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Organic Stories: Grounded Acres, Skwxwú7mesh territory

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

Digging into Community

Darcy Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

groundedacresfarm.ca


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

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

Biodynamic Farm Story?

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

Anna Helmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only I understood why.

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


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

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

Agriculture Policy: What is All the Hoopla About?

in 2022/Climate Change/Current Issue/Grow Organic/Organic Standards/Standards Updates/Summer 2022

Mary Paradis

Most of Canada’s agricultural policy is delivered through five-year policy frameworks, co-developed and co-negotiated by the federal, provincial, and territorial governments. Meant to strengthen and grow Canada’s agriculture sector, the framework is agriculture’s primary policy document that guides how government supports farmers and has historically encompassed approximately $3 billion in public spending.

Farmers for Climate Solutions (FCS) is a national farmer-led coalition advocating to make agriculture part of the solution to climate change. In February, they submitted evidence-based recommendations for the next APF to scale-up the adoption of climate-friendly practices that reduce GHG emissions, increase carbon sequestration, and strengthen resilience on farms across Canada. As a member of Farmers for Climate Solutions, Organic BC has been supporting their efforts to make action on climate change central to the new APF.

The new agreement, called the Sustainable Canadian Agricultural Partnership (SCAP), was announced in July. Some of the positive outcomes of SCAP include:

  • $500 million in new funds for cost-share programs, a 25 percent increase from the current framework.
  • A commitment to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by three to five megatonnes over the lifespan of the framework.
  • A commitment to increase funding for Indigenous farmers and food providers, women farmers, and youth farmers.
  • $250 million for the Resilient Agricultural Landscape Program to fund farming practices that support carbon sequestration, adaptation, and other environmental co-benefits.
  • A one-year review period of current Business Risk Management (BRM) Programs to better integrate climate risk.
  • The requirement for large farms to perform an agri-environmental risk assessment or Environmental Farm Plan by 2025 to participate in AgriInvest.
  • A reiteration of the commitment to reduce emissions from nitrogen fertilizer by 30 percent.

Each province and territory will now negotiate specific agreements with the federal government on how the policies and funding will be implemented in their respective regions. Programs and services that are tailored to meet regional needs are cost shared, with the federal government contributing 60 percent and the provincial or territorial government contributing 40 percent.

As the bi-lateral negotiations take place over the coming months, Organic BC will continue to advocate for strong and responsive supports for all scales of farm operations in our province, to help both mitigate and adapt to climate change.

bit.ly/3woAIBx

farmersforclimatesolutions.ca


Feature image: Brassicas bursting with life. Credit: Thomas Buchan.

Organic Stories: OMRI

in 2022/Organic Standards/Organic Stories/Summer 2022

Behind the Scenes of Input Approvals

Matt Sircely

This year marks 25 years since the birth of the Organic Materials Review Institute, commonly known as OMRI. Two and a half decades in the organic sector means many lessons learned and advice to keep in mind as organics looks forward to the next quarter century.

Bridging the Certification Gaps

Founding OMRI board member Emily Brown Rosen remembers “when there was no national program, and multiple systems of certification with no accreditation, we had to rely a lot on each other…to try and bridge the gaps and differences. It was all very grassroots, and sometimes the separate tunnel-vision of each group caused problems.”

Early certifier councils helped iron out regional differences and OMRI’s founders intentionally sought broad geographical representation. Brown Rosen served as Policy Director at Pennsylvania Certified Organic before working at the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP). The lesson, she says, is “to continue building or participating in new alliances and consensus-building among the various sectors wherever possible.”

In her early 20’s at the time OMRI started, Kim Dietz supplied a handler’s perspective and support from Bill Knudsen’s juice company for preliminary discussions before OMRI’s founding. Review of materials for organic production was “disjointed” before federal regulation, says Dietz. “We brought the standards to the USDA and at the same time, this very active group of people saw that we could fill the gap with material review. I always say we started the National Organic Program with a skeleton and we slowly put the meat on the bones. And it was hard,” she says. “We all brought a strength to the table, and everybody was open to listening. Collectively we agreed on how OMRI should be founded, and the organic community the same way.”

Red Kuri squash. Credit: Moss Dance.

In the early days, Lynn Coody and the late Yvonne Frost from Oregon Tilth were already collaborating on materials lists with Brian Baker and Zea Sonnebend from California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). Coody explains that OMRI’s founders sought to standardize procedures for reviewing materials by “creating a national generic list, articulating criteria used to review materials, and documenting the steps in the materials review process.”

While not easy, she says, “there was a common understanding among the OMRI founders that we needed to come to solid agreements in order to support the evolution of the organic infrastructure, as well as a crucial trust in the goodwill, experience, and intelligence of our colleagues. I think some of these basic elements of cooperation are largely missing now, and that refocusing on them is the most important thing we can do to prepare for future challenges and opportunities.”

The first certifier councils introduced the West Coast founders to Bill Wolf, then board president of the Organic Foods Production Association of North America (OFPANA later became the Organic Trade Association, or OTA). OFPANA was developing its own organic input list, as was the Organic Crop Improvement Association in the Midwest, represented by the now late Peter Murray. Bill Wolf was elected as OMRI’s first board president, and Murray became vice president. Still farming in Virginia, Wolf says we are at a “critical juncture in the attempts to have harmony in the organic community, because the disharmony has become fractious enough so that there isn’t a good vehicle for having the different forces and belief systems within organic have a conversation. And in a way, OMRI served early on in that role, where everyone was at the table. OMRI could look to be a facilitator for some of that,” says Wolf. “So there’s an opportunity there, not to take a position necessarily, but to have a place for dialogue.”

The now-late Peter Murray, representing OMRI at the Expo East trade show in 1999. Murray held an early certifier seat on the OMRI Board of Directors. Credit: OMRI.

