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bioregionalism

Organic Stories: Urban Harvest – Syilx Territory, Kelowna BC

in 2020/Current Issue/Fall 2020/Marketing/Organic Community/Organic Stories

Many Strands Make a Strong Food Web

Darcy Smith

Farm-to-fork has come to embody the eating ethos of people seeking a deeper connection to healthy, local food—and Urban Harvest has been putting the “to” in farm-to-fork for the last 20 years. Lisa McIntosh co-founded the Okanagan-based organic home delivery service with her partner at the time, David Nelson, in 2000.

For Lisa, “logistics are the part that makes the local food system work.” For the farmers who supply Urban Harvest, there’s no doubt she’s right. Lisa’s goal, and Urban Harvest’s slogan, has always been “bringing the farm to your doorstep.”

Lisa McIntosh, Urban Harvest Co-Founder Credit: Katie Nugent Photography.

Urban Harvest was born out of “a read desire to support sustainable agriculture,” Lisa says. When Lisa and David started Urban Harvest, she was just coming out of a degree in sociology and anthropology, with a focus in community economic development. She’d been interested in the sustainable agriculture field for years, and when David put the idea of an urban delivery business on the table, Lisa “loved the fact that we could be connected to farmers but not be farming ourselves, that we could help get the food to customers wherever they are.”

“People can’t always make it to the Farmers’ Market,” Lisa points out. “There’s a carbon efficiency to home delivery as well. Rather than 60 people trucking down to the market, we can cover that same route, and reduce waste because you don’t have to have everything packed and labeled in the same way.”

Lisa, and Urban Harvest, quickly built relationships with growers in the region. From WWOOFing at Sudoa Farm in the Shuswap, where she learned about growing and packing produce from Sue Moore, to getting involved with the North Okanagan Organics Association, to meeting Hermann Bruns at Wildflight Farm, word about Lisa and Urban Harvest got around fast.

Lisa meets up with South Okanogan growers in Penticton for peaches, nectarines, plums, tomatoes, eggplant, and apples. Credit: Urban Harvest.

Urban Harvest now supplies between 400 to 600 families with local, organic produce each week. Lisa sources food from growers around the Okanagan as a priority, and from further afield when necessary to ensure a wide selection throughout the year. Urban Harvest offers standard regular and family-size produce boxes year-round. Each week, Lisa plans out the boxes based on what’s seasonally available—and what the good deals are—which is “a bit of an art.” Then, customers can see what’s on the docket for that week and customize or add to their orders, providing them with a flexible and convenient way to access local food. They place their orders, and Lisa communicates to the farmers, who harvest on Monday and get their product to Urban Harvest.

She drives down to the South Okanagan weekly to pick up from several farms. “There’s a jumble every time, figuring out,” she says. “The beautiful part is I get to see the farmers every week. It’s a little more legwork—and arm work—for sure.”

Wildflight Farm in the North Okanagan has been dropping off produce from Wildflight and other farmers in the area to Lisa for years, which has been a huge advantage to both Urban Harvest and the half-dozen farms who make use of the service. Other producers have different arrangements, with products getting shipped to, or dropped off at, the warehouse, and some growers piggybacking on each other’s shipments, so that someone’s 100 pounds of plums, which might not be worth it on their own, can go with someone else’s 800 pounds of apples. Whatever it takes to get the product from the farm to Lisa, and then to the customer’s front door.

Loading up for weekly box delivery. Credit: Katie Nugent Photography.

All that flexibility no doubt caters to the consumer, but Lisa is careful to ensure she’s meeting the needs of farmers, too—it’s a constant juggling act, and one she loves. She does an annual planning session with growers, she says, “to reduce overlap and maximize supply, so farmers are planting with us in mind. We know we have a supply we can count on and they have a market they can count on.”

Like any healthy ecosystem, Urban Harvest is part of a web of interdependencies—relationships based on trust and community. For Rebecca Kneen of Crannóg Ales and Left Fields, “Lisa’s produce buying policies have made a huge difference in the viability of organic vegetable farms in the North Okanagan.”

From the annual planning meetings to Lisa’s ability to look at what’s available locally that week and use as much of it as possible, farmers are benefitting from Urban Harvest’s approach. “That kind of flexibility is invaluable for small-scale farmers,” Rebecca says. “Lisa McIntosh always has the interests of her farm suppliers close at heart.” The organic community recognized Lisa’s many contributions by presenting her with the Brad Reid award in 2019.

Urban Harvest at the UBCO orientation fair in 2017. Credit: Urban Harvest

It’s no surprise that farmers value Urban Harvest so deeply: the feeling is mutual. “I feel so privileged to have these relationships with farmers—such talented, dedicated farmers—and with customers who deeply care as well, and staff who have given so many of their years,” Lisa says.

Urban Harvest has evolved over two decades in business, but remains true to the values it was built on. They’ve experimented with Saturday markets, donated a ton of food, and, in 2016, a partnership became a sole proprietorship. With all that change, “our little business has trucked along all these years with things coming and going, we just seem to have found our niche,” Lisa says. “And customer number one is still a customer!”

When Lisa took the leap of faith and moved into running Urban Harvest solo, she found herself facing a big learning curve, especially, she says, on “all the things on the physical side, which I’d missed out on over the years.” She’s been able to grow into the new roles, and was heartened at “finding the support of staff and customers who believed in the business, and the farmers—there was a lot of interest from the farmers that we keep it going.” That support showed up in all sorts of ways, right down to one particular farmer showing Lisa how to use the hand truck. Lisa also sings the praises of her team, several of whom have been with Urban Harvest for anywhere between seven and twelve years. “It’s been great to be able to rely on my staff,” she says.

The Urban Harvest staff team. Credit: Urban Harvest.

“Lisa has quietly and rigorously implemented her philosophy of supporting the local organic farming community year after year,” Rebecca says. And that’s never been more important. Not only did customers flock to delivery when COVID-19 hit, so did growers. All of a sudden, farmers were dealing with the uncertainty of how they would get their produce to market.

The global pandemic impacted many farmers who relied on Farmers’ Markets and direct marketing relationships with consumers, leading some to find ways to do more online direct marketing, through taking pre-orders for pick-up or even trying home delivery themselves.

“The market was always there,” Lisa says, “and it was interesting to see how quick people were to look for that.” Delivery is a great option to reach out to customers. Some farmers love it, while others find it hard, with all the logistical challenges.

“Home delivery is on the uptick,” Lisa says. “With things like the red onion scare recently, people like having a product they can put a face on. Home delivery helps put a face on the supply.”

And while COVID-19 has meant extra steps in terms of sanitation, and some anxiety around keeping everyone healthy and safe, business-wise, Lisa has found the positive in these strange times. Weekly orders are selling out quickly—once in just 12 minutes!—and she hasn’t been able to sign up new customers since March. She’s had hundreds of new inquiries that she’s been able to direct to similar businesses, like Farmbound in Vernon. It’s felt good to have somewhere to send interested customers. “One of the beautiful things about a healthy food system is to have lots of options,” Lisa says. “Many strands make a strong web.”

In the end, of course, it all comes back to the food: “We have such an abundance of quality in the region, it’s such a joyful thing,” Lisa says. “I think we’re moving forward with a strong organic sector.” There’s no shortage of consumer support for organic, she says, but “on the supply side, can we keep up, and bring the next generation into farming? Is there a future for them?”

With businesses like Urban Harvest out there, at the centre of a web of connections that makes it all happen, it’s easy to take an optimistic view of the future.


Darcy Smith is the editor of the BC Organic Grower, and a huge fan of organic food systems, from farm to plate and everything in between. She also manages the BC Land Matching Program delivered by Young Agrarians.

Featured image: The Urban Harvest team takes a break. Credit: Katie Nugent Photography.

