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biodynamic

Biodynamic Farm Story: Cold Comforts

in Crop Production/Current Issue/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Soil/Spring 2022

By Anna Helmer

Alas, alak. Which is to say, phew. My self-celebrated cull potato Biodynamic compost pile is not available to evaluate in time for this article deadline: the snowpack beneath which it languishes lingers still. Truth be told, I am relieved. I have not been shy about leading us all to believe I am a composting genius, capable of turning old potatoes into a priceless pile of loamy soil teeming with life, energy, and spiritual sensitivity. On the other hand, it might be a pile of mucky old potatoes. I am saved, for now, from the big reveal.

This winter’s snowpack has had a more notable affect on life this winter than just preserving my pride. Most of it is from December’s excesses, when several feet accumulated in just a few days. The temperature plunged and the farm was in the proverbial grip of winter. The work focus narrowed: clear greenhouse, shovel path to chicken house, monitor the cooler temperatures, keep water pumps from freezing. As always, the first few days of minus twenty were fine, but then things started to freeze. It’s amazing how much work this becomes.

Rain is inevitable of course, which adds crushing weight to snow that was this year extra sticky, clinging even to the metal roofs of barns and homes. This became a grave concern. Not only is there the potential collapsing problem, but a very real danger to anyone or anything in the line of the sliding snow when it finally does let go.

Our farm escaped the situation with little more than one blown apart railing, one bent greenhouse rib (from a tractor-mounted snow blower injury), and a day or two of frozen water pump. It’s not hard to spot other winter casualties in the area and it is considered polite to avert your eyes and not mention it.

Meanwhile, under the snow, the soil has been hard at work. It’s hard to believe, as the landscape seems so inert in the depths of winter, but Rudolph Steiner says it’s so. This year in particular the soil seemed so remote, buried under four feet of concrete snow. A lot of the time it was a walkable snowpack and striding about the farm on an elevated even surface felt like freedom. Anyway, it was easy to assume there wasn’t much going on down there.

Biodynamically-speaking, however, winter is a time of dynamic change in the soil. I really don’t pretend to understand the technical aspects of many of Steiner’s arguments, and this one has really confused me. Something to do with the formation of crystals deep down which will collect the forces emanating from the further reaches of the universe and stream them upwards into the plants. Don’t quote me.

Obviously, there is activity. We habitually try to rotavate the next year’s potato field last thing in the fall before winter. Just a shallow rotavate, and perhaps a slightly deeper spading. It breaks up the sod that has formed over the previous five years of cover-cropping. It’s pretty rough, but in the spring, this field will dry a little quicker and much of the organic matter will have broken down. This is a sign of winter activity, isn’t it?

It’s more than that, though I am struggling to put my finger on it. My understanding was nudged along when we went to dig the equipment trailer out of the snow. We had parked it under a barn roof line. Oops. See above. It was buried early and often this winter. The extraction project took place over a two-day period and involved heavy equipment. When done, a churned-up mess of soil, snow, ice, and mud was left in its place. The ground won’t recover from that this year.

We would never do this to a field, but the message remains the same: we farmers ruin soil. The soil needs winter so it can get away from us and do its thing. If you haven’t slapped your head with understanding then I haven’t done a good job of writing, for this is very profound.

Think about the fall-rotavated potato field. It will emerge from the winter ready for an (almost) single tractor pass for final seed bed preparation. When we don’t do the fall rotavating and spading it takes several passes with disc, cultivator, spader, rotavator, and harrow to do the same job, with likely a substandard result.

The field, left alone in the grip of winter, was busy, busy, busy and did a better job of it than we could have done.

The BD500 preparation, which some call the gateway drug of Biodynamics, is buried over winter. I won’t get into the details, but it transforms from a muck of fresh manure into a dryish plug of pure power. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it makes sense, but I admit to a slight glimmer of understanding.

Now I am kind of excited to see the compost pile. I think it was always out of my hands.