Trust and Unity

In classic startup style, Brian Baker drove with CCOF files in the bed of a pickup from California to Eugene, Oregon to open OMRI’s first office in Coody’s garage. “OMRI had to forego its advocacy role to build a reputation that it is fair, objective, and evidence-based in its evaluations. It was a price worth paying,” Baker says. “The development of organic standards was an inclusive, bottom-up approach that was open and transparent, so OMRI fit within that context. While not entirely based on consensus, the standards reflected broad agreement in many areas.”

Baker describes how the organic movement united in response to the USDA’s first proposed National Organic Program rule in 1997: “The organic community succeeded in meeting that threat head-on. It has not achieved that level of unity since.” Baker reflects that “ever since then, the organic community has been divided over standards issues, many of which are related to materials review.”

Dietz says OMRI should consider how to “step into the ring” to participate and even help facilitate. “The service that OMRI brings is these technical reviews. Very strong, scientific-based minds that can ground—can really bring people to understand a complex issue. If anybody can do it, OMRI can do it.”

Baker remembers OMRI’s initial work to convince organic product manufacturers of the value of sharing information with one trusted entity to gain broad acceptance among certifiers. Now, he sees a similar need for cooperation and information sharing: “Fertilizer and pesticide fraud pose a threat that cannot be ignored. OMRI can’t handle it alone. It will need to collaborate with other materials review organizations, regulatory agencies, and law enforcement. It is now clear that organic fraud is a persistent problem, not as isolated as once thought, and that we are dealing with international organized crime. International cooperation is needed to address a global problem.”

Dietz worked on an OTA task force to develop new anti-fraud tools. “We’ve opened ourselves up for vulnerability in those areas,” she says, noting higher organic prices intrinsically invite fraud. “So we have to protect the supply chain.” She hopes the movement worldwide sees the National Organic Program as “the foundation” for organic standards. “If a country makes their stance and says, ‘You’re not doing that in our country,’ then it could change the other rules, because you want everybody to try to be as harmonious as possible for trade.” OMRI can help, she says, “in those areas where there’s controversy and it’s not settled yet.”

Lettuce seedlings. Credit: Moss Dance.

Building New Bridges

With an eye toward the future, Baker notes the “growing number of OMRI Listed® products that are made, sold, and used entirely within Mexico. It is not clear when or even if the USDA will reach an equivalency agreement with Mexico, or what issues will need to be addressed.” He says a renegotiation between the US and European Union (EU) is “nearly certain” before 2025. “Producers in developing countries would benefit from consistent standards in the US and EU, and many of these are inputs-related,” he says, adding: “I have long seen Canada and Australia as key to the harmonization of international organic standards.”

Towards this international harmonization, Brown Rosen advises to “keep abreast of new developments domestically and internationally. Look for partners and allies that can expand OMRI’s presence.” She notes OMRI could engage the advisory boards of state and federal regulatory agencies in the US and abroad. “It will help if OMRI becomes appreciated by more of the traditional ag regulatory groups, since organic is going more and more mainstream.” Brown Rosen cites “ongoing concerns” about fumigation issues at border crossings and “recent agreements between APHIS, US Customs, and NOP,” and wonders “if there is any role OMRI can provide with education, information, or research.”

Baker explains how OMRI historically hired and trusted talented people, adding that the Advisory Council and Review Panel helped attract expertise. The organic industry is currently experiencing a shortage of qualified people, and “materials review requires a specialized set of skills that requires training. It comes down to having a team of talented, dedicated people who know their stuff.” Baker suggests more technical outreach “to train extension agents and producers to understand the place of materials within an ecological systems approach. OMRI’s role in research and education are vital,” he says, to help producers “be more successful and better stewards of the land, water, and other natural resources.”

“Fundamentally, organic has become a much faster-moving industry than 25 years ago,” says Wolf. “So, capacity to move labels and decisions through the system is really critical.” Organic industry growth represents a “60-fold increase in a fairly short period of time, and to try to measure what that means, and what has to happen to change the paradigm, the fact is the system wasn’t designed to deal with the volume that exists today.”

The proposed standard for inert ingredients signals that many new operations will be brought into the sphere of organic verification, and oversight requirements will increase for some OMRI reviews. The industry now produces “mostly very complex products,” Wolf says. “Pet food, fish, aquatic standards” are among the issue areas that require inputs, along with understanding of those inputs. Streamlining systems is critical, he says, also suggesting flexibility around creating a “Miscellaneous” listing category to accommodate products outside standard listing categories. Hearkening to the naming of OMRI, Wolf stands by his original notion of including “Research.” OMRI could provide efficacy research with “comparisons, trials, and tests to verify that the inputs are exactly what they say they are.”

Coody suggests OMRI convene a think tank to approach challenges both “expansively” and “practically,” and including “organic elders to retain institutional knowledge.” In government-run organic programs, “the regulation of the organic inputs sector is in its early stages, and OMRI can offer extensive experience,” she says, specifically identifying “material review organization accreditation, improved auditing of materials review systems, and preventing and identifying fraud in the input sector. OMRI’s technical expertise is essential in ensuring that inputs are used not only in compliance with organic regulations, but in line with organic principles.”

Brown Rosen recommends more proactive consultation with certification agencies. “Perhaps a small committee of the materials experts from each member agency could meet periodically,” identify unsolved problems, and contribute insights on important issues to the OMRI advisory council. “In addition to certifier materials experts, it would be nice to get some university scientists with appropriate expertise.” If possible, “getting a NOP person on board the advisory council would be very helpful—I did it for a while when I was at NOP (as a non-voting member), so there is precedent.” She says it would help foster communication and offer “insight on potential problem areas coming down the road.”

For each step of organic evolution, “we have to keep the intention, and go back to those organic principles.” Dietz describes an increasing reliance on the private sector to act and lead in accordance with the organic principles. “For OMRI to be successful, for the trade to be successful, we have to continue to do what we think is right.”