Organic Stories: Lasser Ranch, Chetwynd BC

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

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

Jolene Swain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Organic Stories: Crannóg Ales, Secwepemculecw (Sorrento) BC

in 2020/Grow Organic/Indigenous Food Systems/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Organic Stories/Spring 2020

Rest is Key to Innovate (and Survive a Pandemic)

Michelle Tsutsumi and Rebecca Kneen

Starting this piece during the onset of COVID-19 in BC created a curious opening for Rebecca and I to delve deeply into what improvement means for organics (both of us speaking from a smaller scale perspective, with the need to hear more from our larger scale colleagues). The presence of a pandemic spotlighted the precarity of our food system, the inequity within it, and the need to shift the system. We had no idea where things would be two weeks later.

Over the span of two weeks, there were significant pivots so that farmers and processors could continue to get their food and beverages to people (with a pinch of panic as the future of farmers’ markets became more uncertain). After several communities closed their farmers’ markets (or contemplated closing them), it was a relief to hear the provincial government declare farmers’ markets as an essential service on March 26.

Throughout the two weeks, I have witnessed the (direct market) organic community coming together to mobilize online platforms, change their CSA delivery methods, and coordinate new distribution channels, all from a foundational value of helping each other in hopes that we will all be okay through this. This deserves acknowledgement as a core part of organics that needs no improvement. The organic movement and community formed from a belief in interconnectivity and this will continue to serve us well as we adapt to a world, a way of being, that could be permanently altered by COVID-19.

Rebecca at market winding yarn onto a drop spindle selling beer and wool. Credit: Crannóg Ales

I am honoured to profile Rebecca Kneen in this issue to discuss how she, Brian MacIsaac, and Crannóg Ales have been improving their practices in ways that “extend deeply rather than extend widely.” Crannóg Ales is celebrating 20 years this year (let’s all raise a glass in congratulations to them!), so there is much to reflect on in terms of where they have been extending deeply. It is important to keep in mind that there is a long history of involvement with the North Okanagan Organic Association, COABC, and the Organic Federation of Canada, so Rebecca can also speak to what she has witnessed in terms of improvements in organics over time.

Crannóg Ales 20th anniversary glassware. Credit: Crannóg Ales

Let’s set the stage. Picture this interview taking place on our front south-facing porch (somewhat socially distanced), warmed by the afternoon sun, with Dropkick Murphys playing a spirit-raising St. Paddy’s Day gig on YouTube in the background. Even with a pandemic looming, it was a dream way to spend an early spring afternoon.

Where have you seen the greatest change in terms of improved processes at Crannóg Ales?

It took the first 10 years to get to know the land, mostly based on theory, and the next 10 years figuring out what that means with practices on the land. Coming to land as an adult means that a lot of observation is occluded, so it was a lot of trying stuff and then trying new stuff. In the beginning, our practices were what was financially viable, which equalled “the hard way.” Twenty years later, we are better rested, which leads to better thinking. One of our key principles has always been to limit our market expansion to fit the ecological carrying capacity of our land. Because of this, we have been forced to extend deeply rather than extend widely.

Sheep doing early season pruning for pest and disease control. Credit: Crannóg Ales

What does extending deeply mean to you?

Finding efficiencies and working in increased harmony with the land, letting permaculture principles guide us and making do with less in all ways. There is a balance point in having a growth cap, because the question remains about what scale the brewery, in particular, needs to be at to make a sufficient amount to take care of and support employees. One way we do this is providing extended health care to employees. Another way is to intermingle the farm with the brewery to supply good food for employees.

Extending deeply also interconnects with the way we are being in, and understanding, our relationships to land, water, workers, wild things, the whole around us. Are our relationships exploitative or mutually beneficial? We have been deepening relationships in terms of responsible stewardship, which sees (non-hierarchical) interrelationships rather than partaking in caretaking behaviours, which can involve power dynamics or someone making decisions for someone else.

How else does seeing things as being interrelated play a role in how you have deepened your way of being in the world?

Looking at things in terms of relationships has helped us to see a responsibility to, rather than for, employees. Interrelationships also seem to be part of organics as a movement, which, 20 years ago, focused on social and agricultural change. Making a living was a given, it wasn’t the goal. A shift in emphasis from an organic movement to an organic industry means that we are losing our ethical and ecological focus, which threatens the ability of our robust standards to withstand a strong push from industry toward non-organic practices (similar to mission drift in the nonprofit world, shifting to an organic industry could lead to practice drift).

Snake napping on a compost pile. Credit: Crannóg Ales

The way we manage certification is also being lost as the organic movement shifts to that of an industry. This has a large impact on regional or community-based certification (which is still an unusual model, but with increasing membership, interestingly enough), because they are seen as being less valid and less valuable than Canada Organic Regime (COR) certification bodies. In my view, farmer-to-farmer certification review leads to deeper relationships, better understanding and communication, and is just as strict as third-party certification. That being said, people are craving community, which is something the regional certification bodies do well (and also aligns with organics as a movement).

How do you see reconnecting with social change as part of organics extending deeply?

The organic community has long been taking responsibility, where other sectors have been outsourcing or offloading responsibilities. For example, organics has been a leader in terms of traceability standards, responsible packaging and reducing packaging waste, and emphasizing the need for social justice. Social justice becomes an issue of scale when looking at employment. If employment potential is increased, so does the potential for exploitation. Our identity as stewards, as well as values of social justice and fairness, have been grounded in the organic standards, and we are working on deepening these areas nationally right now. With most of BC being on unceded territories, there is an opportunity to deepen our organic perspective on social justice in terms of land and land ownership.

What are ‘next steps’ that you see as being important for social justice in organics?

Listening. And trust. These both entail a worldview or paradigm shift that is reliant on relationships. Reflecting on organics with a social justice lens will challenge our notions of ownership and relations to land. It will be an uncomfortable (but necessary) exercise in questioning our understanding of security and access to tenure. It will require us to work through assumptions and tensions, and let new ideas percolate. Here is an interesting thought exercise: if you hold debt or a mortgage, you don’t truly own the land. Do you really care if the owner is the bank or your Indigenous neighbour? If you do care, this is an opportunity to delve more deeply into the reasons why this matters (and to examine the paradigms of individualism, capitalism, and systemic racism which live in our brains).

Sheep eating hops vines after harvest. Credit: Crannóg Ales

After allowing this conversation to percolate and settle, it was interesting to note that what was being named as innovative and improving practices at Crannóg Ales are ancient practices that have been, and continue to be, carried out by Indigenous people and traditional sustainable farmers. These practices are seen in subsistence living through hunting, fishing, gardening, and harvesting medicines. Principled practices of observing and knowing the land, not seeing oneself as an owner of the land, tending to relationships, recognizing interconnectivity, being mindful of scale, and stewardship have been part of Indigenous ways of knowing and being for millenia.

Identifying social justice as being important to organics ties in with the need to stop erasing Indigenous ways of being from the land where we grow and prepare food, including access to this land. If any group or community can do it, it is the organic movement that can start to see the areas where Indigenous food sovereignty and organic agriculture align. In the face of uncertain, and changing, times due to COVID-19, we will need to recognize interconnectivity and help each other more than ever. It is easy enough to remember that what joins us together is the soil, so we can start there as our common ground.

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.” ~ Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.

Resources to Explore Further:
Indigenous Principles of Just Transition
Opinion: Fairness in Organic Agriculture by Anne Macey (2018)
Reviving Social Justice in Sustainable and Organic Agriculture by Elizabeth Henderson (2012)
Food Sovereignty: Indigenous Food, Land and Heritage by Dawn Morrison
Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty


Michelle Tsutsumi is a mid-life switcher to organic farming. She is grateful to have learned from the Hettler’s at Pilgrims’ Produce in Armstrong and has been at Golden Ears Farm in Secwepemculecw (Chase) since 2014. Michelle is also an organizer and communicator, with an eye for process and a passion for systems thinking.

Local Seeds for Local Food

in 2019/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Organic Community/Seeds/Winter 2019

Michael Marrapese

Agriculture as we define it today has existed for roughly 12,000 years. Though the practices have been refined over millennia, modern farmers would still recognize the intent and the activity as ‘farming.’ We can find examples of plants we recognize as cereal grains, peas, barley, wheat, rice, and squash dating back 10,000 years. What makes this possible is that all these food plants produce seed.

