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Organic Stories: Grounded Acres, Skwxwú7mesh territory

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

Digging into Community

Darcy Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

groundedacresfarm.ca


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

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

Dispatches from the Future

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

Our Best Case for a Climate-Changed Food System

Brian MacIsaac and Rebecca Kneen

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

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

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

Lettuce transplanted in summer heat. Credit: Moss Dance.

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

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

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

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

Wild bee on phacelia. Credit: Moss Dance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

All Dressed Up & Nowhere to Go

in 2022/Livestock/Spring 2022/Standards Updates

Ready for Growth, Small-Scale Meat Producers are Limited by Access to Processing

By Julia Smith

The Small-Scale Meat Producers Association recently completed a province-wide survey of the small-scale meat producing sector in which we heard from 708 operations representing 2,110 producers across all 27 regional districts of the province. Eighteen respondents reported being certified organic, and 15 of these were located in the Okanagan.

The survey identified that small-scale meat producers in BC tend to have very diverse operations, and are practicing a range of land management techniques. Of the respondents, 97% reported using at least one of the following practices to steward their land:

  • multiple species grazing (43%)
  • intensive grazing (38%)
  • regenerative agriculture (38%)
  • no-till farming (36%)
  • diversified forage (36%)

It will be interesting to see if these types of land management techniques become even more popular given the rising costs and supply chain issues associated with more conventional methods and inputs.

Not surprisingly, the biggest obstacle preventing the growth of the small-scale meat industry in BC was access to slaughter and butchery services. While this has proven to all but stop the industry as a whole in its tracks, it hits certified organic producers even harder, as there are very few, if any, certified organic abattoirs or butcher shops offering custom services to small-scale producers.

Chickens at UBC Farm. Credit: Hannah Lewis.

There is a little wiggle room: it is possible for a processor whose facility is not certified organic to complete an “Organic Compliance Declaration” in which they agree to uphold the certification requirements for a producer. However, it is unlikely that most processors would be willing to accommodate this. Processors are completely booked up months (often over a year) in advance without having to jump through any additional hoops.

At a time when it is extremely difficult for anyone to book slaughter and butcher dates for their livestock, organic producers are faced with the added burden of needing their processing facilities to comply with their organic certification standards. Survey respondents reported that they often can’t even reach their abattoir on the phone. It seems unlikely that a business that doesn’t even have time to answer their phone would be willing to entertain the extra steps and paperwork required to serve the certified organic market.

Even if the butcher is willing to take these steps, they are only allowed to cut into basic raw cuts if the product is to remain certified organic. Products of further processing, such as sausage making or smoking, are not able to remain certified organic unless the facility itself is also certified organic. Furthermore, not even the raw cuts can be labeled as certified organic by the butcher unless their facility is also certified organic. The producer themselves must take that meat home, unpack it and label everything to remain in compliance.

Happy pigs. Credit: Small Scale Meat Producers Association

It seems unfair that a producer who complies with the necessary production and animal welfare standards to achieve organic certification should not be able to market that product as certified organic due to insurmountable obstacles in the final step of the process. It may take three years to finish a certified organic steer and a matter of hours to process it.

The new Farmgate Plus slaughter license has the potential to offer some hope. 41% of survey respondents indicated that they are interested in pursuing a license which would allow them to slaughter up to 25 animal units (AU – 1,000 pounds of live weight = 1 AU) per year on their farm or ranch. This license is for slaughter only, and the carcass needs to be butchered at a licensed cut and wrap facility. Unfortunately, 25 AU isn’t likely to be enough volume for one operation to justify the expense of setting up a certified organic cut and wrap facility, but perhaps if there were enough organic livestock producers in a community, they could come together to solve this piece of the puzzle.

Profitability was another challenge identified by the survey and one where organic producers will certainly be feeling the pinch with rising costs and limited availability of everything from feed, to fuel, to fertilizer.

Overall, producers reported that they would like to grow their businesses and that market demand far exceeds their current production capacity given processing challenges. There is tremendous potential for this industry to make a significant contribution to food security and the economy. Given the undeniable need to move toward more environmentally sustainable production methods, the need for growth in the organic sector has never been greater.