Dietz cheers the founders living today: “Active! We’re still active. That was a long time ago, but we’re just as passionate as we were back then. There is no difference. We’re still fighting the good fight. It’s fun. It’s good. We believe in it.”

omri.org


Matt Sircely has written for OMRI since 2006. Most at home in his garden on the Olympic Peninsula, Matt writes songs and performs and teaches mandolin. Over the years he has become a familiar face in the BC fiddle scene.

OMRI supports organic integrity by developing clear information and guidance about materials, so that producers know which products are appropriate for organic operations. OMRI is a non-profit that provides an independent review of products, such as fertilizers, pest controls, livestock health care products, and numerous other inputs that are intended for use in certified organic production and processing. OMRI also provides technical support and training for professionals in the organic industry.

Featured image credit: OMRI

Biodynamic Farm Story: (Still) Waiting for Spring

in 2022/Climate Change/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Summer 2022/Tools & Techniques

Anna Helmer

I have found it too cold to even consider applying Biodynamic Preparations so far this year. There’s no rule about it being too cold—it’s just a feeling I have. A shivery one. Instead, I have been contenting myself Biodynamically with further fiddling in our forested areas. The idea is to open things up so that there is a little more airflow. It’s hugely symbolic work, although there is an argument to be made around reducing flammable brush. Optional Biodynamic forestry work will be dropped in a hot minute as soon as the fields are dry enough for cultivating and planting.

I am sure that will be any day. Usually by now the potatoes are all in, but not this year. Today we started with some tentative cultivating—just enough to mix the cover crop into the very top layer of clammy soil. Of course, now it is pouring rain so back to square one. This is unheard-of lateness. Theoretically, everything will catch up. I’ve also been reading, and just finished, Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard. In it, the author describes a lifetime of study that began with the realization that a forest is more than sum of its parts. It culminates in a deep scientific understanding of the complexity of connection and symbiosis that must be established to allow re-planted forests to thrive.

Obviously, these conclusions have been drawn before. In agriculture, Rudolph Steiner and his Biodynamic lectures are the case in point. He died before fleshing out his arguments to the same extent, unfortunately. They follow a similar theme: when you are trying to grow things in nature, you had better consider nature.

When I wasn’t busy being enthralled by her narrative and picking up interesting little forestry tidbits (did you know that birch mulch tastes sweet?), I was busy being despairing. All these things matter so much. And yet.

I fear the weather this spring is causing me to get in touch with my inner pessimist, and  lately, it has unfortunately been coupled with a holier-than-thou mindset. This charming self-righteousness stems from the high price of fertilizer and the fact that we don’t use it. Just cover crops and the power of the universe here.

My moodiness won’t settle in for long because there is exactly zero basis for superiority, and I am sure the next fuel bill will provide an effective attitude adjustment lever. We are not at all a proper Biodynamic Farm—one that provides everything needed from within the farm. Those farmers may legitimately gloat. I, meanwhile, am a farmer with virtually no cash crop in the ground in May. I should have no trouble feeling humble.

There. Humbled. Moving on.

My big excitement today was realizing that I have a lot of juicy potato sprouts to add to my compost. This is the upside of waiting so long to get planting—the potatoes have sprouted and they get knocked off when we run them over the sorting table. They are accumulating quickly and making a solid layer on the compost pile. I don’t know what sort of a compost feed stock they will be, but it’s what I got.

Tomorrow, my favourite spring job: cutting seed potatoes. I am hoping for company. It’s an excellent talking task, and the very epitome of many hands making light work. This year, we’ll huddle under cover as the wintery spring deluges pass though the valley. In the sunny breaks, we’ll admire the fresh snow on the mountains.

The bad mood will be gone.


Anna Helmer farms in the Pemberton Valley and discovered there’s morels under the Cottonwoods. helmersorganic.com

Feature Image: Fawn Lily. Credit: Dean Diamond

A Canadian Organic Program to Grow Sustainable Agriculture for Canada and the World

in 2022/Organic Standards/Standards Updates/Summer 2022

Organic Federation of Canada

Canadian farmers are already experiencing serious negative impacts of climate change due to extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, forest fires, and ocean acidification—but resilient agriculture delivers ecological services and sets the path for food security amid climate change turmoil.

In alignment with what the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations proposes in terms of climate-smart agriculture, the Canadian Organic Standards prescribe effective strategies to foster the emergence of a carbon-neutral economy in the food sector.

The Canadian Organic Standards include practices that contribute significantly to reducing our agricultural sector’s greenhouse gas emissions, sequestering atmospheric carbon in soils and increasing biodiversity, while encouraging the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices, increasing agricultural resilience to the effects of climate change (particularly flooding and drought) and increasing farm income.

Canada is considered to be the 6th largest organic market in the world, and organic sales are growing at an impressive rate ($8.1 B in 2020). Despite a steady increase in production, supply is not keeping up with demand, both domestically and internationally. This offers great opportunities for the future.

The Canadian Organic Standards, referenced by law, define ecological agriculture as the basis of the whole industry; the standards need to be maintained and updated. Under the Canada Organic Regime, the Standards Interpretation Committee harmonizes the certification process by providing independent guidance to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) on issues related to the standards.

Since 2017, the Government of Canada has drastically reduced its support for organic agriculture:

  • The Canada Organic Office, created in 2009 by the CFIA to address regulatory issues, was dissolved in 2017.
  • The Organic Value Chain Round Table, mandated to analyze the Canadian organic sector’s competitive position and improve its performance and profitability, was dissolved in 2019 by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC).
  • The Standards Interpretation Committee, created by the CFIA in 2009 and funded by CFIA to provide independent guidance to the industry on issues related to the standards, will see its funding ended in 2023 (reduced by 54% in 21-22 and in 22-23).
  • The Canadian Organic Standards are referenced in the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations. The Canadian General Standards Board, which owns the Standards, requires a mandatory review every five years. But the federal government has not budgeted for future revisions. AAFC clearly states that they will not fund any future review.