Chris Thoreau, BC Seed Security Program Director at FarmFolk CityFolk, notes that seed is also the most efficient way to move food. “Growing seed allows you to ship food in its simplest form,” he says. “Moving lettuce seed across the border is different from moving lettuce across the border. Many of BC’s seed companies are already doing this through online sales.”

Thoreau started farming in 2001 knowing very little about seed. “My introduction to farming was the small scale organic vegetable production that is very prevalent on Southern Vancouver Island,” he says. “Which is also how I got introduced to seeds. It really was by default. There was a lot of local seed production happening in the region. We still had a good dozen seed companies in BC. Seedy Saturdays had been around for 20 years so it was a very active community.”

Rows of seedlings in a field with labels
BC Seed Trials. Credit: Chris Thoreau

In 2006 Thoreau worked on a survey of organic growers to get a sense of what seeds they were buying and from whom. He observed that “growers sourced their seed from places you’d expect like Johnny’s and High Mowing but were also sourcing from some local seed companies like Salt Spring Seeds and Stellar Seeds.”

Thoreau returned to Vancouver to study Agroecology at UBC. Still wanting to grow food while at university, he started Food Pedalers, a microgreens operation in East Vancouver. “It was very paradoxical to be attending the agroecology program but leaving the farm to do that,” he recalls. “I thought growing microgreens was the only way to make enough money for a viable urban farming business in Vancouver. The return per square foot from micro-greens was much higher than any ground crop I could grow. We were doing about 10,000 pounds of microgreens a year. During that time we were buying seed by the pallet load. I draw a lot from my time growing microgreens to help inform my seed work now.”

Thoreau joined FarmFolk CityFolk in 2015 to coordinate the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security (BFICSS). He’s extended his interest in seed production and education, coordinating seed workshops, public events and seed trials throughout BC. The BFICSS project is focusing on locally adapted organic seed to meet the needs of organic farmers. Thoreau notes that “seed optimized for organic production must be bred and produced in organic systems.”

Chris Thoreau and Shauna MacKinnon from FarmFolk CityFolk, and Alex Lyon from UBC, inspect a golden beet seed crop at Local Harvest Market in Chilliwack (2016). Credit: Michael Marrapese

Today, a vast array of seeds are owned, patented, and marketed by a few large corporations. With less than two percent of our population actively farming, our connection to seed and its critical role in our lives is increasingly tenuous. Thoreau points out that seed can play many roles. “Seed production can be a profession or a community building activity or even a therapeutic activity. All are quite different. Small-scale seed growers in BC have great community reach, a pretty good diversity of seeds, but what they don’t have is bulk seeds to sell to farmers.” When he first started farming most of the local seed companies were just doing packet sales. Packets were fine if a farmer was interested in trying a new variety. If they wanted to do a couple of thousand row feet of something, no BC seed grower could accommodate that. “And that is still very much the case today,” he notes.

With a predominately corporate controlled seed system, there are many issues that undermine our food security. Chief among them are irregular seed availability and degraded biodiversity. A century ago farmers may have grown as many as 80,000 different plant species. As more seed is controlled by a few large corporations, the bulk of our food comes from only about 150 different crops. Corporate ownership, patenting, and gene licensing limit the genetic diversity available to farmers. Any biologist will tell you that this is a perilous enterprise.


Chris Thoreau and Shauna MacKinnon from FarmFolk CityFolk, and Alex Lyon from UBC, inspect a golden beet seed crop at Local Harvest Market in Chilliwack (2016). Credit: Michael Marrapese

Farmers are often at the mercy of big seed producers who may be growing for large commercial markets. Specific varieties regularly disappear from catalogues. “That’s one of the reasons people start growing seed themselves,” Thoreau observes. “If they want to have a particular seed that works well in their environment and their operation, the only reliable way to do that is to grow it themselves. A big benefit to this is that evolving a seed crop on your farm year after year, you are going to come up with a new variety uniquely suited to your environment.”

One of the goals of the BFICSS program is to get more BC farmers growing and saving seed, to scale up production in the region, not only for themselves but to share, trade, and sell to other farmers. This process will ensure the genetic diversity and adaptability of seed in our region.

But there are political issues that hinder a regional and more diverse seed economy. Not all seed is available or appropriate to grow for sale. Hybrid seeds do not breed true; the next generation of plants will have a lot of off-types. Many seeds have plant variety protections on them which means farmers can’t grow and market them. Thoreau notes that this actually encourages seed breeding. “In fairness, if I spend ten years developing and growing ‘Chris’s Super Sweet Carrot’ and I start selling it, I do need to recoup the cost of breeding that seed.” Genetically modified (GM) seeds are generally licensed; farmers never actually own that seed so they can’t use it for seed saving. Most BC seed growers are growing heirloom varieties or rare varieties that aren’t protected by intellectual property laws.

Graceful carrot seed umbel. Credit: Chris Thoreau

Thoreau believes there are enormous possibilities for more seed production in BC. Oregon and Washington State are major global seed producers for crops like beets, carrots, spinach, and a lot of the brassicas. Southwestern British Columbia has similar climate conditions so he sees potential for some of that sector to be developed here. He also believes there is an enormous opportunity to produce more organic seed.

Growing trays of microgreens taught Thoreau the most important lesson about seed. Doing a hundred crop cycles a year, he began to notice differences in how temperature, watering, and daylight hours affected the plants. However, he notes that the biggest determining factor is seed quality. He’s convinced that “you cannot override the poor quality of the seed with good growing practices.”

bcseeds.org


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

Feature image: Karma Peppers. Credit: Chris Thoreau

Organic Stories: Gabriola Food Hub

in Fall 2018/Organic Community/Organic Stories

A Two-Wheeled Ride through Gabriola’s Growing Local Food Economy

Hannah Roessler

Graham Bradley is a busy guy. I catch him on a rare day off to talk about the Gabriola Food Hub, but we end up delving into the importance of cultural shift, decolonization, green transportation, feeding passions, and systems thinking. The spill over into all of these topics comes as no surprise—so many of us land-based workers, dreamers, and thinkers recognize and ponder the layers of complexities and interconnectivities encountered when engaging on food systems work on any level. Graham is a dynamic individual who spans several roles in the food system on Gabriola Island. He is someone who is clearly driven to make a difference, and has fully invested his whole self into this pursuit.

Take his work with the Gabriola Food Hub (GFH), a collective marketing hub made up of three main partner farms: Heart and Soil Farm, Good Earth Farm, and 40×40 farm. Not only is he the founder of the GFH, but he is also the “aggregator, communicator, and distributor.” He is the guy who pulled the farms together and connects the farms to various markets, and he is the one you will see delivering all the produce—he has roles in both the center of the hub, as well as the spokes.

Graham is quick to assert that he is not inventing something new, and is generous while listing off his many mentors. He names, with much gratitude, those who taught him about farming and marketing (Ferm Melilot in Quebec, Saanich Organics in Victoria, Ben Hartman’s Lean Farm approach, and more), those who helped him with legal agreements for land sharing (Young Agrarians and other generous legal advisors), his business mentorship through Young Agrarians (with Niki Strutynski from Tatlo Road Farm), the chef on Gabriola Island who last year solidly ordered produce from him every week (Kellie Callender from Silva Bay Restaurant). He even tells me about Josh Volk, the person who inspired him to build his delivery bike, named Pepper, on which he does all of the deliveries for the GFH. Something that I really appreciate about Graham is how much he obviously values the relationships that he is cultivating through his food growing—this seem to be his own personal heart hub from which all the other spokes of his work flow.

