in.

Really, I just don’t understand the concepts.

Behind this wall I find the advanced elements of Biodynamics. There are references to other, non-agricultural lectures given by Dr. Steiner in which I have not one whit of interest due to the fact I can’t follow the thread of the argument and potatoes are not mentioned once. There is elaborate reference to astrology and astronomy. There are practitioners who seem judgmental and vehemently devoted to doctrine. At least part of the strength of the wall lies in my strongly held pre-conceived notion that it would be impossible to be business-like once through the wall.

But the other day my dad said something that reminded me that there has already been a slight breach. Long story short, visitors to the farm had commented on the good feeling they experienced when walking the fields. Later on, Dad said that it was probably Grandma Anne (his mom, dead these 36 years) communicating from beyond. Huh? He was laughing as he said it, yet quite serious. It reminded me of why we have never cleared that perfectly farmable piece of land in the middle of the field: the same Grandma Anne said there were fairies there.

So. I have a direct relation who probably was totally in to all the stuff I can’t get my head around. Perhaps she is behind the wall. A spy, as it were. I might leave it at that.


Anna Helmer farms with her friends and family in the Pemberton Valley and continues to resist change and shy away from controversy.

Feature image: This is where the fairies live on this cut-throat business-like Biodynamic farm. All photos: Anna Helmer

Organic Stories: Covert Farms, Oliver, BC

in 2019/Climate Change/Crop Production/Fall 2019/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Organic Stories/Water Management
Covert Family Farm - Portrait proud family vintners in vineyard

Fighting Drought through Complex Ecosystems

By Emma Holmes

Irecently had the pleasure of visiting Covert Farms Family Estate in Oliver, where Gene Covert, a third-generation farmer, gave me a tour of his family’s 650 acre organic farm, vineyard, and winery. Gene’s grandpa George Covert bought the desert-like piece of land back in 1959, and although some laughed, thinking the land would not be suitable for agriculture, he, his son, and eventually grandson, Gene, have built the farm into a robust, flourishing, certified organic farm that embraces biodynamic, permaculture, and regenerative farming methods.

Gene studied ecosystem complexity as a Physical Geography student at UBC and has carried this learning through to his farming career, approaching it with a high level of curiosity for the natural world and experimentation. His wife, Shelly Covert, a holistic nutritionist, has been co-managing the family farm and in 2010 they were awarded the Outsanding Young Farmer Award BC/Yukon. Gene and Shelley are deeply connected to their land: “The relationships of our land are complex and most have yet to be discovered. As we learn more we find interest, intrigue, and humility.”

Like many places in BC, Oliver is expected to face increasing warmer and drier conditions. Already a drought prone desert, it is more important than ever to find ways to slow the water down, trap it at the surface, give it time to infiltrate, and store it in the soil.

The secret to storing more water lies in soil organic matter. Soil organic matter holds, on average, 10 times more water than its weight. A 1 percent increase in soil organic matter helps soil hold approximately 20,000 gallons more water per acre.1

The Covert’s guiding philosophy is that “only by creating and fostering complexity can we hope to grow food with complex and persistent flavours. Flavours are the ultimate expression of the mineralization brought about by healthy soil microbial ecosystems.” To increase the organic matter content of his sandy soil, Gene took inspiration from organic and regenerative farmers in other agricultural sectors and began experimenting with cover crop cocktails, reduced tillage, and integrating livestock into his system.

Cover crop cocktails. Credit: Covert Farms

Cover Crop Cocktails

Cover crop cocktails are mixtures of three or more cover crop species that allow producers to diversify the number of benefits and management goals they can meet using cover crops. Farmers like Gabe Brown are leading the way and driving the excitement around cover crop cocktails, and research is following suit, with universities starting research programs such as Penn’s State Cover Crop Cocktail for Organic Systems lab.2

To help him in meeting the right mix for his system, Gene uses the Smartmix calculator, made by farmers for farmers3. He has found that seven or more species affords the most drought tolerance. He uses a combination of warm and cool season grasses, lentils, and brassicas. Some of the species in his blend include guargum, a drought tolerant N-fixing bean, radish to break up soil at lower depths, and mustards as a cutworm control.