To find the survey report, learn more about SSMPA and join as a Producer Member for $35 or as a Supporter Member for free, visit smallscalemeat.ca


Julia is a founding member and currently serving as Vice-President of the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association. She farms and ranches in the Nicola Valley where she raises critically endangered Red Wattle hogs and beef cattle.

Feature image: Turkeys on pasture. Credit: SSMPA.

Organic Stories: Wildflight Farm – Secwepemeceulecw, Mara BC

in 2022/Crop Production/Farmers' Markets/Grow Organic/Organic Community/Organic Stories/Winter 2022

A Community Movement Takes Flight

By Brianne Fester

Wild Flight Farm was never really part of the plan. In fact, Hermann Bruns grew up just down the road from the Wild Flight farmstead, and actually worked very diligently for 10 years to ensure he was on track to do quite the opposite of farming. But fate had other plans!

After their respective studies of geography and biology, Louise and Hermann met in Tumbler Ridge while working for a mining company. Both passionate about being active outdoors, exploring nature, and living as environmentally-conscious as possible, they began to recognize a disappointing lack of options for local and organic produce.

For Louise, switching gears and becoming a farmer was a clear choice. Deciding to grow the food that they themselves were unable to find was a way they could “walk the talk.”

Becoming organic growers was not only a way to advocate for living with less environmental impact, but it would provide a tangible way for others to make that choice as well.

Seeding Garlic. Credit: Wild Flight Farm.

The farm lies on a beautiful 20-acre slice of fertile land in unceded Secwepemc territory, along the Shuswap River. Wild Flight Farm was named in reverence for the river and the numerous migrating bird species that make a home there. It is from that deep place of appreciation and respect for their environment that Hermann and Louise have been dedicated stewards of the land they farm.

What began as Louise’s quaint notion of a small-scale farm, run by the two of them, transformed when Hermann really sank his teeth into the idea of making a concerted effort to feed their community. Where Louise imagined “small is beautiful,” Hermann saw “expand to meet demand,” and the fusion of these two ideologies is the essence of Wild Flight Farm.

Through thoughtful growth of their business, customers from Kelowna to Revelstoke have been nourished, inspired, and gathered by the dedication to—and consistency of—the produce that Wild Flight Farm has brought to their lives and wider communities.

Louise and Hermann in the greenhouse. Credit: Wild Flight Farm.

One thing that has really set the farm apart from other local growers is that they grow, store, and sell produce year-round. “Deciding to expand our infrastructure—building a bigger packing shed and additional cooler rooms—was really driven by customer demand,” reflects Hermann. The “big build” at the farm took place about 10 years into the growth of their business and was an integral step in the evolution of the farm, as it secured a supply of organic produce throughout the winter months for customers.

Direct to consumer sales, especially farmers markets, have been central to the business model of Wild Flight. In the early years they tried various markets throughout the region but eventually focused on serving two communities: Salmon Arm and Revelstoke. Their delivery methods have evolved over time and they have experimented with a Community Support Agriculture (CSA) program, in addition to attending both summer and winter markets. Over the years, “we’ve actually been all over Revelstoke,” recalls Hermann. “We’ve parked at people’s houses, industrial sites, the community centre, and centennial park.”

Continuous communication has been a real strength of Wild Flight over the years. Currently, over 2,300 people receive a weekly e-news publication, drawing recipients into the on-farm experience through bright photos and the anticipated ‘featured vegetable,’ the in-season veggie of the moment. The newsletter originated as a humble, word-processed piece of paper, authored and printed by Louise during the farm’s second year. It was a way to stay connected to their customers and offer recipe suggestions for some of the more obscure vegetables found in their CSA box.

Through its evolution, the newsletter has served many purposes: a means to convey moment to moment farm struggles and excitement and a platform for political engagement, community announcements, general farmers market news, but also a way to create a network responsive to the unexpected changes that occur between field and market. Its efficacy has been tested on several occasions, and regardless of delivery delays, weather issues, or COVID-related challenges, the newsletter has demonstrated a consistent and rapid ability to reach farm customers when plans change.

Keeping harvest day interesting. Credit: Wild Flight Farm.

This attentive and thoughtful way of aligning with customers is also echoed in how Hermann and Louise connect with their employees. I worked at the farm over four non-consecutive years in a variety of roles. There were two constant threads woven into all my experiences of working with them: the authentic and genuine care for their employees, and their keen desire to share with, and support, interested young farmers.