While the GFH echoes other models of marketing that exist in the small scale organic farm world, there are of course differences. These are all tied distinctly to the difference in “place”—all the variations and oscillations in the GFH are distinctly their own, as they seek to find their own dynamic equilibrium. Each of the participating farms is striving to find what model of farming and marketing works for the particular scale and sites that they work and live within, in every realm. Every farm business has to find the right flow that works in their particular bioregion, and it’s clear that when Graham talks about the GFH, he is very much focused on the interconnected systems of ecology, economics, and community that are distinct to Gabriola Island.

Graham refers to what they at GFH are aiming for as “super-hyper-local”—and they’re not pulling any punches. He’s been working tirelessly with his partners, Dionne Pepper-Smith and Katie Massi from Heart and Soil, Lynn from Namaste Farm, Rebecca from 40×40 Farm (which Graham also co-manages), and his land partner and co-farmer Rosheen Holland at Good Earth Farm, to sell everything they grow right on Gabriola Island.

In the past, these farmers usually had to go over to Cedar on Vancouver Island to sell their produce at the market. Now, with the GFH entering its third year of business, those days are done as they move towards the super-hyper-local vision. Their biggest commercial customer is the Village Food Market, the largest grocery store on Gabriola Island. “We are actually managing to replace the lettuce [that is usually sold at the market], lettuce that comes from off-island, with our lettuce. It’s exciting,” says Graham. They also run a box program, which is really important to their business, and is something that they hope to continue growing.

Another approach that helps them realize this super-hyper-local vision is how all the farms work as a team, both together and with their environment. When I ask Graham if the farms do their crop planning together, he says “well, the farms plan it on their own”. The GFH farms really embrace each of their unique microclimates, which allow different crops to thrive. They don’t try and do it all, all the time, but they work with the strength of the local ecology of each farm site. Good Earth Farm tends to flood every year, but they find that their best spring crop is lettuce, and their best winter crop are storage crops: they do grow some chard, but harvest it, roots and all, and keep it in the cold room for continued harvest into winter. At 40×40 Farm, they are really focused on salad greens. At Heart and Soil, their site is particularly good for growing early on in the spring, and they “are a bit warmer so they grow loads of tomatoes,” says Graham. “They don’t have root maggot, so their radishes and Hakeuri turnips are so beautiful that we’ve stopped growing ours.”

It’s almost as though Graham frames the land as the ultimate leader of their little team: “it’s really just the geography that is key to making all of this work in the way it does.” And when it comes to enjoying the bounty of the island, they don’t stop at just farms. “If I see grapes,” Graham exclaims, with a fair share of eye twinkle, “and it’s in someone’s backyard, I will knock on the door and ask them if I can sell it for them.”

This opportunistic approach and ability to be flexible is bound, as any farmer knows, to create quite a bit of extra work. And in a busy farm season, it seems hard to imagine taking on extra bits and pieces. But it seems to fit in Graham’s wider hopes for the food system on Gabriola. We had a long discussion about trying to think a bit more outside of the traditional agriculture box, hoping to understand the potential for managing the broader ecosystem for food in a careful way.

“I think we can have a full and complete food system here, we just have more to learn” says Graham, respectfully acknowledging the long term management of a food system by the Snuneymuxw, long before agriculture as we know it arrived to the island. Graham is keen to continue learning how to incorporate a broader vision, and in the meantime, on the peaty grounds of Good Earth Farm they are busy planting Malus fusca, relying on the embedded local knowledge of that native rootstock to help it withstand rainy winters.

With all the successful strides they’ve made, trying to effectively respond to the dynamic nature of a particular bioregion, of a particular place, must certainly be challenging. I ask Graham about this, and he names some common themes that most farmers struggle with: the desire for more restaurants to get on board with buying local produce, how small their market is, how difficult it is to rely on commercial clients, being burnt out and overworked, etc.

I am particularly curious about how he manages his own work-load, because as every other farmer I know, he seems to have several jobs and commitments. He is also the Chair of the Economic Development Advisory group on Gabriola Island, as well as the National Farmers Union Youth Advisor for BC. Graham is practically bursting with energy even as we quietly sit and chat, and he is so clearly committed to his vision of a better food system and green transport—but he admits to it being overwhelming at times.

Then he explains to me the moment of his day which feeds his energy and desire to push through and keep striving, and I’m left with a clear picture painted in my mind: Graham on Pepper, his bright red electric cargo bike, loaded with veggie boxes, ripping full speed down a hill framed with soaring trees, exuberantly singing Janis Joplin tunes to scare away the deer, and periodically yelling gleefully “the future is NOW (insert expletive)!”

Check out the Gabriola Food Hub: gabriolafoodhub.com


Hannah Roessler has farmed in Nicaragua, Washington, and BC on permaculture famers, polyculture cafetals, organic market farms and a biodynamic vineyard. She has an MA in Environmental Studies, and her research is focused on climate change and small-scale organic farming. She currently farms on the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island.

Feature image from Quinton Dewing. All other photos from Graham Bradley.

Meat from Here

in Fall 2018/Grow Organic/Livestock/Organic Community

Challenges to Localizing Meat Production

Tristan Banwell

Consider for a moment the complexities of the industrial meat supply chain. Livestock could be born on one farm, sold and moved to another location for finishing, trucked to yet another premises for slaughter. The carcass will be butchered and processed at a different location, and sold at another (or many others), and could be sold and reprocessed multiple times before it ends up on a customer’s plate. The farm, feedlot, abattoir, and processing facility could be in different provinces, or they could be in different countries. It is a certainty that some of the meat imported to Canada comes from livestock that were born in Canada and exported for finishing and/or slaughter before finding their way back to a plate closer to home.

A 2005 study in Waterloo, Ontario(1) noted that beef consumed in the region racked up an average of 5,770 kilometres travelled, with most coming from Colorado, Kansas, Australia, New Zealand, and Nebraska. The author concluded that imported beef products averaged 667 times the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of local beef, and the emissions were at the top of the chart among foods studied. Meat production is low-hanging fruit for reducing pollution and improving the environmental footprint of agriculture, and not just through reducing transportation. Implementation of managed grazing and silvopasture ranked #19 and #9 respectively in terms of their potential impact on climate by Project Drawdown, in the same neighbourhood as other exciting forestry and agricultural innovations, family planning, and renewable energy projects.(2) Organic methods further reduce negative externalities by nearly eliminating inputs such as antibiotics and pesticides, which are used heavily in conventional settings.

Much of the agricultural land in our province is also well suited to livestock according to the Land Capability Classification for Agriculture in BC. In fact, 44% of BC’s ALR lands are categorized in Class 5 & 6, meaning the soil and climate make them suitable primarily for perennial forage production. Looking beyond the ALR boundaries, 76% of all classified arable land in BC is in Class 5 & 6.(3) Of course, there is land in Class 4 and better that could also be best suited to livestock production, and livestock can be beneficially integrated into other types of crop and orchard systems. As farmland prices spiral higher, aspiring farmers could be looking further down this classification system for their affordable opportunity to farm. Livestock production and direct marketing meats can be an attractive enterprise for a new entrant, especially given the exciting opportunities for regenerative organic methods and an increasingly engaged and supportive customer base.

Unfortunately, there are numerous challenges facing both new and established small-scale meat producers in their efforts to implement improved methods and supply local markets. The cost-slashing benefits of economies of scale in livestock enterprises are staggering, and even the leanest, most efficient small livestock enterprise will incur disproportionately high production costs. Sources of breeding stock, feeder stock, chicks, and other outsourced portions of the life cycle chain can be distant, and finding appropriate genetics for a pasture based or grass finishing operation can be next to impossible. Given the geographic fragmentation of the province, managing the logistics of other inputs like feed, minerals, equipment, and supplies can be a Sisyphean task.

The regulations around raising livestock, traceability, slaughter, butchery, and meat processing are complex and span from the federal level (Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Canadian Cattle Identification Agency, Canadian Pork Council) through provincial bodies (BC Ministry of Agriculture Food Safety & Inspection Branch, Ministry of Health, supply management marketing boards), regional groups (regional health authorities, regional district governments) and right down to municipal government bylaws. The tables are definitely tipped in favour of large-scale commodity producers, who have the scale to hire consultants and meet more expensive requirements, and who are beholden to regulators for only one product or species. For a small scale diversified livestock operation, compliance becomes expensive and time consuming as a producer navigates the rules, requirements, and permits for multiple species.