The organic industry needs a Canada Organic Program to increase the sustainability of Canadian agriculture, assure access to markets and continue to ensure competitiveness. Other jurisdictions have implemented such programs to support their respective organic industries. The USDA and EU fund the maintenance of their organic standards.1 The USDA funds the Organic Cost Share Certification Program which provides cost share assistance to producers and handlers, and has created the USDA Organic Integrity Database to promote the growth of agricultural ecological practices and prevent fraud. The European Commission has set a target of at least 25% of the EU’s agricultural land under organic farming and a significant increase in organic aquaculture by 2030. In Europe, many countries offer direct support to their organic producers with an annual subsidy per hectare, with the objective of encouraging the maintenance of organic management practices over the long term.

Michelle Tsutsumi in the fields at Golden Ears Farm. Credit: Thomas Buchan.

What a Canada Organic Program will Accomplish

Different support measures are needed to increase Canadian agriculture’s sustainability, assure access to organic markets, and continue to ensure the competitiveness of our organic industry through a Canada Organic Program. An effective Canada Organic Program should include support measures addressing four elements:

  • Market access through a sound regulatory framework
  • Growth in capacity
  • Increased funding for organic research and knowledge transfer
  • Recognition of the organic sector’s contribution to sustainability
  • Market Access Through A Sound Regulatory Framework

The Canadian Organic Standards are owned by the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) and establish the requirements that agricultural producers and food processors must meet to ensure the legitimacy of Canadian organic products. This allows Canadian businesses to access markets, both in Canada and internationally, by ensuring that their organic claims are true. The Standards, put in place by the Safe Food for Canadians Regulation are thus the basis of the entire regulatory and certification system surrounding organic products, both for products sold outside their province of origin and for imported and exported products.

The CGSB Policy and Procedures Manual states that every standard shall be reviewed every five years. An unrevised standard is no longer relevant and a standard that has been published for more than five years cannot be amended (CGSB Manual clause 6.11.9). The CGSB may withdraw a standard if there are insufficient funds to update it (6.12.1), or if maintenance of the standard no longer meets CGSB requirements (6.12.2.3).

Canada establishes organic equivalency arrangements with other countries only if the signatories determine that the two regulatory systems involved, including their standards, assure that equivalent principles and outcomes are achieved in both jurisdictions.2 The Canadian organic industry cannot remain competitive if the Standards are not reviewed periodically to remain comparable to the standards of other countries, and equivalency agreements could be withdrawn. This would compromise access to international markets for Canadian organic products.

Funding for Five-Year Reviews of the Standards

The Canadian Organic Standards have been reviewed twice, once in 2015 and a second time in 2020.

For the first review in 2015, the Assurance Systems Stream under the AgriMarketing Program through AAFC contributed $297,414 to the Organic Federation of Canada (OFC) to cover part of the cost. Fundraising to industry stakeholders led by the OFC contributed $83,490 in cash, while stakeholders’ in-kind contributions amounted to a total of $16,062. The costs incurred by the CGSB were covered by the Standards Council of Canada.

For the 2020 Standards review process, AAFC’s Canadian Agricultural Adaptation Program, a program that has since been terminated, funded a total of $292,554 to the OFC. Industry cash contributions amounted to $59,000 and in-kind contributions were $39,000. AAFC also covered CGSB costs, a budget of over $200,000.

Government funding of the Standards review through ad hoc programs is not viable in the long-term. In 2022, the federal government is asking industry to pay for the costs of future Standards review work itself. However, industry funding of the Standards review is seen as a threat to the independence and integrity of the process. Also, there is no funding mechanism, such as a check-off program, that allows all operators and industry stakeholders to contribute equitably to the funding of the review work.

The USDA and EU publicly fund the review of their organic standards without any financial contributions from industry. If the Canadian organic sector were to attempt to cover the cost of reviewing the Canadian Organic Standards, Canada will be at a competitive disadvantage with stakeholders in competing countries.

Considering all these factors, the Canadian government needs to implement a Canada Organic Program that assures the independence of the review process by instituting permanent government funding for the mandatory five-year reviews of the Standards imposed by CGSB.

 

The Regulatory Role of the Standards Interpretation Committee

The Standards Interpretation Committee harmonizes the certification process by providing clarification to the CFIA when certified operators and Certification Bodies ask questions about the standards.

The Standards Interpretation Committee must be an independent, credible and impartial entity. The Committee must be funded by the CFIA, not by industry. Rather than abolishing the funding provided to the Standards Interpretation Committee since 2009, the Canadian government should maintain and even increase funding. This support is important to harmonize the certification process, maintain its independence, and accelerate the work of the Committee so questions can be answered in a timely fashion.

A Canada Organic Regime Integrity Database

Listing the certified organic operators under the Canada Organic Regime on a national database comparable to the USDA Organic Integrity Database will promote the growth of agricultural ecological practices and prevent fraud. This can only be accomplished by government.

Growth in Capacity

The government of Canada invests in organic businesses through various programs that are not specifically targeted towards organic production and processing. However, businesses producing organic products may have specific needs. Investing in organic processing and distribution capacity is essential to guarantee the supply to meet a growing demand for organic products, both in Canada and internationally.

Also, AAFC’s AgriMarketing Program provides funds to facilitate market connections between farmers and buyers and increase international market development. This type of funding needs to be increased through the Canada Organic Program to focus on organic market connections and development.

Increased Funding for Research and Knowledge Transfer

Organic agriculture should be recognized as a driving force in developing agricultural practices designed to conserve soil, water, and biodiversity. To support the adoption of such practices by the greater farming community, the government of Canada needs to aim long-term resilience of agroecosystems to climate change and to share the risk between farm businesses and society. This involves substantial support for research and knowledge transfer in organic practices.