Gene plants Morton lentils right under the vine to fix N and suppress downy brome. This type of lentil was developed by Washington State University for fall planting in minimum tillage systems. Crop establishment is in the fall and early spring, which is when evapo-transpiration demand is minimal, thus improving water-use efficiency.

The diverse benefits of his cover crop include N fixation, increase in soil organic matter, weed control, pest control, and increased system resilience in a changing climate.

Gene Covert. Credit: Covert Farms

Low-Till

Frequent tillage can negatively impact soil organic matter levels and water-holding capacity. Regular tillage over a long-time period can have a severe negative impact on soil quality, structure, and biological health.

The challenge for organic systems is that tillage is often used for weed control, seedbed preparation, soil aeration, turning in cover crops, and incorporating soil amendment. Thus, new management strategies need to be adopted in place of tillage. Cover cropping, roller crimping, rotational grazing, mowing, mulching, steaming, flaming, and horticulture vinegars are cultural weed control practices that can be used in organic systems as an alternative to tillage. The most successful organic systems embrace and build on the complexity of their system, and utilize several solutions for best results.

Gene used to cultivate five to six times a year, mostly for weed control, but now cultivates just once a year to incorporate cover crop seeds under the vines. Instead of regular tilling to control weeds, he uses cover crops that will compete with weeds but that won’t devigorate the crop and that can be controlled through non-tillage management strategies like roller crimping and rotational grazing. For cover crop seeds between the rows, he uses a no-till seeder.

Intensive Rotational Grazing

Integrated grazing sheep or cattle in vineyards is not a new concept, but it became much less common since the rise in modern fertilizers. It has been increasingly gaining steam in recent years due to the myriad benefits it provides. The animals act as cover crop terminators, lawn mowers, and weed eaters while also improving the overall soil fertility and biological health4. The appropriate presence of animals increases soil organic matter, and some on-farm demonstration research out of Australia showed significant reductions in irrigation use, reduced reliance on machinery, fuels, and fertilizers, and increased soil organic matter.5

Incorporating livestock into a horticultural system adds a completely new management challenge and thus level of complexity. It comes with the risk of compaction and over grazing if not managed properly. The key is to move herds frequently, controlling their access to different sections and never letting them stay too long in one area. As well, the grazing window needs to be limited to after harvest and before bud-break to prevent damage to the cash crop

Grapevines and mountains. Credit: Covert Farms

Increased Resiliency

Since experimenting with and adopting these management practices, Gene has found his cost of inputs has dropped and he has noticed a significant increase in soil organic matter and reduced irrigation requirements. Based on his success so far, he has a goal of eventually dryland farming. No small feat on a sandy, gravelly, glacio-fluvial soil in a desert climate facing increasing droughty conditions!

On-Farm Demonstration Research

A farmer’s experience and observations are critical in problem solving and the development of new management practices. Increasing farmer-led on-farm research is fundamental to improving the resiliency of producers in the face of ongoing climate change impacts, such as drought and unpredictable precipitation.

Farmer-led on-farm research compliments and builds experience by allowing a farmer to use a small portion of their land to test and identify ways to better manage their resources in order to achieve any farming goal they have, including climate adaptation strategies such as increasing soil organic matter to reduce irrigation requirements. The beauty of on-farm demonstration research is that it is farmer directed, it can be carried out independently, and it uses the resources a typical farmer would have on hand.

If you’re inspired by an idea, or a practice you have seen used in another agricultural system and are interested in conducting your own field trials, I highly recommend the BC Forage Council Guide to On-Farm Demonstration Research: How to Plan, Prepare, and Conduct Your Own On-Farm Trials.6 It is an accessible guide that covers the foundations of planning and conducting research, allowing you to achieve the best results. While it was created for the forage industry, the guide covers the basics of research and is applicable to farmers in any sector.