Should a farmer manage to jump some hurdles and establish an enterprise in compliance with regulations, they may find that their growth is capped not by the capacity of their land base or even their markets, but rather by regulatory factors and supply chain limitations. There are particularly low annual production limits in supply-managed poultry categories—2000 broilers, 300 turkeys, 400 layers per year—and that is after applying as a quota-exempt small-lot producer. There is currently no path to becoming a quota holder for small pastured poultry operations. The sole quota-holding pastured poultry producer in BC is currently under threat from the BC Chicken Marketing Board, which requires a set production per six week cycle year round, rather than the seasonal production necessitated by outdoor poultry systems. The BC Hog Marketing Scheme allows a more generous 300 pigs finished per year, and there is no production regulation for beef cattle nor for other species like ducks, sheep, and goats.

Regardless of what livestock species a farmer raises, eventually they must go to market. For most commodity cow-calf operations and some other livestock enterprises, this can mean selling livestock through an auction such as the BC Livestock Producers Cooperative. However, many small scale producers prefer to maintain control of their livestock, finishing them on the farm, arranging for slaughter, and wholesaling or direct marketing the meat. This can help a farm retain more of the final sales price, but adds another layer of complexity around slaughter and butchering, as well as storage, marketing, and distribution.

In BC, there are five classes of licensed abattoirs in operation, including 13 federally-inspected plants, 63 provincially-inspected facilities (Class A & B), and 66 licensed Rural Slaughter Establishments (Class D & E).(4) Federally inspected plants are under jurisdiction of the CFIA and produce meat that can be sold across provincial and international borders. The two classes of provincially licenced plants include inspected and non-inspected facilities. Class A and B facilities are administered by the Ministry of Agriculture Meat Inspection Program, have a government inspector present for slaughter, and are able to slaughter an unlimited number of animals for unrestricted sale within BC. Class A facilities can cut and wrap meat, whereas Class B facilities are slaughter-only with no cut/wrap capacity.

Class D and E slaughter facilities, also known as Rural Slaughter Establishments, are able to slaughter a limited number of animals per year without an inspector present after completing some training, submitting water samples and food safety plans, and having the facility inspected by a regional health authority. A Class D facility is limited to 25,000 lbs live weight per year, can slaughter their own or other farms’ animals, and can sell within their regional district only, including to processors and retailers for resale. This class of licence is limited to 10 regional districts that are underserved by Class A and B facilities. Class E licenses are available throughout the province at the discretion of Environmental Health Officers. This type of licence allows slaughter of up to 10,000 lbs live weight of animals from the licensed farm only, and allows direct to consumer sales within the regional district, but not for further processing or resale.

Despite multiple options for abattoir licensing, small farms are underserved and slaughter capacity is currently lacking in BC. Running an abattoir is a difficult business, with significant overhead costs and strong seasonality, and there is a shortage of qualified staff in most areas of the province. On-farm slaughter options may sound appealing, but the costs associated and low limits on the number of animals per year make small on-farm facilities a difficult proposition. Producers will find it difficult or impossible to have their livestock slaughtered throughout the fall, which is busy season for abattoirs for exactly the reasons producers need their services at that time. Some poultry processors are beginning to set batch minimums above the small lot authorization numbers to eliminate the hassle of servicing small scale producers.

Clearly, improvements can be made to increase the viability of local and regional meat production in BC. This year, meat producers throughout the province came together to form the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association (SSMPA) with an aim toward creating a network to share resources and to speak with a common voice to move systems forward in support of producers raising meat outside of the conventional industrial system.

The BC provincial government has reconvened the Select Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fish & Food, and the first task of this group is to make recommendations on local meat production capacity.(5) The SSMPA has been active in these discussions, as well as earlier consultations regarding Rural Slaughter Establishments, and looks forward to encouraging a more localized, place-based meat supply in BC.

To learn more or join in the discussion, visit smallscalemeat.ca or facebook.com/smallscalemeat.

To reach the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association (SSMPA), get in touch at smallscalemeat@gmail.com.


Tristan Banwell is a founding director of both the BC Small-Scale Meat Producers Association and the Lillooet Agriculture & Food Society, and represents NOOA on the COABC Board. In his spare time, he manages Spray Creek Ranch in Lillooet, operating a Class D abattoir and direct marketing organic beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and eggs. farmer@spraycreek.ca

References
(1) Xuereb, Mark. (2005). Food Miles: Environmental Implications of Food Imports to Waterloo Region. Region of Waterloo Public Health. https://bit.ly/2nh4B37
(2) Project Drawdown. https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/food/managed-grazing
(3) Agricultural Land Commission. (2013). Agricultural Capability Classification in BC. https://bit.ly/2vl3SC8
(4) Government of BC. Meat Inspection & Licensing. https://bit.ly/2uIcNgJ
(5) Ministry of Agriculture. (2018). Discussion Paper prepared for the Select Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fish and Food. https://bit.ly/2J1x9Kc

An Ode to the Farmer

in 2018/Fall 2018/Grow Organic/Organic Community

Josh Brown

…It was a few days ago at around 7 am when the sun peered over Fairview Mountain to kindly balance a rude 40 km/h south wind. It happened while I was neurotically leaning over the hood of my van trying to pick out a slightly different noise in the engine (of all things) hoping to hear something different each time, hoping to disprove Einstein’s basic philosophy of insanity. After about 20 minutes, I didn’t even know what I was looking for anymore, or if anything was even there in the first place. I’ll have to keep an eye on it. At around 8 pm later that day, the sun was falling behind K Mountain, finally offering slight relief from a 30 degree (spring!?) day. The wind soothed new sun burns and the cooling soil felt nice in my hands. It happened when I went to check the water and gopher traps in the apple tree nursery and garlic crop. My new low emitter overhead sprinklers are a head scratcher right now as I try to develop a schedule with the new irrigation system. And after opening up a fallow field for the expansion of the nursery, gopher trapping has been relentless…

This all started with a fallow field, for most of us here. As someone who is still very close to that moment, I can speak to what it’s been like to take that leap, and how special it has been to share the experience with likeminded people doing the same thing. I own a small-scale organic tree nursery in Cawston, a village nestled in the Similkameen Valley, and just outside the industrial fortitude of the Okanagan. Over the last 10 years farming for others, as well as investing in my own project here, this community has come alive in a most remarkable way, through compounded experiences with people who share a passion for designing a good life, and by people who quite literally design as a profession. This is an attempt to understand the mechanism by which I and likely many other organic farmers ended up living here and doing something we truly find meaningful, and why we stayed.

Perhaps if we stop and smell the roses a little more, we may be able to break pattern and follow a different path. That this narrative is like a little red thread that weaves its way, inductively, moment to moment, rose to rose, through disjointed chaos, and that we can surprise ourselves with how far we can actually go. There are moments we cherish, whose substantive merit eludes us less that moment in time when we stopped to notice it. But I’m beginning to think those moments do not drift far. The first time opening up a piece of land like a blank canvas and feeling liberated by it. An evening with close friends whose intimacy is built on innumerable shared experiences over years, and feeling at home. Trying to erect multiple freestanding cold frame tunnels in the middle of a field in the windiest place on earth, and through constant repair and correction realizing how passionate and focused you are.

These moments and their respective rewards are fleeting, though they help us refine exactly what we are seeking and what feeds us, and over time they define and become us. I’m beginning to think that we don’t actually make many long winded choices—you know, the big ones: where to live, who to love, who we are. Rather, if we slightly untether ourselves from those plans and expectations that we can gear toward so eagerly, and give ourselves the freedom to take notice to the moments we are in from time to time, letting them inspire us to deviate course a little, we may find ourselves doing something we truly find meaningful. And that is how I would describe the process of somehow starting out in Toronto 10 years ago, running a scooter business and living downtown, to now finding myself farming in the Similkameen.