Offering more government funding for research that seeks a greater understanding of agroecosystems, looks to develop alternatives to fossil fuel-based inputs, and increases on-farm technical assistance for organic practices, through a Canada Organic Program, is thus more than justified.

Recognition of the Organic Sector’s Contribution to Sustainability

The European Commission’s “Farm to Fork” strategy for a fair, healthy, and environmentally friendly food system aims to allocate at least 25% of EU farmland to organic farming by 2030. To achieve this, an action plan includes direct support for organic production, on the basis of an annual payment per hectare, to encourage the maintenance of practices associated with organic farming, ensuring their implementation over the long term. This type of measure applies significant leverage on the rate of conversion to organic agriculture. Very often, the payments per hectare are justified by the reward for positive externalities and partly financed by the deployment of taxes on pesticides.

A Canada Organic Program needs to include the recognition of, and financial compensation for, ecological goods and services and health and societal benefits associated with organic farm management practices.

In North America, although there is more support focused on investment assistance and relatively less action in favour of environmental payments, the USDA funds the Organic Cost Share Certification Program, which provides cost share assistance to producers and handlers of agricultural products who are obtaining or renewing their certification. Certified operations may be reimbursed for up to 50% of their certification costs paid during the program year. Because this program is based on recurrent assistance, not just support for transitional growers, it supports the practice of keeping land certified for years to come.

In order for Canadian organic businesses to remain competitive, a Canada Organic Program needs to implement a certification cost-share program to organic operators, offering, at minimum, the same benefits as those in the equivalent Farm Bill program.

Towards an Organic Future

In all countries with a structured organic sector, the budget devoted directly or indirectly to the development of organic agriculture is increasing. In general, assistance programs in favour of maintaining good practices are multiplying to sustain a form of agriculture that meets the challenges of sustainable development and climate change.

A Canada Organic Program is a must: organic agriculture maintains soil health, prevents climate change and promotes biodiversity. This is the responsibility of our federal government as this affects organic consumers, processors, and the thousands of farmers who grow organic food and feed.


Feature image: Arzeena Hamir cleaning Annie Jackson beans. Credit: Thomas Buchan.

References
1. Union des producteurs agricoles (2021). Benchmarking of support measures for organic farming in Quebec to other jurisdictions. upa.qc.ca/wp-content/uploads/filebase/Benchmarking_support_measures_organic_farming_Quebec_to_other_jurisdictions_2021-04.pdf
2. Organic equivalency arrangements with other countries (CFIA, 2021) inspection.canada.ca/organic-products/equivalence-arrangements/eng/1311987562418/1311987760268

Reflections on the History of Organic BC

in 2022/Grow Organic/Marketing/Organic Community/Organic Standards/Spring 2022

We asked past presidents and board members of Organic BC to share memories from their time on the board—so many people have contributed so much over the years. These reflections are snapshots from the past 30 years, as we grew from small group of dedicated farmers, ranchers, and processors to the incredible community we have today. Here’s to many more decades of cultivating a resilient organic movement in BC!

Robert Hettler – Pilgrim’s Produce

Board member from 1993 to 1995

I was chosen by the North Okanagan Organic Association in the early 1990’s to be their representative on the board of what is now Organic BC.

I have many memories from the era of being on the board. The strongest is the commitment of all the board members of the time to get the job done, no matter the distance travelled, the time spent reviewing the few other standards written at the time, and the long hours spent thrashing out our first versions and then revisions after revisions.

Beginning with the travel, most of the board members came from the interior, Hans Buchler from Oliver, but more so Paddy Doherty and Lee Taylor from the Cariboo (an eight-hour drive), and especially Bill Smith from the Peace and his overnight drives of 12 or 16 hours. If I felt like whining over my four to six hours of winter driving, the guys from the north had us beat by a long shot. Sure, there was Fred Reid just half an hour down the road in Abbotsford, and Harvey Snow, who at the time worked for the BC Ministry of Agriculture, who also had little travel. Harvey Snow had a small office in Cloverdale, where we would all pile in and get to work.

Many a time I would arrive at Harvey’s Ministry of Agriculture office before 8 am to find Hans asleep in the cab of his Datsun pickup.

I remember reviewing the organic regulations from California and Oregon especially, but also some from Europe. None of us had experience writing regulations like many do now, so there were hours and hours of working out the principles we wished to convey, and then the tough job of choosing the right words and phrases with which to express our ideas. There seemed to be endless revisions made in those early days.

Since we met one day per month in the winter, in most cases we would work all day on regulations, and then usually it meant a drive back home at the end of the day, at least for me.

At the time the Apple 11e computer was the latest aid in doing regulations, which Harvey used to record our meetings, as were fax machines, which aided greatly in sending documents to each other. No cell phones back then and selfies had not been invented, so no pictures even contemplated —but we had Tim Hortons coffee and doughnuts to keep us going.

Paddy Doherty (centre) washing carrots at West Enderby Farm. Credit: West Enderby Farm.

Paddy Doherty – West Enderby Farm

Board member 1993-2000; 2012-2020; Staff 2001-2005

I remember particularly the friends I made. There were so many, and so many are still close friends. Gunta Vitins was working at the Ministry of Agriculture in the early 1990’s. She was assigned to the fledgling Certified Organic Association of BC (COABC) to help us get the organization off the ground. She found the funding somewhere and got us started on our first strategic plan.

I must admit I didn’t know what a strategic plan was. Bill Smith, Rob Hettler, Fred Reid, Harvey Snow, Brian Mennell, Brian Hughes, and I all worked on this plan, but Gunta made it happen. It was a great plan. We’ve accomplished most of the aspirations described in it—I don’t have a copy anymore.