The simple act of sitting with their employees at lunch each day spoke volumes to me; we were all working together to achieve the same goals and our efforts as employees were respected and valued. Their appreciation was also undoubtedly clear on Fridays when Louise would create an extraordinary dessert for us to share. Definitely a weekly highlight!

Both Hermann and Louise were always available to chat about any and all things farming—or life—and on several occasions the crew arranged to have post-workday Q&A sessions, where we could pepper them with our extensive farming queries. To this day, they make me feel like there is never a question too silly or a moment too busy to reach out.

Whether nurturing aspiring farmers or building relationships with existing farmers, Wild Flight has been integral in maintaining a strong farmer network in the region. At the very onset of their farm business, Hermann and Louise were warmly welcomed into the realm of organic growing by Rob and Kathryn Hettler of Pilgrims’ Produce. They generously offered insights and experience and even gifted Hermann and Louise their first hoop house!

Wild Flight farmers’ market spread. Credit: Wild Flight Farm.

This sentiment of reciprocity has remained a top priority as Wild Flight has grown over the years, whether through co-marketing, exchanging insights and info, coordinating with other growers to share shipping to Urban Harvest or Farmbound, or joining forces to save costs by splitting a pallet (or more!) worth of goods between several growers.

Nearing the end of their third decade, Wild Flight continues to have the same dedication to providing organic produce to as many folks as possible. Farming still requires them to navigate new challenges with unique and innovative solutions and it appears that traversing their next steps of farm succession will be no different. “Our hope is that the farm will continue in a similar direction,” says Hermann when asked about their idea of Wild Flight in the future. But, Louise adds, “our kids definitely don’t want to farm.”

At the edge of one of the fields, behind the alley of hoop houses stands a proud new house, ready for its first occupants. “Building it is definitely a gamble,” Hermann shares, but they recognize that having on-farm housing is a necessity. The intention with the build is that the house will attract potential successors, and the entering farmers will have a comfortable place to live with the space to raise a family, if they chose to. With the price of land increasing at such an alarming rate, it remains one of the largest barriers for aspiring farmers, not to mention the widespread trouble accessing affordable housing. (1, 2)

Several years ago, The Bruns’ decided to incorporate Wild Flight Farm, but keep the land and infrastructure that the farm uses under their private ownership. “The idea is that because the farm doesn’t actually own any of the land itself, it is more affordable for someone to buy into the business,” explains Hermann. “The farm would continue to operate, they would make their salary and then be able to use the profit, or some of the profit, to invest back into further ownership of the business, while continuing to lease the land and buildings.”

Looking forward, Louise and Hermann see exciting potential. They envision a sense of gusto brought to the farm by folks who, as Louise imagines, “can use the infrastructure to make it their own.”

wildflightfarm.ca


Brianne Fester is grateful to have been involved in organic growing in various capacities since taking a job with Wild Flight Farm in 2013. Brianne is passionate about all things food and is particularly interested in how we can work to create a more just and equitable food system.

Feature image: Bringing in the harvest. Credit: Wild Flight Farm.

References:
Cheung, C. (April 20, 2021). To Ease Housing Crisis, BC is Largely looking to Developers as Partners. The Tyee. thetyee.ca/News/2021/04/20/Housing-Crisis-Developers-Partners/
Fawcett-Atkinson, M. (August 12, 2020). Young BC Farmers Can’t Afford Farmland. Canada’s National Observer. nationalobserver.com/2020/08/12/news/young-bc-farmers-cant-afford-farmland

A Summer of Drought, Heat Waves, and Fire

in 2021/Climate Change/Fall 2021/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Organic Stories

It is definitely a topsy-turvy world right now—so much is out of balance as we can see in the wildfires around us, as well as flooding and more fires around the world. We’re feeling for Mother Earth and recognize the shifts that humans (particularly the extractivist, endless-growth mindsets) need to make to start to repair what we have messed with (which is a LOT). We are grateful that things aren’t so out of balance that we can still grow good food for family and farm friends, building relationships, and where we can do better, be better.”
~ Michelle Tsutsumi, Golden Ears Farm, Chase BC

Throughout the province, temperatures reached record highs in late June, with seasonal temperatures fluctuating in the high 30’s for long periods of time in the Interior. Smoke from hundreds of fires choked out the sun and left the earth and plants parched for water and sun scorched. What follows is a collection of stories from organic farmers in their own words and as told to Marjorie Harris. Gratitude to the farmers who shared their harrowing experiences and stories of community coming together.