This is not just my story. I live in a community whose members’ stories have grown, and continue to grow, unrestrained by fear of discomfort or by doing things differently. This is a sentiment I feel often, and is confirmed by the reaction I get from people who come here and experience the work in the fields, and who may have had the opportunity to join us at one of our potlucks, filled with fresh ingredients cooked by the local farmers whose hard work that day grew them.

There is something that happens when all the farmers get together here, where friendship, profession, and community are indistinguishable. Sometimes I feel that we have replaced a few of our older patterns, some of which did not feel organic, with others that do—for example, the nature of the work/life balance here, as well as the nature of the work itself.

…It was a few days ago at around 2 pm, around the time when the heat of the day can make you irritable, that I needed to borrow a T-post pounder to build a deer fence for the nursery. The heat we have been getting so early in the year had pushed the buds from my newly grafted trees a lot quicker than I was expecting, and so I really needed to build that fence before all the new growth was a fawn’s snack. Emilie Thoueille, who runs an extraordinary small scale organic market garden down the road from me, had one so I stopped in to pick it up. She invited me in for a coffee in the shade of her tiny home container conversion that she built herself. My roommate, David Arthur, who also runs a small organic market garden on a shared lease with me, was over helping build a cooler out of another converted container, which they will be sharing to store their veggies. Our mutual neighbours across the road, Paul and Lauren, who have been unbelievably helpful over the years to all three of us, stopped in to say hi as well. Community is quite literally woven into the fabric of our lives and careers here, and I believe we farm to feed it. The deer fence could wait 15 minutes, because this was a special moment in the shade…

Life here really is quite unbelievable, and my goal and that of so many other farmers I know is really just to be able to keep doing this. I recall a conversation I was recently having with Corey Brown from Blackbird Organics, a friend and mentor, about this valley and what makes life and farming in this small town so unique. He was describing how “we are essentially a community of entrepreneurs.”

And yet our homes and communities are a little more entangled into the mix of business and pleasure, so it is all being designed to work harmoniously. This is where the work/life balance disintegrates, when your work is your home as well, and your local economy is also your community.

“It returns to something that actually feels more comfortable and natural, yet needs to be relearned,” added Melissa Marr at Vialo Orchards, owner of one of the oldest organic orchards in the area. That level of interdependence, ownership, and accountability is pervasive, and it shows in the quality of the product and lifestyle experienced here.

In some ways I feel that what we are doing here in Cawston builds on an experience as old as time. That from rose to rose, moment to moment, we have come to find ourselves farming here. Though as off the beaten path as it has felt for some of us, it has in many ways reconnected us to a personal and social archetype, a self and a community, whose fire has been burning for a long time, and which feels more honest, organic, and sustainable.

I still see it in the passion and pride held by those who found themselves in a similar moment to the one I’m experiencing years ago, in the generation before us. Farmers whose wisdom in both how to farm, and how to be, have been tantamount to our success, and the continuation of this movement, just as we hope to be for those who we will have the privilege of sharing this with in the future. These are farmers whose passion and story are cellared in the true nature of this lifestyle, in both its romance and its hardship. Those who have been here long enough to experience crop successes and failure, the strength to work 12 hours a day in 30 degree heat as well as those who have sustained togetherness, and union in the community, as well as prohibitive injury, fragmentation, and loneliness, the perfect apple year followed by a flooded orchard the next. Someone so in tune with those cycles, that they almost become predictable, thus inhabiting a trust in its continued ability to provide.

As a matter of fact, sometimes I think the hard work and resilience of the organic farmers I know in Cawston would stand to bear that the pain is manageable when compared to the reward, and the rewards are unquestionably rich.


Josh Brown owns and operates Joshua’s Trees, a certified organic tree fruit nursery in Cawston, BC, where he grows trees for orchardists as well as the retail hobbyist and backyard market. joshuastrees.organics@gmail.com

Photos by Sara Dent | farmlove.org

Growing the Local Food Economy in the North Okanagan

in 2018/Fall 2018/Farmers' Markets/Grow Organic/Marketing/Organic Community

Eva-Lena Lang

Growing up on a family farm in the Mabel Lake Valley, in the North Okanagan, I experienced the many rewards and challenges that farmers can face. I left the region for several years, but whenever I returned for visits, I would notice new struggles confronting the farming community. Certain challenges stand out in my memory: the BSE or “mad cow disease” crisis in 2003, BC’s enactment of the new Meat Inspection Regulation, which came into effect in 2007, other policy and regulation issues, the impact of droughts and wildfires, and more.

I moved back to the North Okanagan in 2015 to work with COABC, with the hope of returning to farming as well as putting roots back down in the wider community. I became concerned about the long term health and sustainability of our communities, which have become increasingly disconnected from their farmers. I believed there was a need to rebuild the relationships between not only the farmers and their communities, but between all the different components of the regional food system: from farmers, to processors, distributors, retailers, chefs, and ultimately, consumers.

In 2015 I was taking a course in a community economic development (CED) program through SFU. I had learned about the concept of collective impact: “the commitment of a group of actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem.” Collective impact follows five conditions: providing backbone support, facilitating communication, identifying a common agenda, embarking upon mutually reinforcing activities, and monitoring success (Kania & Kramer, 2011).

I also learned about the Farm to Plate (F2P) Network in Vermont, which has been one of the most impressive examples of how to successfully apply the collective impact approach to make a “viable, sustainable, and resilient food system.” The Vermont F2P Network is an inspiring example of how a collective impact network has transformed Vermont’s food system, resulting in significant improvements over 10 years (2003-2013). Notable improvements include doubling local food production, increasing local food jobs by 10% and businesses by 15%, halting land loss in agriculture, and improving access to healthy food for all Vermonters.

Gathering around a kitchen table, a few community members and I, all food systems experts as well as from farming families in the region, discussed the Vermont F2P Network for one of my CED projects. We ended the discussion with the decision that it could, and should, happen in the North Okanagan.

In November 2016 we convened a meeting of 15 key North Okanagan food system stakeholders, to discuss the potential and explore the interest for building the region’s food system through collective impact. Recommendations from the November meeting led to the following actions in 2017:

  • We formed a working committee, under the guidance of the above stakeholders
  • We selected Community Futures as our host organization
  • We created a background report compiling and summarizing the recommendations of agriculture, food system, and food security plans that have been generated in the region over the past 10 years. This report was completed in December 2017 and was useful in planning a forum the following year.
  • We hosted a forum in January of 2018, titled “Growing the Local Food Economy in the North Okanagan”.

The forum began with our keynote speaker, Curtis Ogden of the Interaction Institute for Social Change in Boston, USA, presenting his work on regional food systems in Northwestern USA, including on the VF2PN. In particular, Curtis talked about the importance of working through networks, building authentic connection and increasing capacity, leading to increased strengths. Networks are beneficial as they produce outcomes through collaboration that organizations may not produce on their own.

The forum was attended by 85 participants, including the direct food system stakeholders, as well as supporting members from government, non-profit, and academic organizations. We presented the opportunities, challenges and recommended actions from the background report and used this as the basis for discussion in the forum working groups (i.e. Sustain Farmers, Support Processors, Develop the Middle, Engage Consumers, and Build the Network). Through conversations, each working group determined their priorities for short, medium, and long term actions focused on growing the local food economy.

The conversations at the forum were incredibly important and filled with great ideas for action. It was becoming apparent to us, however, that the best way to make these actions happen was through the development of a well connected, aligned, and coordinated network in the North Okanagan, operating through a collective impact approach. Since the forum, we have continued to ride the momentum, working on two parallel efforts: 1. Following up on the priority actions determined at the forum, and 2. Building a collective impact network across the food system, called the North Okanagan Food System Initiative (NOFSI) Network.

The interim vision of NOFSI is a regional food system where farmland is protected and productive, farmers have access to land, regional farms and other food system enterprises are thriving, our food system is environmentally sustainable and resilient to climate change, more local food is produced and sold, and everyone has access to healthy good food. The goal of the North Okanagan Food System Initiative is to develop a collective impact network to achieve this vision.