My highest gratitude and praise for the farmers who are finding the overlaps at the edges of agricultural models, where one becomes another—and leading the way into the new fertile and diverse opportunities for sustainable food production in a changing climate.

Thank you to Gene Covert and Lisa Wambold for their knowledge, passion, and insights.


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

References and Resources:

1. Bryant, Lara. Organic Matter Can Improve Your Soil’s Water Holding Capacity. nrdc.org/experts/lara-bryant/organic-matter-can-improve-your-soils-water-holding-capacity
2. agsci.psu.edu/organic/research-and-extension/cover-crop-cocktails/project-summary
3. greencoverseed.com
4. Niles, M.T., Garrett, R., and Walsh, D. (2018). Ecological and economic benefits of integrating sheep into viticulture production. Agronomy and Sustainable Development. 38(1). link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13593-017-0478-y
5. Mulville, Kelly. Holistic Approach to Vineyard Grazing. grazingvineyards.blogspot.com
6. BC Forage Council. (2017). A Guide to On-Farm Demonstration Research. Farmwest.com. farmwest.com/node/1623

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

Biodynamic Farm Story: Cosmic Compost

in 2019/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Preparation/Summer 2019/Tools & Techniques

Anna Helmer

Hello and welcome once again to The Biodynamic Farming Experience for the Celestially-Challenged: a partly-formed, poorly-articulated, and over-hyphenated chronicle of a particular journey in which a woman-farmer-of-a-certain-age-and-experience (me) delves into the theory and, more importantly, the practice of Biodynamic farming in search of fun and the future of farming.

Rambling along here, aren’t I? I do that when I am not sure of the destination. And now that I am in full digression, I can see that “journey” is not the right word as it would suggest both a destination and a plan, neither of which I can guarantee. Voyage of discovery? Too fancy. Is it a process? Nope. I don’t think that sounds like fun. Compost heap. I think it might be a compost heap: piling up ideas, layering with experience, mixing up theories (some quite junky), letting it sit. For absolute certain something good is going to come of it, but it might take a while depending on how raw the material is.

The bottom layer in my compost pile of cosmic cognitive sentience (how about that!) is a cover-to-cover reading of the original lectures (the Biodynamic farming origin story) delivered by Dr. Rudolph Steiner. I am just about done. I remain perplexed most of the time, although I experience (sadly random and rare) flashes of triumph when I realize I have managed to grasp a concept or follow an argument, very quickly snuffed out usually by the next paragraph. I persist however, because I find it fascinating.

Another batch of Biodynamic Preparation 500: cow horns neatly lined up at Helmers Organic Farm. Credit: Helmers Organic Farm

In the last article I mentioned Biodynamic Preparation 500, which we have been using for years on the farm. It’s easy to make. You just stuff a cow horn full of fresh manure and bury it a foot or two down in the soil for the winter. In the early summer, when dug up, the manure has transformed into a delightfully hummus-y, sweetly-smelling substance which is incorporated into water and sprinkled about the fields and gardens. Steiner manages to explain why the use of a cow horn is necessary, but I can’t. The point though, is to avail the farm of the powerful forces of the universe.

Well the thing of it is, I have discovered that BD 500 works not just on the crops and soil: it works on people too. If you are not picking yourself up off the floor after collapsing there in a dead faint of amazement, I have not expressed myself well. This reflects a problem with the writing, not with Biodynamics. You see, I myself have been made available to believe that the universe has an influence on the health of the farm because I have been using the Biodynamic Preparation 500. Probably it’s what’s made the lectures readable and fascinating too. I did try a decade or so ago but there was no joy.