Farming under red skies in the thick of the fires. Credit: Fresh Valley Farms.

The biggest impact of the fires has been on our own mental and physical (respiratory) health. It wouldn’t even be that bad if it wasn’t on top of this ongoing drought, but as it is, the uncertainty of the situation is a lot to deal with.”
Annelise Grube-Cavers, Fresh Valley Farms, Armstrong

Coping with Heat Waves & Drought

By Marjorie Harris

The cherry crop experienced losses of 30% due to extreme temperatures up to 51 degrees for one or two days, followed by extended days of extreme temperatures. The cherry harvest was just beginning and the cherries were burned up, basically dehydrated and shriveled on the trees. One full block had to be abandoned. Many cherry farmers in the area lost entire blocks of trees to heat and water demands causing orchard abandonments.
~ Jarnail Gill, Blossom River Organics, Keremeos

At the end of June, the Oliver area was hit with two days of 47 degree temperatures, which then stayed over 40 degrees for many days. If the plants were not given enormous amounts of water they would have dried out. Hans used 40% to 50% more water this year than ever in his 40 years on the vineyard. Because of the high heat the evapotranspiration rate is very high and the water is needed by the plant to cool itself. If there is not sufficient water for the plant to do this the stomata on the leaf will close and the plant will completely shut down growth. The plant can burn up if it can’t cool, or take three to four weeks to start again. Also, some winter hardiness could be lost if the plants come back too late in the season. Therefore, the only choice available to save the plants and the vineyard was to water. Pumping from the well does have limited resources and thankfully not as much water is needed now. High temperatures combined with the large amount of water the vines did go into leaf growth. The bunches are very uneven in size and most are smaller berries that will not size up. Harvest season looks like it may be two weeks ahead.
~ Hans Buchler, Park Hill Vineyards, Oliver

In late June, temperatures soared over 40 degrees for five days peaking at 45 degrees. The Sunrise is our first summer apple and the first to be assessed for the damaging effects of the very intense heat that we had so early in the season. While the sun burning to the most exposed fruit is very deep and unsightly, it doesn’t appear to have affected a large percentage of the Sunrise crop. There may also have been some premature ripening in some of the Sunrise but on the whole pressures seem to be holding steady. Harvest dates are about the same as last year. Sunrise apples like most summer apples have relatively short storage life and don’t seem to be affected by internal quality issues as may be the case for some of the later apple varieties which rely on their storability.
~ Sally and Wilfrid Mennell, Sally Mennell’s Orchard, Cawston

Sunrise apples damaged by extreme heat in Cawston. Ranch. Credit: Sally Mennell’s Orchard.

David is a third-generation apple farmer in the BX area of Vernon, where temperatures reached over 44 degrees. The cider apple orchard is on a metered municipal treated water system. The trees needed more water than ever before, but a balance had to be made between keeping the trees alive and the economics of paying more for metered water than the business can afford. David admits to running on gut instinct to keep the orchard going all around. Far less scab sprays were applied. The apples are smaller across the whole orchard.

David explained that once temperature goes above 30 degrees, the trees shut down growth and the apples stay small. David shows me how on the hottest days the sun scorched the south facing fruit, baked to apple sauce on the trees, and now the hardened skins have split. The Gala and the Ambrosia hold the sun-damaged fruit and these have to be hand removed. As a third-generation farm, some blocks still have very low-density plantings; the large leafy canopies on these trees helped to protect the fruit. Overall, David says it looked like the orchard was starting to recover from the first heat wave and now with the second heat wave upon the orchard the growth is definitely slowing, “but who knows how the season will turn out,” David says, grinning a big smile.
~ David Dobernigg, The BX Press, Vernon

Saving the Farm

By Marjorie Harris with story from Rob Vanderlip: Zaparango Organic Farm, Westwold

The farm was blanketed with thick smoke for weeks before the fire arrived. The last planting of potatoes was struggling and lanky with the sun for photosynthesis. After the fires, the potatoes grew like crazy with steady fire prevention irrigation, hot weather and lots of carbon dioxide, green growth for weeds and crops vigorously filling out the plants.