I recall Bill Smith saying, “We have a great organization on paper, but we don’t have anything on the ground.” The COABC was the administrator of the Organic Agricultural Product Certification Regulations under the Food Choice and Disclosure Act. We were in charge of administering an act of the BC legislature but we had no office, no money, and no employees.

The economic development official in Quesnel happened to be a friend. He told me, “You need a secretariat. Ask the government for a secretariat for your organization until you can get on your feet.” A friend and I went to visit David Zirnhelt, then the Minister of Agriculture, who coincidentally owned a ranch in the next valley over from our place. We brought a proposal—this was another thing I had no experience with, but luckily had help from people who did.

People in the Ministry said it was irregular to approach the Minister in such an informal fashion, but it worked. We were provided with $275,000 in seed money to get us started, as well as a ministry staff person (and office) for three years. The next week I received a cheque in the mail for $80,000. We didn’t even have a bank account so I opened one at the Quesnel Credit Union.

The Ministry was holding an agriculture standing committee—in the summer, which was awkward. I was haying, but I really felt it was important to attend. After I finished baling, I drove all night to catch the first ferry to Victoria. I met Brian Hughes and Mary Alice Johnson outside the legislature, and they accompanied me. Somehow, I had managed to draft a speech for the standing committee. I don’t have it anymore, but I recall the opening: “I’m here to give you some good news about organic farming in BC.” I didn’t ask for anything, I just told them how great we were and what great things we were going to do. I also told them about the incredible market for organic food, and how fast it was growing. I could see the committee’s eyes light-up.

That was the first of many meetings where I was one of a group representing agriculture in BC. I was hanging out with the commodity groups like the chicken farmers, cattlemen, etc. Once the BC Agriculture Council was formed, I spent many hours attending meetings—often not doing much, but just being there.

Carmen and Glen Wakeling in the sunflower shoot house at Eatmore Sprouts. Credit: Eatmore Sprouts.

Glenn Wakeling – Eatmore Sprouts

Board member 1997-2001

I first attended a COABC AGM as a board representative from the Comox Region. I was thirty-something at the time and in the first decade of operating Eatmore Sprouts with three business partners. One of them, Carmen, was the whole reason I was here—a Kiwi growing sprouts in BC.

At the time, Hans Buchler was wrapping up his presidency. Paddy Doherty was coaxed in as president with a cell phone provided by COABC, and later a computer provided by Cathleen Kneen. Somehow, I ended up on the executive and became president several years later (the world is run by those who show up!).

The big issues of the day were recognition of the Standard (e.g. getting BC organic apples into Europe) and marketing boards (chickens and eggs). The Ministry was engaged. As is still the case, many farmers wanted little or no governance, with a handful who wanted everything, both federally and provincially.

Both of my parents in rural New Zealand did a lot of community time on boards. I felt it was important to participate. I jumped in deep, learning lots. We were still using dial up internet and basic computers. This kept the beginners mind active—looking back I was in way over my head!

I met a lot of amazing people, and we had a lot of good times.

Deb Foote – The Organic Grocer

Board member 2004-2008

I think I was the first non-producer coming from the world of distribution, retail, and marketing.

The mid-2000s were a time of big growth for COABC and organics. Just some of the issues that the sector faced during that time were:

  • West Nile virus and the potential impacts of use of malathion on organic farmers. The Province asked COABC for input
  • Plant Breeder Rights and seed severity
  • Marketing board accommodations for organic and specialty producers
  • National Standards development and implementation
  • Discussion of aquaculture certification
  • Collaboration with BC Ministry of Agriculture and Ag Canada
  • Introduction of the Environmental Farm Plan program
  • Abattoir regulations
  • GMO contamination
  • Organic Harvest Awards
  • BC’s adoption of the Canadian Organic Standards
  • An Organic Extension Officer position was created
  • Buy Local and the 100-mile diet took off

Hermann Bruns – Wild Flight Farm

Board member 1998-99; 2004-2006; 2011-2013

I was the NOOA rep on the COABC board over 20 years ago now. The world was a lot simpler back then, and we were all making it up somewhat as we went along.

My strongest memories are of getting an office set up for COABC. NOOA also needed an office space. At that time the Ministry of Agriculture was downsizing a lot, so one of the NOOA board members was bold enough to ask the Minister at the time, Corky Evans, if we could take up one of the empty offices in their Vernon building—and he agreed! Not all of the Ministry staff were pleased, however, so they created an outside entrance to the office.

NOOA moved in first and COABC followed soon after. The NOOA part-time administrator, Shelly Chvala, was also tasked with some of the COABC administrative work. Prior to that time, all the work was being done by board members from their homes, with regular meetings to get the organization up and running.

When that office space become too small, NOOA and COABC moved to a second office down on Kalamalka Lake Road for a number of years, then to a small house downtown that was also shared with PACS. In 2008, COABC moved to its own office at the current location.

Accreditation in the early years was being done by a committee of a few board members, with a government representative funded by the Ministry acting as Chair. At first it was about trying to get the certification bodies to work together, and then eventually our own standards came over time.

The first COABC website was created by Tim Jackson, son of a local organic fruit grower and university student who knew a little bit about html. I had to convince the board that a website would be a good thing; I thought it was important to have information more easily available for the organic community—as a kind of ‘open filing cabinet.’ Right from the beginning we envisioned a directory of all the certified operations, and we created the listserv which was very active at the time.

Carmen Wakeling – Eatmore Sprouts

Board member 2003-04; 2009-10; 2014-2019; 2021

I stepped into the role of president of COABC right when mandatory organic labelling in BC was announced in 2015. If I had known what that meant I may not have taken the job! So much work but a definite strengthening of organics. We worked with ministry, consumers, producers, and everyone in between to develop a staged approach to achieving this outcome. I remember one moment particularly well, when we were given a bit of an ultimatum: “If you want this, you must…” I felt my heart hit the floor—and then we figured out how to get through it. When I walk around the grocery stores now, I can see that our work on this has helped so much in giving consumers a clearer way to purchase certified organic products. This makes me very happy!

