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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.

Footnotes from the Field: Nature’s Electromagnetism

in 2022/Climate Change/Current Issue/Footnotes from the Field/Summer 2022

A Cooperative Energy Flow

By Marjorie Harris

Mother Nature is an ocean of electromagnetic waves traveling at the speed of light. It is now understood that nothing happens in the natural world that isn’t an electromagnetic event at some level.

It was just over 175 years ago in 1846, that Michael Faraday, known as the father of electromagnetism proposed the electromagnetic theory of light. He had discovered that light and electromagnetism were inter-related. The flow of light, charged particles, and electric currents were all governed by the same natural laws of electromagnetism. Shortly before Faraday’s passing in 1867, something spoke to him in the colours of the spectrum of light. While he looked out his western window past the distant rainfall he saw a beautiful rainbow that spanned the sky, and exclaimed, “He hath set his testimony in the heavens.”

Electromagnetism makes the world go round and round—every visible action starts with an invisible electromagnetic foundation, observed in the far distant cosmos macro displays of exploding supernovas, in the nearer Sun’s solar flares and coronal mass ejections, in our terrestrial atmospheric displays of northern lights, rainbows and lightening, and all the way down to microscopic movements of nutrients in the soil and phytoplankton pastures of the oceans, all demonstrating electromagnetism in motion.

On an electromagnetic level, nature operates cooperatively; this is far from the Darwinian concepts of competition and survival. Nature can be witnessed as the flow of energy dedicated to an incorruptible cooperative system set in motion by celestial events in galaxies far, far away.

Climate Changes and Nitrogen Fertilization

Galactic cosmic rays (GCR), are highly energetic, mainly positively-charged protons, whizzing through space at nearly the speed of light. Most of these charged particles have their origins outside of our solar system, coming from our own Milky Way galaxy, and beyond from distant galaxies. It is thought that they are the remnants of exploded supernovas. The climate and cloud cycle on earth is influenced to some degree by events occurring outside of our solar system that create galactic rays.

The earth is shielded by a magnetosphere as well: the Sun’s solar magnetic field helps to block incoming GCR’s. When our Sun is in a low sunspot period of its 11-year solar cycle, more galactic rays are able reach the earth’s atmosphere, increasing the low cloud cover. The result of more cloud cover is a cooler climate and more lightning storms. When clouds develop ice crystals the clouds separate into positively-charged tops and negatively-charged cloud bottoms. Lightning strikes are not random; lightning is guided to soils with high accumulations of positive charges. The soil develops positive charges for a number of reasons including microorganism and fungi activity. Fungi mycelium hyphae grow from positively charged tips and prefer to grow in the alkaline soils which result after fires.

Lightning is known to emit significant electromagnetic energy. Credit: Windows to the Universe.

Electromagnetic Energy of Lightning

Lightning is known to emit significant electromagnetic energy. These energy bursts react with the air, releasing atmospheric nitrogen aerosols that are washed down in rainfall to the soil and are bioavailable as nitrogen fertilizer for plants. Galactic cosmic rays create cooler temperatures, more rain, and nitrogen fertilization which promotes abundant plant growth.

The Birds & the Bees

The Earth’s magnetosphere also plays a vital role in bird migrations. It was recently discovered that some birds use the lines of the Earth’s magnetic field to find their way to their breeding and wintering grounds—they navigate the globe by actually being able to see Earth’s magnetic field lines.

Bees have a positively electric relationship with flowers. Bumblebee wings beat more then

200 times per second. The flight is so rapid it causes the bees to collide with the tiny air particles. As the bees collide with the air particles, electrons are knocked off of the bees creating a positive static electrically-charged aura around the bee. Flowers rich in nectar have an invisible negatively charged electric fields which stimulate the sensory hairs on the bee’s head and draw the bee toward them. As the bee lands on the flower, the negatively-charged flower pollen leaps onto the bees, sticking to the bee’s positively-charged hairs. Some of the bee’s positive charge shifts onto the flower, changing its electric field aura and telling other bees the nectar bounty has been plundered and to forage elsewhere. This helps bees be more energy efficient in their foraging activities.