On Aug 5th Robert Vanderlip, his son Chelan and everyone else in Westwold were ordered to evacuate from the approaching out-of-control fire that had just left Monte Lake as scorched earth. Rob, 69 years old, and Chelan, 32, opted to stay and try to save the family farm by fighting the fires.

An eerie orange sky at Fresh Valley Farm. Credit: Fresh Valley Farm.

In Rob’s own words he said “On Thursday, August 5th at 5pm the fire came over the forested mountain from Monte Lake like a locomotive engine barreling down his dried out native grass hayfield, then stopping at the green alfalfa and corn fields, to split east and west back into the forest and down the railway tracks heading into the town of Westwold. The flock of 70 sheep, free ranging ducks and chickens crowded into the green pastures.”

Rob and Chelan sprung into action pulling the 200 gal Turbo-mist sprayer tank with the Massey 35 diesel tractor to hose-down the understory along the railway tracks and put out fires in the circuit around the farm. One hour into the firefight electric power was lost to pump water from the wells to fill the sprayer tank. Fortunately, one of the wells was located high enough upslope to gravity feed fill the sprayer tank and keep the livestock troughs constantly full with water. Fire crews from Alexis Creek arrived in two hours and the Kelowna fire department also responded by 10pm but there was no power to fill the fire crew tanks. Rob and Chelan had set up sprinklers, and by 4am they had succeeded in preventing fire from entering Westwold.

The Zaparango family farm lost a hydro pole, two tool sheds and thousands of dollars in tools on day one of the fire. The fire battle on the homefront lasted another seven or eight days. Rob and Chelan volunteered and then were hired on by BC Wildfire service as guides for the roads and terrain of the fire suppression area.

Rob highly recommends that everyone keep gas generators with fuel on hand for emergency power. His 120-volt generator kept five freezers, three fridges and the fuel pump going throughout. A 240-volt generator was brought in on August 7th to power pumps for the two domestic wells to fill fire fighting water tanks.

Fire Evacuation

By Tristan Banwell, Spray Creek Ranch, Lillooet

As I steered my tractor through the corners on my biggest hayfield, the thermometer was showing temperatures in the high 40s and humidity below 10%. I watched an enormous pyrocumulus cloud form to the north as the McKay Creek Fire took hold. The following afternoon, smoke rapidly plumed to the south as our sister town of Lytton was devastated. The days that followed feel like weeks in my memory. The whole team shifted to fire preparations—ensuring livestock were in safer locations, setting out water lines to protect structures, and clearing away flammable items. The farm crew displaced from Solstedt Organics in Lytton showed up the next night. (The Standard requires that organic farm evacuees relocate to another organic farm… Just kidding.) After just 36 hours came the 3am evacuation order—text alerts and officers knocking at the door. By 9am, 11 farm residents and several recently arrived evacuees were dispersing with beloved possessions to other safe locations, and I was left to plan, prepare and take care of the livestock.

Protecting the family home with irrigation. Credit: Spray Creek Ranch.

Thankfully for us, the evacuation order was premature (better than late!) and the crew and family returned days later. I learned a lot from the experience. We went into this somewhat prepared—the buildings are fire-resistant, fuels in the forest are managed, most tools we need are around here…somewhere… But, all those wildfire plans are in my own head, depending on me to direct implementation. The farmstead looks different under threat of fire than it did the day prior, and we realized a lot more can be accomplished in advance. The tools need to be staged, the preparations need to be completed before the emergency, and the plans need to be on paper. We need backup power in case the grid goes down.

I learned that there is a network of support out there, but when you need those extra hands, it could be too late or unsafe. I also learned that although friends and family were concerned that I would be in danger from the fire itself, the risks I faced were familiar. Working alone. Operating machinery. Making decisions and taking action while affected by fatigue and stress. It is crucial to take time to rest and recover, even when it feels that every moment counts.

In so many ways, we have been fortunate thus far through the difficult summer of 2021. Our creek-fed irrigation water is holding up. The wildfires throughout the Interior have not yet raged through our farmstead, pastures and range. The systems we have in place to protect our livestock from the intense heat have worked. Some of this is luck, some is good planning and preparation. Even as we build diversity and resilience into our agroecological systems and businesses, we always rely on a little bit of grace from Mother Nature. This season has been a good reminder that we must also prepare for moments when there may be none.”