The current strategic plan was developed during my time as president. I feel very pleased that we were able to take the organization’s ability to work together and to identify gaps so solutions could be found to overcome challenges and build on opportunities. It was through this strategic plan that “iCertify” and the core review were undertaken. I look forward to the opportunities that lie ahead for Organic BC, as I know that many of the identified gaps will be addressed in the short- and medium-term.

It was so great to be supporting the work of the generations of leaders before me, and building opportunity for generations of leaders to come. It was an honor and a privilege to hold this position and contribute the important work of making the world a better place through organic agriculture. Step by step, bit by bit, building stronger communities and building stronger bridges is essential to humanity currently.

Keep up the good work everyone!


Feature image: Hermann Bruns with early spring greens in his moveable greenhouse at Wild Flight Farm as part of the Organic BC Virutal Field Tours 2022. Credit: Organic BC.

2022 BC Organic Conference Recap

in 2022/Organic Community/Spring 2022

By Stacey Santos

It really says something about you, the organic community, when you still shine two years into a pandemic, after a hot and fiery summer and a devastatingly wet fall. Even virtually, your leadership, knowledge, and humour are at the forefront—even eclipsing Jordan’s fake beard and eyebrows, à la Tristan.

That’s saying a lot.

We thank you for pushing through a tough year and for coming together for another great BC Organic Conference!

The “Bring Your Own Banquet” Edition

We had originally planned to hold the conference in person at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops, but in light of a certain pandemic, we switched to a virtual format on February 27 and March 6. The conference committee had some great brainwaves when it came to creating a new program, including the incredibly popular pre-conference beer and bevvie night (which folks were still talking about weeks after). It was wonderful to be able to laugh together, have breakout discussions, create spontaneous poetry, and kick off our online auction.

This year, the auction had especially fun contributions and we were able to raise over $5,000 in support of the conference!

From Virtual Field Days series, Hutley Acres.

Conference Podcast

Like last year, the conference included all-new podcasts featuring practical tips, regulatory insights, farmer reflections, and more. And, we were lucky to invite back a couple of guests from the podcast for some Q&As. Our podcast listeners voted to learn more about weeding and agritourism, so Kerry McCann and Andrew Budgel of Laughing Crow Organics joined us to share insights on weeding techniques and technology, and on agritourism’s economic opportunities, costs of doing business, labour, set up, and, of course, challenges.

The new podcast episodes will be released to the public at a later date. Find current and future episodes at organicbc.org/podcast

Welcome from Minister Popham

Agriculture Minister Lana Popham joined the conference and shared, as always, her heartfelt thoughts on the state of organics and agriculture in BC, plus an update on things to come.

We learned that the Ministry of Agriculture will soon announce its Regenerative Council/Board, which Organic BC will be a part of. The Ministry is also working to get government funding for equipment that will help farms be more resilient, and is creating a food hub network with shared-use processing facilities. When asked about the possibility of creating a meat processing hub in the province, Minister Popham said it’s definitely possible but will take some time.

If you have ideas on how farms can become more resilient, let the Ministry know! They have solid connections with funding resources and Minister Popham recommended an aggressive approach to get things done more quickly. So, stay connected!

Some familiar faces at the virtual Organic Conference—wait, who is that guy with the beard?

Mental Health in Agriculture

With so much going on right now—in farming and also the world—our conference session with Dr. Briana Hagen was more relevant than ever. Dr. Hagen presented on mental health literacy, touching on some of the struggles and challenges farmers face and how we can maintain and bolster our mental health during crises. A lot of strides have been made when it comes to having conversations around mental health, but there’s a lot more work to be done.

Thanks to Dr. Hagen for presenting on this important topic, and to attendees for their questions, comments, and insights.

Learn more about Dr. Hagen’s work and In the Know, the mental health literacy program for agriculture, at ajbresearch.com/in-the-know.

Reframing the Regenerative Conversation

One of our sessions focused on regenerative agriculture and its strong and long-lasting link to organic. The conversation highlighted the question: What is needed to make organic the key to regenerative certification?

The answers came from a variety of perspectives, including what the Ministry’s goals for regenerative agriculture are, what’s happening at the federal level, how Regenerative Organic Certification is being put into practice already, what sort of policy frameworks are needed to support regenerative (e.g. organic) agriculture, and more.

The Ministry of Agriculture highlighted the importance of collaborative groups, including the Regenerative Agriculture and Agritech Network, and also mentioned that the Environmental Farm Plan program offers funding towards creative regenerative solutions. They encouraged everyone to reach out to the Ministry to learn more about how the program can support your goals.

And, we were able to welcome Alison Squires from Upland Organics in Saskatchewan who walked us through the Regenerative Organic Certification process and shared tips on how to incorporate regenerative practices onto your farm. Her biggest game changer? Livestock integration.

Organic BC’s Regenerative Ag Committee will keep the conversation going, and we encourage you all to join the Organic BC listserv if you haven’t already (organicbc.org/listserv) to carry on discussions of your own.

From Virtual Field Days series, Molly Thurston at Claremont Organic Ranch.

Virtual Field Days

Thanks to public health orders and the fact that BC is a really big place, we were lucky to bring field days to the conference with the launch of our Soil Health Series. These videos included farm tours and conversations with:

Hutley Acres (dairy): Owner Mike Broersma gave an in-depth look at weed management, crop rotations, and key machinery, as well as keeping a healthy herd, overcoming obstacles, and the importance of trying new things.

Claremont Ranch Organics (tree fruit): With a focus on soil health, owner Molly Thurston walked us through the optimal soil for growing tree fruits, the benefits (and best combinations) of cover crops, tips for weed control during planting, and so much more.