I realize in fact, that it’s taken close to 20 years of using the preparation for me to get to this stage. I hope it doesn’t take everyone else that long to feel its affects. Steiner seemed to think about four years should do it.

To return to the point of this exercise: is Biodynamics fun? Is it the future of farming? I remain firm in my conviction that it might be both. It is certainly more fun than the organic certification process, which I find has gotten a little dry. It’s necessary of course, if we are keen to relieve certain large industry leaders of their self-appointed mantle of agricultural way-finders. It’s obligatory, if we want to sell to people who feel the same way we do.

Practicing biodynamic farming, while still offering the certification experience, brings some serious, additional motivation. I count inspiration, wonder, amazement, incredulity, reality-checks, positive feedback from customers, and tantalizing experiences of powerful forces among the benefits of the practice. Oh, and increasing yields of very tasty produce. Lovely things to add to a compost heap of galactic oomph. I think I am going to be a better farmer because of it. Certainly, the farm is better because of it.

The Biodynamic practice of filling cow horns for preparation of preparation 500 or “horn dung.” Credit: Sugar Pond (www.flickr.com/people/88927846@N00)

Could Biodynamics be the future of farming in general? There are snags. One of them has got to be that it can get a little bogged down in discussion, which I would like to flag as one of the biggest hinderances to farm productivity. A talking farmer is very often not a working farmer.

Another issue is this insistence on involving the position of the sun and the moon in relation to the stars and planets when making farming decisions. People like me, whose astrological understandings end even before the horoscopes page, are simply going to switch off when this topic arises. People who like a little more conventional science in their lives will also be left wanting, and very little apology is made for that. These are difficult aspects to accept, and in my case required 20 years of using BD 500 to get over.

Cynically, I would also suggest that the fact that Biodynamic farming does not require much in the way of support from the agricultural industry is a close-to-fatal flaw. Apart from the odd tractor, a few implements, and some cover-crop seed, Biodynamic farmers spend very little in the mainstream agricultural system. There is simply no need. Thus, there will be no corporate champion, with a big marketing budget, to help turn heads and change minds.

So, as far as the future goes, Biodynamic farming can be hazardously non-productive, bizarrely off-putting, and doesn’t contribute to the bottom line of the world’s largest companies. This is not promising…or is it?

It’s May, it’s go-time, and theoretical considerations on fun and the future of farming may not strike quite the right tone at your place just now. I completely understand. It would not hurt in the least however, since you have read this far, to throw a little Biodynamic 500 around as you carry on with the business of farming. At the very least, your soil and plants can get busy working with the infinite energy of the universe. You’ll get there too, although perhaps that doesn’t matter as much.


Anna Helmer farms with her family and friends in the Pemberton Valley and recently hosted a farm open house that could have gone really badly, but didn’t.

Feature image: Compost heap. Credit: Andrew Dunn (www.andrewdunnphoto.com)

Farm Story: the Biodynamic Ice Break

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

Anna Helmer

Would you mind if we talked about Biodynamic farming?

There. That’s how you keep your readership small. Those of you still with me have fought through eye-glaze and eye-roll and have resisted page turn. You will notice that even I am struggling a bit to stay on topic, and if only you could see the amount of squirming and fidgeting I am doing as I try to find the right way to write about one of the more under-simplified and over-complicated farming methods of our time.

There is no way around this fact: Biodynamic farming methods involve focusing the power and influence of the entire universe on the health and productivity of the soil, plant, farmer, and consumer. The sun, the planets, the galaxies beyond ours: they all matter. The position of the moon matters. It’s complicated. It’s off-putting.

And yet, quite simply, it works whether you understand why or not. In fact, the less time sorting that out, the more time there will be for actual work and that is what really matters.

We do need to talk about it, though. Biodynamics is an approach to farming that combines science, philosophy and common sense and it should not be avoided. Something like this could easily become the future of farming.