Smoke billows over a nearby mountain range at Solstedt Organics. Credit: Solstedt Organics.

Running on Fumes: Solstedt Organics

By Ashala Daniel, Solstedt Organics, Lytton BC

On June 30th, a CN train sparked just outside the town of Lytton, the closest town to my farm. Within half an hour, the town had burned to the ground. My land partner’s son had a place in town and raced to see if he could save anything but couldn’t even make it into town as there were propane tanks exploding and the whole town was on fire. That night, I sat in my pond and cried. For the town and for fear of that fire jumping the river and coming towards us.

We were evacuated from the west side on Thursday and I travelled to the city to deliver to restaurants and sell at the Trout Lake Farmers’ Market. It was surreal being in the city, crying a lot, putting out a donation jar for Lytton, while back at the farm, the fire had indeed jumped the Fraser river and was burning just five miles south of the farm.

My husband travelled back to the farm on Sunday with me as locals had been fighting the fire for three nights and needed relief. BC Forestry had only just started to show up. A friend joined us and they joined the local crew fighting the fire at night while Forestry fought it during the day. I made food, irrigated my and my neighbour’s farm and harvested. Again, it felt so pointless, but it was all I could do. A crew from New Brunswick showed up and were stationed at our fire for 14 days, evacuation orders were lifted and people started to return to the farm.

Since then, it has been a struggle with the Thompson-Nicola Regional District to travel roads to the highway, making our journey seven hours instead of four. The fire continues to burn and now First Nation communities south of us have been evacuated. The Fraser Canyon is closed as I write this as the fire was getting very close to the highway and now, with torrential rain last night, a mudslide has made the highway unpassable. I may be forced to travel up to Lillooet and down the Sea-to-Sky highway when I go to the city this week. The Duffey Lake road is horrible and scary with a big cube van and most trips involve groups of people in their fast cars cutting me off in dangerous spots all the way.

I was talking to my neighbours this morning and we all agreed that we are running on fumes. Which isn’t uncommon for farmers in the summer, but the added element of threat of fire for six weeks has really shattered all of us. It’s hard being in the city and hearing people say “Oh, you’re famous,” when they know my farm is in Lytton. I know people don’t know what to say around tragedy. But it’s very hard to keep a smile on my face and make that person feel welcome in my booth at the farmer’s market. I’m angry, I’m sad, I’m exhausted, I’m on edge, and I’m also so deeply grateful to still have my farm, my livelihood, and my home.


Featured image: Golden Ears Farm, Chase BC

Harvesting Wisdom: Protecting our Life-Source

in 2021/Climate Change/Fall 2021/Grow Organic/Indigenous Food Systems/Land Stewardship/Organic Community

By Abra Brynne

Farmers fulfill a complex set of roles. You grow and raise food that nourishes others—some of whom you may meet and some you will not. You are also entrepreneurs with a vested and real interest in seeing your business survive and, better yet, thrive. When you add organics into this mix, it necessarily introduces additional complexity.

There are those who choose to become certified organic because it is a smart business decision based on what the farm produces and market opportunities. But, as someone who has been an active volunteer in the BC organic community since the mid-1990’s, I am well aware that there are many who farm organically because you truly understand yourselves as stewards of the land you have the privilege to work. It is for this reason that you preserve riparian areas, bushy areas, and trees on the land even if it restricts the land available for cultivation. And many adopt practices to minimize disturbing the soil structures and the lives teeming under the surface, embracing no till practices without falling into the chemical trap that often accompanies no till.