Wild Flight Farm (vegetables): Owner Hermann Bruns gave tips on inexpensive and effective green manures that suppress weeds and give soil more structure, plus countless other ways to build nutrient-rich, healthy soil.

We were lucky to have some of the farmers in attendance at the conference, so folks were able to ask questions about the videos and get answers right from the source!

If you missed the virtual tours or want to have another watch, you can find the videos on our YouTube channel (@thisisorganicbc).

Organic BC gratefully acknowledges funding from the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a joint funding agreement between the Government of Canada and the Province of British Columbia.

Save the Dates

Looking ahead to 2023, the venue and hotel are already booked. We’re crossing our fingers for an in-person conference at TRU in Kamloops on February 24 to 26. The plan is to have a single-track program with an emphasis on providing opportunities for conversation both in and outside of the sessions.

And, because we had a lot of comments about roller crimpers during this conference, we’re also considering bringing some equipment to the in-person tradeshow, and inviting attendees to bring in theirs for an equipment show and tell.

Thank you

A huge thanks to our conference coordinator, Michelle Tsutusmi, and to our incredible and creative volunteers, including our conference committee and our witty and oh-so-entertaining hosts, Tristan Banwell and Jordan Marr. Also, thanks to our conference sponsors (Farm Credit Canada, Institute for Community Engaged Research, BC Coop Association, Gambrinus Malting) and to our tradeshow exhibitors (AgSafe BC, BC Agriculture Council, FarmFolk CityFolk, Frankia Fertilizers, Organic Crop Improvement Association, Osborne Quality Seed, and TerraLink).

Until next year!


Feature image: From Virtual Field Days series, Hermann Bruns at Wild Flight Farm.

All images: Credit: Organic BC.

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

Biodynamic Farm Story: Convergence & Composting Chaos

in 2022/Climate Change/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Soil/Winter 2022

By Anna Helmer

Well, I am thrilled to discover that the likely theme for this edition of BC Organic Grower magazine is: Composting Chaos. The suggestion that chaos may be composted is encouraging and practical…and it is always a treat to find something compostable that is in such good supply. Further thrills at the possibility of extending the concept to include the composting of lived experiences, especially those whose silver lining is perceived to be absent, invisible, or inadequate. The composting metaphor is very supportive: just stash it all in a heap until a more palatable, useful, and frankly understandable state is revealed.

I am obviously over-thrilled, and I will now tone it down. Composting takes ages, of course. These things don’t happen overnight.

I am certainly not over-thrilled at what I feel was a weak performance this year on the farm, biodynamically speaking. I didn’t accomplish very much of what I set out to do. I had grand plans to make some preparations, attend more zoom lectures, plant the garden according to the Celestial Planting Calendar, and generally advance myself towards being thought of as a wise, middle-aged, biodynamic farmer.

In fact, I didn’t do any of that, and I even took steps backwards. Not in ageing, unfortunately. Still relentlessly marching along that path, sorry to say.

The season started with a good old case of undermining myself: I did not apply BD 500 to the carrot field even though I have always known that a good carrot crop is conditional upon a spring application of BD 500. Other factors contribute of course: a June 1 planting date, into moist soil prepared just so; the crop to be hand-weeded twice, mechanically weeded thrice; judiciously watered but not wantonly; and harvest commencing no earlier than the third Monday in August. All that and very little more often guarantees a successful carrot crop in terms of yield, storability, and most importantly taste.

Early in the spring I improperly mixed BD 500 using assorted batches of stale-dated preparation—just to get rid of the clutter, really. I applied it within flinging distance of the barrel in a non-intentional manner. I didn’t go anywhere near the carrot-field-to-be, assuming I could be relied upon to complete the task closer to the planting date, at a more propitious time indicated by the calendar, and with something a little fresher and properly prepared. I did not do that.

I thought for sure the carrot crop was doomed but that was just the beginning. We proceeded to somehow insert change into just about every other aspect of successful Helmer carrot cropping procedure. Planting dates, seeder set-up, spacing, cultivation plan, mechanical weeding plan, and watering schedule: it was carrot chaos, really.

Jumping to the end of what has become a boring carrot story, we got a big crop of great-tasting carrots that seems to be storing well. It is an absolute mystery of variables, and I must kick myself for failing to properly apply BD 500 because now that doesn’t get to be part of the success calculus.

Hence, I am extra keen to flatter myself that the cull potato compost pile, carefully finished with some lovely compost preparations from our friends at the Biodynamic Association of BC, is quite gloriously successful. In terms of structure and appearance it does indeed look promising: it looks like a heap of rich dark soil and there are no longer potatoes visible.

It did not look at all promising to begin with, and although it reached temperature twice, I think that just encouraged the potatoes to grow more, seeing as they were nice and warm. With great gobs of them merrily sprouting and creating new potatoes it all seemed a bit futile.

My final move was to mix it, pile it nicely, cover it with hay, and apply the compost preparations. Since then, it has been through a heat dome and three heat waves, then three months of solid rain. It sits perched on a bit of high ground in a flooded field. It has basically been abandoned.   

The current plan, then, is to ignore it till next spring. I’ll open it up for a look and decide if it is ready for that most stern test of quality: application to soil. Expectations are managed.

In the meantime, I am building the next cull potato compost pile, adding a few hundred pounds every other week or so as we wash and sort the crop. It looks like more culls than last year. There are whacks of maple and birch leaves layered in, and hay. I’d like to get some seaweed, next time I am at the seashore, and I am considering drenching it from time to time with BD 500, the Biodynamic gateway drug of which I’ve got extra.

My biodynamic journey chugs along, I suppose, although I am refraining from setting biodynamic goals for next season. I am still far too busy composting the last one.


Anna Helmer farms with her family in Pemberton, BC where the current mission is finding the right winter work gloves.

Feature image: Compost in hand. Credit: Thomas Buchan.

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