We live in an electromagnetic soup that is influenced by forces on earth, the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy, and beyond—into a universe full of supernovas. Even the honey made by the humble bee depends on galactic cosmic rays originating in galaxies far, far way. Life truly is a cooperative, magical, and mysterious electromagnetic creation beyond comprehension!


Marjorie Harris, IOIA VO and concerned organophyte.

Feature image: Electric fields of flowers stimulate the sensory hairs of bumblebees. Credit: Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

References:
Faraday and the Electromagnetic Theory of Light. bbvaopenmind.com/en/science/leading-figures/faraday-electromagnetic-theory-light/
Electric fields of flowers stimulate the sensory hairs of bumble bees, Bumblebee Conservation Trust bumblebeeconservation.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/03-StaticElectricity.1_v2.pdf
7020–7021, PNAS, June 28, 2016, vol. 113 no. 26 pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1607426113
Kaplan, M. Bumblebees sense electric fields in flowers. Nature (2013). doi.org/10.1038/nature.2013.12480
NASA Researchers Explore Lightning’s NOx-ious Impact on Pollution, Climate, 10.22.09
National Earth Science Teachers Association windows2universe.org/earth/Atmosphere/tstorm/lightning_formation.html&edu=high
The bee, the flower, and the electric field: electric ecology and aerial electroreception link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00359-017-1176-6

Climate Mitigation through Agroforestry

in Current Issue/Uncategorized

Emily Lorenz

This article first appeared on the FarmFolk CityFolk website and is printed here with gratitude.

Agroforestry integrates trees or shrubs with other crops and/or livestock. Trees can capture greenhouse gases through their branches, leaves, trunks, and roots, making them an important climate solution and aid in reducing emissions in agriculture. In addition to sequestration, trees improve soil structure with their root systems and add nutrients to the soil with fallen leaves. Trees prevent flash flooding on agricultural lands by slowing down water with their root systems. Agroforestry systems create diversified habitats for wildlife with hedges, fruit trees, dead wood, grazing animals and other crops. Woodlands are a place for climate solutions, beneficial outcomes for farmers, and a calming space to promote farmer well-being.

George Powell, previously employed by the University of Alberta and the Ministry of Forests research program, is now an independent consultant offering his depth of knowledge as an agrologist specializing in integrated production systems. Powell describes agroforestry as, “a whole family of land-use practices that in some way involve the purposeful integration of trees or shrubs with other agricultural production, other crops or with livestock systems.” Agroforestry systems are diverse and complex and often “not defined by what you’re producing, but more like how you’re producing it,” says Powell. Clear cutting for agriculture and eliminating native tree species has severe environmental consequences. Powell says, “That’s probably one of the bigger environmental issues we’re still facing in BC. A lot of small and large stream networks [are suffering]. Forest cover was eliminated up to the water’s edge, which has big consequences for water quality and wildlife habitat.”

Cattle thriving in the margins of woods and field. Credit: Big Bear Ranch.

Maintaining and planting woody plants has beneficial results for our climate. Trees and other woody perennials are a significant source of carbon capture. Powell has experience testing carbon levels in test plots of agroforestry models. He says, “Every tonne of woody material that you grow, about 50% of that is carbon. Large perennials turn over about 50% of their fine root material every year, which means huge soil organic carbon pools could be created. It’s a sequestration monster.” There are benefits for farmers to maintain trees on their land; benefits that include savings on time and labour as well as increasing soil health. Powell says, “With a forested system cleared for agriculture, the more trees and shrubs you retain there, the more you’re mimicking that structural setting and natural flows. The nutrient dynamics and the water dynamics completely change when you bring trees and shrubs into the picture. The soil erosion risks drop off because you have those deep-rooted components that you don’t have from most crops.”

Not only are trees and large woody perennials a climate solution, but agroforestry is an effective adaptation tool for farmers. Powell says, “I think the real strength of agroforestry for BC is in adaptation.” One of the largest benefits of agroforestry modelled farms is the diversification of species on the land. Powell says, “Having a diverse range of things that you’re producing is your first best strategy against climate change and annual variability in the climate extremes.” Windbreaks and temperature control are beneficial results of trees. Powell encourages the use of trees and shrubs for soil moisture conservation in terms of windbreaks.