The fact is, organic farmers have long been fully committed practitioners of climate-friendly agriculture for decades before such a term was coined. When I look back over the years of my involvement with Organic BC, alongside the many passionate, knowledgeable and caring volunteers with the organization, myriad examples come to mind that justify this statement:

  • The cyclical and fierce debates on the standards review committee over the inclusion of manure from conventional sources into compost;
  • Andrea Turner, who was adamant that the full life-cycle, including harm at the production stage of pressure treated posts, needed to be understood and incorporated into the deliberations of the standards review committee;
  • Wayne Harris hosting a rotational grazing workshop provided by E Ann Clark, formerly of the University of Guelph, with multiple farmers from the Creston Valley deeply engaged in the conversations about optimizing soil, field, and animal health simultaneously and symbiotically through careful management;
  • The Reid brothers who led the battle to open the Chicken Marketing Board to specialty producers, including organic;
    Linda Edwards’ brilliant guide on organic tree fruit production;
  • Rick and Vicky Llewellyn, who also went toe-to-toe with a marketing board and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in order to enable on-farm production of certified organic cheese;
  • Hermann Bruns’ longstanding practice of sharing the knowledge they have garnered over decades of trial and error on the farm he operates with his partner Louise;
  • Tim and Linda Ewert who operate Wildwood Farm near Pouce Coupe exclusively on bona fide horsepower, including using the horses to grind their own feed;
  • Mary Alice Johnson who over the years has mentored so many young people who have then gone on to have their own successful farm operations;
  • The persistence of volunteer-based regional certifiers that provide accessible certification to area farmers; and
  • The hundreds of certified organic farmers in BC who work year-in and year-out, through the vagaries of market and climate, to grow and raise certified organic foods while working to preserve and improve the land upon which they work.

Recognizing Indigenous Stewards

It is well established that the world’s centres of biodiversity owe their existence to the stewardship of Indigenous peoples. I remember well the 2018 annual conference in Chilliwack at which several Indigenous Food Sovereignty leaders, including Dawn Morrison, spoke to packed rooms. BC organic farmers crowded in to learn more about Indigenous relationships to the land, their stewardship practices, and their work towards food sovereignty. The tensions with settler agriculture were also explored. While organic farmers perpetuate settler agriculture on the landscape, it is clear that there are areas of complementarity in the shared care for the land, the water, and all the species that contribute to the well-being of an ecosystem.

Youth Wisdom, Youth Voices

Scientists have persisted in their warnings about climate change over multiple decades, despite the fact that their words have fallen on uncaring ears for too long. One group that has needed less persuasion is the youth. In communities across our province, county, and around the world, youth are taking action. Many are so young they do not yet have the right to vote. Nevertheless, they are leading awareness campaigns, engaging with political leaders, and using their voices to focus more attention on the urgent need for action.

It is both sad and ironic that our un-enfranchised youth are among the most vocal about the need to save our precious planet. Groups like Fridays for Future can be found in most communities.

They understand that it is their future at risk. The generations before them who have been a part of getting the planet to its present state owe them a debt that can never be fully repaid.

Acting Together

The wildfires that raged across BC again in the summer of 2021 are a stark reminder of how important it is that humanity more fully embrace climate friendly practices in all aspects of life. The August 2021 release of the International Panel on Climate Change report made it abundantly clear that we have run out of time to take real action in the face of the climate crisis.

Farmers for Climate Solutions, of which Organic BC is a member, was instrumental in the August announcement by the federal government of the On-Farm Climate Action Fund. The program promotes the widespread adoption of climate-friendly agricultural practices. It is high time for organic farming to become the dominant—“conventional”—approach to agriculture.

By learning from and uniting the voices and knowledge of organic farmers, Indigenous Peoples, youth, and climate scientists, we can help to shift how humanity lives on this precious planet.


Abra Brynne grew up on a small tree fruit farm in Syilx Territory. She is a former co-chair of the Organic BC Standards Review Committee, a long-time volunteer with Kootenay Organic Growers Society, has sat on the Organic BC board, and was the founding certification committee chair for PACS. She has worked closely with farmers and on food systems for 30 years, with a priority on food value chains and the regulatory regimes that impede or support them. Abra is a founding member of many agriculture and food-related organizations. Since 2016, she has led the Central Kootenay Food Policy Council.

Featured image: Rows of crops at a diversified farm. Credit: Abra Brynne

Incubating Certified Organic Farmers at Haliburton

in 2021/Grow Organic/Organic Community/Spring 2021

Erin Bett

Our farm, Fierce Love Farm, is a one-acre vegetable, fruit, and flower farm in Saanich on unceded W̱SÁNEĆ territory. We are part of Haliburton Community Organic Farm, which is a beautiful piece of farmland in the middle of the Victoria suburbs.