NOFSI consists of a steering committee, a newly hired coordinator, and a network of food system stakeholders. Community Futures North Okanagan (CFNO) continues to act as our host organization. Currently, steering committee members represent key partner organizations such as Interior Health (IH), BC Ministry of Agriculture, University of British Columbia, Okanagan campus (UBCO), Food Action Society North Okanagan (FASNO), and the Regional District of North Okanagan (RDNO).

In May and June 2018, Liz Blakeway, the NOFSI coordinator, convened four working group meetings to follow up on the priority actions identified at the January forum. In the second half of these meetings, I facilitated a network mapping exercise to depict the current state of food system network in the North Okanagan. I also convened an overarching working group (the former Build the Network working group from the forum) to map, analyze, and make recommendations for building the NOFSI network. This work is a part of my Masters research at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, working closely with supervisors Mary Stockdale and Jon Corbett as well as other expert advisors from the community.

  1. The information obtained from this research and the priority actions identified at the follow up meetings will inform our transition to the next phase of our initiative. Starting in September, and with funding from the Real Estate Foundation as well as the Regional District of the North Okanagan, NOFSI will be working on:
    • Organizing annual forums and completing follow-up actions that focus on the following themes:
      Growing the local food economy (this is underway, beginning at the January 2018 forum);
    • Promoting environmental sustainability across the food system (to begin at the planned January 2019 forum); and
    • Securing access to healthy local food (anticipated to begin at a January 2020 forum).
  2. Building a network that functions to support and facilitate setting a shared agenda, initiates constructive communication, coordinates and supports working groups, and creates an environment that builds trust, alignment, and the ability to collaborate effectively.

During the first study group meeting in 2015, I discovered that there are other people in the North Okanagan who share my values and my understanding of what needs to be done to support a stronger regional food system. The conversation has continued, and it has been incredibly inspiring to see more and more passionate individuals became involved, building the momentum to implement this idea.

Each NOFSI member has their own story and reason as to why they want to see change. Many individuals who recognize the strong potential for profitable, diversified agricultural production in the North Okanagan, also want to support sustainable agriculture, the successful entrance of young farmers, and improved access to healthy local food for all our citizens. The success to date has been due to the commitment of members actively engaging in the network and a few very committed individuals putting countless hours of work into the development of NOFSI.

My study circle conversation in 2015 was a small way to try to make change happen, but it was a start. Inspired by Vermont’s story, I continue to believe that we can make collective impact happen here, with the “collective” being our NOFSI network, and the “impact,” a regional food system that is economically prosperous, environmentally sustainable, and socially accessible to all.


Eva-Lena Lang grew up on a family farm, and has farmed all around the world. She is currently pursuing a Masters at UBCO to further her capacity to support the regional food system and small-scale farmers. Before starting her Master’s, she worked with the Certified Organic Associations of BC.  

Photos by Maylies Lang.

Local Food Economies Thrive at Market—Rain or Shine!

in Fall 2018/Farmers' Markets/Marketing/Organic Community

Anna Helmer

The bell rings to start the market day. Relentless and demoralizing rain has been falling since the tents came out of the trailer and we began the set up, two hours ago. The gutters now strung up between the tents are working well, emitting a steady stream of water into the growing pool along the back curb and the tent side walls keep us relatively rain-free inside the stall. The very air seems wet, however, and little can be done about that. Tough morning at market so far.

I’ve been selling my family farm’s produce at Vancouver farmers’ markets for 20 years, so I know how to sell potatoes in the rain. It’s just like how to do it in the sunshine, except it seems mentally harder. The difficulty lies in keeping the stall in a high state of readiness, even though it might be empty and you would prefer to be warm and dry elsewhere. Every sale matters—especially in the rain, if your farm depends on farmers’ market sales.

I squeeze my way past the bins of backstock in the trailer where I have been changing out of sopping wet clothes. I have already traded a few hellos with the neighboring vendors, people I’ve seen every Saturday morning for years, but there’s been no time for more than that. I glance around to make sure all the signs are up and that the display is full: we’ve finished in time. It takes just as long to get set up in the rain as it does otherwise. Longer, of course, if you waste time regretting the situation.

The potatoes look good today, the red Chieftain and yellow Sieglinde sort of glowing in the dim light. My staff, who are making up $5 bags of potatoes and carrots, wisely refrain from discussing the weather. The vast, dripping, emptiness out in the market fairway which would normally be filled with customers eager to start shopping, lining up in advance of the opening bell, is obvious enough.

It is undeniably deserted, and despite the potatoes doing their best to provide sunshine, it feels disheartening. I give my head a shake because I think it’s too early to write this one off.

The first customer materializes. She’s a rain-or-shine regular who gave up on regular grocery stores quite a few years ago. She is followed by another I don’t recognize. A chef splashes his way in. I make sure his 20lb bag weighs at least 25. At the till, we’ll be rounding down more than usual. The customers might not notice but I don’t mind. I am feeling very benevolent towards anyone who turns up this morning.

Before I know it, an hour has passed, and I realize that the potato display tables are hidden from view by the backs of customers filling bags. The stack of now empty bins in the back has risen to a level I hardly thought possible when the opening bell rang. It’s going to be a solid day, despite the rain, which might even be easing up a little.

One of my staff has been coming to market ever since she was a baby, and her mom worked for a farm vendor here before that. She’s on the first till, and I jump behind the second one, a line-up having formed of dripping wet customers who thank us for being here today when they get to the front.

It bears repeating: the rain-soaked customers are thanking us and giving us money for potatoes. In fact, it’s now so busy they are lining up to do so. This, right here, is what makes farmers’ markets tick. People choose shopping in the rain over going to a grocery store. Farmers choose marketing in the rain over selling wholesale.

It’s what leads to the fact that farmers can make a living on an acreage that would otherwise be insufficient because they can get full retail for their produce. The customers keep coming back for more because…well…I just don’t know. Is it the quality of the product? The contact with an actual farmer? The coffee and crepes? It might be magic. Whatever the cause, it provides me motivation to keep farming, and to keep customer service and marketing standards high. It seems like a practical way of showing the customers that I really appreciate their business.

I love being a part of this special relationship, but I worry that it won’t last. It’s so much work, there is so much to learn, and there is so much competition for customers—and surely, they won’t keep coming? I mean, sometimes they must quietly wonder if it is really all that great? The weather, the effort, the cost. All that cooking.

Customers. We need customers to make markets successful. We need to retain existing ones and win new ones who might also shop in the rain. The good news is that we are only tapping a tiny fraction of the people who buy food, so there are plenty more to be had. The bad news is that the competition out there is absolutely fierce, and nowhere else other than at farmers’ markets are customers asked to go out shopping in all sorts of weather, probably park far away, and spend perhaps a little more than they really meant to.

Farmers’ markets enjoy one major competitive advantage however, and that is something I have begun to call “mutual appreciation.” This is an energy generated at the point of contact between primary producer and end consumer at market, most notably at the transaction stage. I take your money, you take my potatoes. We are both appreciative of the other. The feeling builds each week, from season to season and year to year and really can’t be re-created in other retail environments.

The farmer can do much to cultivate the feeling of mutual appreciation in the stall. It’s about a lot more than saying “thank you.” Developing good customer service and merchandizing skills is of prime importance—pre-market preparation, and of course years of practice help too.  In my opinion, it is important to put as much effort into selling the food as you spend growing it. These customers deserve that.

The farmer makes the magic that the people are coming back for. If you can also create this feeling of “mutual appreciation” in your stall, I think you’ll be able to have both tills busy, even in the rain.


Anna Helmer farms in the Pemberton Valley with her family, friends, and relations. Her book is called: A Farmer’s Guide to Farmers’ Markets and is available on amazon.com.

Photo by Moss Dance.