You should know that it is a popular farming method in Germany, which has the highest concentration of scientific-minded farmers in the world, a fact I completely fabricated but which I believe could be used for emphasis without harm. I have (in actual fact) heard German farmers speak in excruciating scientific detail about soil science and crop management and then mention in a self-consciously off-hand manner that they also use Biodynamic preparations. Pressed further, they become extremely and remarkably vague about the details. I find this fascinating: farmers like that would not waste their time with something that wasn’t working.

Our farm has been Biodynamic in practice and often certificate since the mid-nineties when my parents attended a conference on the subject and were impressed with the practical experience of the speakers. We have slowly incorporated some methods into our farming practices—and avoided talking about it as we really don’t understand it well enough to explain.

To be honest, I have not been paying much attention to the whole thing, content to let my parents and sister tell me what to do. It seemed more important to learn things like welding, mechanics, and fertility-building cover crop management. Although I have certainly not mastered any of that, I have gradually pushed Biodynamics up higher on the “things-to-learn-that-will-probably-be-helpful” list.

Some Biodynamic practices have been incorporated thoroughly into our farm routine. Mom’s Biodynamic compost heaps, for example, could probably turn old cars into nice, rich, loamy soil. Tree branches certainly presented no difficulty. I follow her directions to build the heap, and I add the preparations (yarrow, chamomile, nettle, oak bark, dandelion, valerian) and marvel at the result a few months hence. It seems like magic, but really it isn’t.

My sister annually buries cow horns stuffed with manure and that becomes the preparation we apply to the carrot field every year. It’s very simple: if we do it, we get great carrots. If we don’t, they are normal.

My mom boils it all down quite nicely: it is a fun way to farm.

Our Biodynamic practice does not extend far beyond this. It really should, or at least could. It is time to experiment with a few more methods, acquire some knowledge, become conversant. Most of all, I want to write about it in a way that can be easily understood. Is that possible? Can we keep it fun?

I am starting at a very, very basic level of celestial understanding. This point cannot be over-emphasized. I cannot even tell you for certain what my birth sign of the zodiac is. I just never found it important. In terms of blind faith however, I am on more solid ground. I can “witch” water wells, for example, and fully support the protection of random wild areas on our farm because grandma said there were a lot of fairies living there. I guess the fact that I now believe with absolute certainty that it is quite likely that plant health is influenced not only by the phases and position of the moon but the universe beyond isn’t such a stretch after all. You commoners will have to struggle to keep up.

My first self-assigned task has been to read the original lectures, delivered in 1924 at a German agricultural convention by Rudolph Steiner, a philosopher with a practical bent who is also known for starting the Waldorf school system. This I am doing until the snow melts and I don’t have time for reading anymore. Looks like I might be able to make it through the whole works.

Contained in a book called Agriculture, the lectures were commissioned by a group of farmers who had recently begun to use chemical fertilizers. Although the yields of certain cash crops were reaching unheard-of levels, they noted a significant decline in the health of their soils, and the overall productivity of their farms. Alarmingly, they could no longer produce very much at all without the use of the new chemicals.

So far, for about 95% of what I have read, I have not a clue what he is talking about. Every once in a while, however, he talks about potatoes, and I certainly know what they are. They are the hook that keeps me focused. I keep reading, hoping he will mention them again.

Another point of light is his reasoning for considering the universe in the first place. You can’t describe a person based on the last joint of their little finger, nor describe a farm using one plant in the far corner, but they are strongly related to the whole. If we allow for the possibility that we are the little joint of the little finger of the universe, if becomes obvious that there is a lot going on that matters to us.

We are part of something much bigger.

Stay tuned for the next exciting installment. I am going to be building compost heaps and seeding celeriac at a time suggested by the Biodynamic Calendar: the sun will be in Pisces and the moon in Virgo. I don’t know what this means but hopefully the plants can sort it out.


Anna Helmer farms potatoes in the Pemberton Valley with her family and friends who know she can cook if she must.  

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