Haliburton Farm operates as an incubator farm: new farmers can lease plots between half an acre and one acre for a short-term lease of up to eight years to start their farm business. Our farm, and all the other farmers at Haliburton Farm, are certified organic through the Islands Organic Producers Association (IOPA).

While Haliburton Farm operates somewhat differently than other IOPA incubator farms, since it is run by a non-profit society on publicly owned land, it served as part of the inspiration for IOPA’s incubator farm policy. The incubator farm policy aims to expand the opportunities for new farmers to start organic farms with the support of established IOPA farmers.

We started our farm business at Haliburton Farm in 2018, and are entering our fourth season. After both completing the UBC Farm Practicum in Sustainable Agriculture and working for many years on farms throughout the province, we were ready to take the leap and start our own farm. With land prices what they are in BC, and especially on the west coast, we knew our only option was to lease land. When the opportunity to join Haliburton Farm’s incubator model opened up, we jumped at the chance, and have benefited from it greatly.

Jon harvesting leeks. Credit: Fierce Love Farm.

Farming at an incubator farm gave us the head start that leasing a raw piece of land from a private landowner never could have. With the key infrastructure like hoop houses, irrigation, and a walk-in cooler in place, and existing plantings of cane fruits in the ground, we were able to hit the ground running in our first season.

Kevin Allen, who also started Elemental Farm at Haliburton in 2018, adds, “The incubator policy has created the opportunity to start the farm business in a stable and supportive environment. This will be the fourth year of Elemental Farm’s operations and I am grateful this incubator policy exists.” He highlights that the incubator allowed them to start small and build their level of investment over time, as their risk tolerance increased. “For example,” he says, “we didn’t need to invest so heavily in the fixed assets of a cooler.”

Our plot had been farmed by two previous farmers before us, so we were also inheriting years of work building the soil. We were incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to work for the farmer whose plot we took over, Northstar Organics, the year prior to starting our farm. Having the mentorship of Shawn Dirksen on the land we would be farming, was invaluable to our business. Hearing his experiences, successes, and cautions gleaned over his time on the land gave us history and knowledge that would have taken years to collect on our own—a true gift to have before even putting pen to paper for our crop and marketing plans. Even three years later, he is only a phone call away to help us troubleshoot.

Being part of an incubator farm also gave us access to existing marketing channels. Our large stall at the local farmers’ market already had name recognition, and over the last three years we have worked hard to expand our dedicated customer base. We also partner with three other Haliburton Farm current and former lessees to collectively market our produce to restaurant and small grocer customers, which is coordinated by a fourth former Haliburton Farm lessee.

This combination of support, infrastructure, and our previous experience has allowed us to focus on the thing we didn’t have experience with—running a business. We have since been working to expand our own CSA, as we have always loved the CSA model and the connection with our community that it brings, and grow our farm to bring on more staff and our systems, while we plan for the future and a more permanent home for our farm.

While for us, the thought of starting over on another piece of land is daunting, and the barriers to land access for farmers are all too real, we are grateful that we have been able to start our farm business at Haliburton Farm.

Kevin’s farm has grown beyond the borders of Haliburton, too. “Starting last year, we were able to find another plot to lease and expand our plantings,” says Kevin. “We’ve now graduated out of the incubator policy and are continuing to search for more land to lease.”

Much needs to be done to make sure we set up the next generation of organic farmers for success, and incubator farms like Haliburton Farm are an important piece of the farm landscape. Haliburton Farm is celebrating its 20th year of operation this year, and as a member of the IOPA certification committee, I’m so excited to see applications from new farmers, who are being mentored by established organic farmers under the incubator farm policy.

If you would like more information about IOPA’s Incubator Policy and you are located within IOPA’s region of Vancouver Island and surrounding islands, reach out to admin@iopa.ca.


Erin Bett farms at Fierce Love Farm, a diverse, small-scale, organic farm located at Haliburton Community Organic Farm in Saanich, BC. Erin and her farm partner Jon are two first-generation farmers growing a variety of high-quality vegetables, berries, and flowers on one acre of leased land.

Feature image: Erin Bett showing off a bucket full of dahlias. Credit: Fierce Love Farm

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

Organic Stories: Urban Harvest – Syilx Territory, Kelowna BC

in 2020/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/Organic Stories/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

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