Footnotes from the Field: Intergenerational Soil Stewardship

in Fall 2018/Footnotes from the Field/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Standards/Tools & Techniques
Onions by Moss Dance at Birds and Beans

Intergenerational Soil Stewardship: Our Only Hope?

Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA V.O. P.Ag

Soil, specifically topsoil, is the foundation of life on this earth. Earth is the only planet with healthy fertile soil on it that we know of yet, in the whole of the universe. Fertile soil is a little-understood mixture of biology and geology whose potential only exists in the topsoil layer. The topsoil layer is composed of the topsoil itself and organic matter in various stages of mineralization and humus production. Degradation and erosion of the topsoil depletes soil fertility, restricting plant growth, vitality, and micronutrient content.

The theme for this month’s BC Organic Grower is: “Bioregionalism: building place based economies.” Agricultural philosopher Wendell Berry suggests that an agrarian economy is based on local adaptation of economic activity to the capacity of the land to sustain such activity.

This is a challenging idea because history shows us that farming as practised in the past and the present always causes topsoil degradation. Through the ages, soil degradation, or erosion, has steered the fate and course of human civilizations and ultimately caused the demise of those civilizations. This story has repeated itself throughout the world and in the history of every type of farming. In the words of Sir Winston Churchill, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” No greater historical comment can be made for agriculture: learn or be doomed. All farming societies exhausted their topsoils within 800 to 1700 years.

The Canadian Organic Standards speak to soil conservation and soil fertility specifically in the following sections:
The general principles of organic production in Annex 1:
1. Protect the environment, minimize soil degradation and erosion, decrease pollution, optimize biological productivity, and promote a sound state of health.
2. Maintain long-term soil fertility by optimizing conditions for biological activity within the soil.

Clause 5.4.3 Tillage and cultivation practices shall maintain or improve the physical, chemical and biological condition of soil, and minimize damage to the structure and tilth of soil, and soil erosion.

Principle of Health

Organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plants, animals, humans and the planet as one and indivisible.

We have run out of new lands to discover on planet Earth. In 1995, Dr. David Pimental of Cornell University calculated that we had already lost 30% of the arable land we were farming to soil erosion. With the advent of chemical and mechanical agriculture the soil erosion problem has increased a hundred-fold in areas. As an example, in the past 150 years, one-half the fertile topsoil of Iowa has been lost to erosion.

Topsoil is a strategic and underappreciated resource. Soil can be conserved, made, and lost and it is the balance of these factors that determines the soils fertility. How we manage the soil resource in our generation will affect generations to come. As long as soil erosion continues to exceed soil production, it is only a matter of time before agriculture fails to support Earths humanity.

What Can We Learn from the Trials and Errors of Our Ancestors?

Çatalhöyük, Anatolia (modern Turkey) was home to a Neolithic farming civilization that lasted around a thousand years starting about 7500 BC. Scientists have studied skeletal remains which have provided a highly informative record of human health. From the skeletal health record they have been able to divide this civilization into three distinct health time periods: Early, Middle and Late. During the Middle period the civilization reached its peak in population and health, and then as soil fertility was depleted the human skeletal health parameters demonstrated decline. By the end of the Late period 52% of human births resulted in infant mortality before the age of two months. Similar skeletal health studies have been conducted on the remains of other farming civilizations globally with outcome of human health declining in parallel with topsoil and soil fertility depletion, supporting the assumption that human health is interdependent on topsoil retention and soil fertility.

Dr. David R. Montgomery succinctly identifies the problem and a potential solution in his book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations: “Sustaining our collective well being requires prioritizing society’s long term interest in soil stewardship; it is an issue of fundamental importance to our civilization. We simply cannot afford to view agriculture as just another business because the economic benefits of soil conservation can be harvested only after decades of stewardship, and the cost of soil abuse is borne by all.”

What Does a New Sustainable Agriculture Ethic Require from Us?

In Dr. David Montgomery’s more recent publication “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” he outlines solutions to soil conservation and topsoil rebuilding techniques he has witnessed applied in the field around the world. He identifies the main culprit of soil erosion in agriculture as the invention of the plow. The plow breaks the soil structure and exposes the underground community of biota to the surface. “The plow is the villain that set the seeds for soil degradation. Only deserts have bare earth and Nature tends to clothe herself in plants.”

Another challenge is that during one generation a farmer can seldom see the effects of topsoil erosion unless a dramatic natural weather event sweeps the soil away. During day to day farming it is difficult to ascertain the minimal yet additive effects of traditional tillage techniques. Fallow land tillage is a traditional technique that leads to desertification and needs to be abandoned and replaced with topsoil preserving methods. Topsoil conservation and rebuilding requires the focused consciousness of Intergenerational Soil Stewardship to guide agricultural sustainability.

Soil is in a Symbiotic Living Relationship with Plants

When plants are actively photosynthesizing they release 30% to 40% of the sugars, carbon compounds, and proteins they manufacture through their roots into the root rhizosphere. The root exudes these nutrients to feed the underground community of fungi and microbes in exchange for micronutrients from fungi and microbial metabolites that act as growth stimulators and plant health promoters.

When plants are fed synthetic N, P, K they grow big on top of the ground but do not invest in growing a big root system and do not deliver as much nutritious root exudates to feed the underground microbial and fungi communities. As a result the plant does not reap the benefits of vitality factors and micronutrients. The plants overall health is less and the plant tissue has demonstratively less micronutrient content to pass on up the food chain. Micronutrient studies demonstrate that under conventional agriculture the plants have lost between 25% to 50% of their micronutrient content in the past 50 years.

The solution to successful topsoil building Dr. Montgomery observed while touring farms around the world required three things to happen at once: no till planting techniques, cover cropping, and adding organic matter to the soil. Dr. Montgomery has coined the method Conservation Agriculture and the methods can be applied in both conventional and organic farms—because when it comes to soil conservation and restoration, everybody needs to get on board.

Principles of Conservation Agriculture:

1. Minimal or no disturbance/direct planting of seeds (e.g., no till)
2. Permanent ground cover: retain crop residues and include cover crop in rotations
3. Diverse crop rotations: to maintain soil fertility and break up pathogen carryover
4. Livestock assisting in topsoil building: mimic bison grazing, move cattle in a tight herd to intensive graze (high disturbance), and move frequently to produce low frequency grazing.

Benefits of Conservation Agriculture, after a short transition period of 2 to 3 years to allow soil organic matter to build fertility:

1. Comparable or increased yields
2. Greatly reduced fossil fuel and pesticide use
3. Increased soil carbon and crop resilience
4. Higher farmer profits

“This is not a question of low tech organic versus GMO & agro-tech….this is about ‘how to apply an understanding of soil ecology to the applied problem of increasing and sustaining crop yields in a post-oil environment’.”

“Agriculture has experienced several revolutions in historical times: the yeoman’s revolution based on relearning Roman soil husbandry and the agrochemical and green revolutions based on fertilizer and agrotechnology. Today, the growing adoption of no-till and organic methods is fostering a modern agrarian revolution based on soil conservation. Whereas past agricultural revolutions focused on increasing crop yields, the ongoing one needs to sustain them to ensure the continuity of our modern global civilization. The philosophical basis of the new agriculture lies in treating soil as a locally adapted biological system rather than a chemical system.”

Intergenerational Soil Stewardship: Society on a global scale based on an agrarian economy adapted to its bioregion dedicated to topsoil conservation and restoration and the development of soil fertility.


Marjorie Harris is an organophyte, agrologist, consultant, and verification officer in BC. She offers organic nutrient consulting and verification services supporting natural systems.

References:
1. Montgomery, D. (2007). Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. University of California Press. Montgomery, D. (2017). Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. W. W. Norton & Company.
3. Pimental, D., Burgess, M. (2013). Soil Erosion Threatens Food Production. Agriculture, 3(3), 443-463; doi: 10.3390/agriculture3030443
4. Montgomery, D. (2014). Soil erosion and agricultural sustainability. PNAS. 104 (33) 13268-13272; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0611508104

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