Anna Helmer farms in Pemberton and is grateful for the opportunity. helmersorganic.com

Featured image: Credit: Hemler’s Organic Farm

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.

Biodynamic (It’s Mentioned) Farm Story

in 2021/Climate Change/Fall 2021/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Tools & Techniques

Dear Autumn Anna,

I am writing to you from the depths of a “do the best you can” sort of summer season, where the word “pleasant” is never used to describe the weather and the most relaxed you felt was at the 15-minute waiting period after the Moderna.

I, a very wilted version of yourself, am writing to you because I am yearning for your life, but I don’t want you to forget about me. I am dreaming of a cool breeze and rain gear. I want to be at the other end of harvest. I can’t wait for all the fires to be out, the heat waves to be over, the water restrictions lifted, and the flies dead.

I want to feel pleased with farming again. I want to be excited about a pending winter of farm study, potato selling, and project completion.

That’s you, Autumn Anna. You are cool and accomplished. You are jazzed about winter markets and you might even have the garlic planted. You’ve probably taken care of all kinds of neglected odd-jobs and repairs. The sight (giddy at the thought) of rain falling on snow is close. Very close.

There is some work to be done, however, because of this summer’s experiences. I am concerned that once comfortably bundled in long johns, you will saunter off into winter without sparing a further thought about what has transpired. While understandable, it would be a waste of a difficult experience.

Remember the heat dome and subsequent heat waves? No longer theoretical, this place is getting hotter. I don’t for a second think it will be a steady, regular progression—next summer might be as cool and wet as last summer certainly was. However, now that the summer temperatures on the farm have hit 47 degrees, the door is open to do it again and now you know what to expect. You had better put some thought into it.

Your office and tool area in the new shed are in the path of the afternoon sun and unbearably hot: this needs to be remedied for next summer. Please don’t forget. Additionally, seasonal workflow and productivity expectations could be heavily modified to make it possible to opt out entirely from work all afternoon, all summer. This is profound, obviously.

Here is the deal, girlfriend: you don’t handle the heat very well. You get cranky, easily tired, and take a disappointingly pessimistic view of farming life. You keep going, as you are able to work while uncomfortable, but I thought I should flag it here for future consideration. I am confident that Autumn Anna can be brought to love farming again and we both know that Late Winter Anna just can’t wait to see those fields, but we need to be thoughtful. It might help to be specific: I suspect it’s selling carrots and potatoes at afternoon markets with temperatures in the high 30s that causes problems. Here’s a hot tip: don’t do it. Further profundity.

Autumn Anna, you have made it through this summer because I did a few things right. I shed a limiting reluctance to swim with tadpoles, newts, frogs, and a surely remarkable array of water beetle species so that I could submerge in cool water. Luckily for us, the ducks didn’t discover the location of the pond until the last heat wave broke.

I really stuck to my guns and curtailed the planting plan. I got carried away with the personal tomato greenhouse but callously and admirably plowed in the parsnips when they failed to germinate properly and didn’t even attempt a celeriac crop. Practical decisions like this, the result of the previous winter’s sober thought, made the watering program more manageable in a year when irrigation requirements were higher than ever before.

Very early one morning during the heat dome, I completed the biodynamic compost heap of cull potatoes by adding the six preparations of yarrow, chamomile, nettle, oakbark, dandelion, and valerian. The hay- and manure-covered mound has been sitting there in the hot sun for six weeks, and in a biodynamically-ironic twist, it is cool inside, not hot. It is well beyond our understanding of biodynamics to explain this.

Autumn Anna, I hope you are hearing rain as you read. I hope the carrot crop was satisfactory. I hope you are readying the seed potato catalogue and that you find an up-to-date email list in the excel file.

You have done your best, and it was good enough. Enjoy the process of falling in love with farming again.


Anna Helmer farms with her family in Pemberton, where her rudimentary biodynamic practices continue to inspire further study, wonder, and ironic ambition.

  

Regenerative Agriculture is the Way of the Future

in 2021/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/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

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