Farmers can adopt several categories of agroforestry to diversify and strengthen their agricultural system. The list includes alley cropping, silvopasture, shelterbelts, hedgerows, timberbelts, forest farming, and integrated riparian management. Each method offers unique benefits and is typically chosen according to the qualities of the farming operation.

Alley Cropping. Credit: Big Bear Ranch.

The integration of livestock and forest systems through silvopasture is a popular method of integrating trees on a farm. The approach of blending trees and animals in a system has numerous positive effects that benefit animal livelihood and our climate. In the winter, animals have an area to shelter from harsh temperatures and weather that is too extreme for them. Powell notes, “Trees and shrubs are largely water, they become big pools of long wave radiation and they radiate out that energy all around them. In wildlife terms, it’s called a thermal cover and the same principles apply to livestock.” Powell suggests setting up “living barns”, which are, “block or strip cuts into forests where you winter your animals in those strips and they benefit from the sheltering from the wind and the thermal radiation coming from the trees.” More importantly, in summer, shade is an important benefit that animals receive from tree cover. Heat stress occurs when an animal takes on more heat than its capacity to lose it. When they begin to experience heat stress, they seek shelter which a forest can provide easily.

Trees and shrubs offer a variety of nutrients that animals may not otherwise get. Fallen leaves and species that produce nuts and berries are nutritious to an animal’s diet. Beyond the numerous reasons that forested areas benefit livestock, the simplest encouragement is that certain species are meant to be integrated with trees. Powell says, “Livestock species were selected from forest-dwelling species. Cattle and chicken’s native predecessors are forest species. So they’re just happier with forest cover around. There are definite animal welfare benefits there.” Heather Young from Under the Oak Farm is preparing her farm for a silvopasture system. She strategically plants species of nut trees with the native and already established forest species and will introduce cattle onto in the coming years. Young plans to provide her cattle with the benefits of shelter from extreme climate variability and nutrients from the fallen nuts and foliage from the trees.

Forest farming is a unique technique for farmers to cultivate a high-value production crop under a canopy of trees. In addition to maintaining their forested area, they have planted numerous fruit trees with crops underneath to create a food forest. There are numerous benefits to forest farming. Young says, “In nature, trees grow with an understory of plants. If we reproduce that and let nature do its thing, it makes our life easier. We don’t have to weed as much, we don’t need to use nitrogen fertilizer, especially if you have nitrogen fixers. And, the trees provide habitat for birds that will eat your bugs.”

Hens as part of the agroforestry system. Credit: Big Bear Ranch.

Many small-scale farmers use alley cropping to optimize space on their farms. This agroforestry method involves planting rows of trees and/or shrubs to intentionally create alleys where crops are produced. For farmers who row-crop, this is a unique way of increasing income using a different profit source than their regular crops. Alley crops reduce erosion and can be a positive use of space where other crops cannot be planted. Strategically planted rows of trees can act as windbreaks and microclimates for other crops and livestock, increasing yield and quality of life. Alley cropping increases biodiversity and provides additional habitat for wildlife.

One or more rows of closely spaced trees and/or shrubs planted at the right angles to protect crops, soils, animals, and buildings from wind pressure are referred to as shelterbelts and hedgerows. These can be utilized along fence lines or as buffers between crops or animals. According to Powell, we need to restore the damaged waterways caused by agricultural clearing. He suggests, “Restoring those [waterways] in an agricultural setting would involve reestablishing buffers,” like hedgerows and shelterbelts. Rainer Krumsiek at Big Bear Ranch uses shelterbelts and hedgerows on their farm to create windbreaks for both their animals and wildlife. For Krumsiek, agroforestry is an important part of their farming operation. Krumsiek says, “Agroforestry helps with erosion control and nutrient balance. The moisture from snow accumulation and the fallen leaves from trees bring nutrients to the soil.”

Whichever approach farmers choose, agroforestry is regarded highly as a climate solution in agriculture. Trees are massive carbon sinks, add biodiversity to the farm ecosystem, and provide wildlife habitat, all contributing to climate mitigation. Farmers like Young note, “Our ability as agriculture to sequester carbon is more far-reaching than any technology we have so far.” Agroforestry systems benefit farmers in many ways. This includes saving time, labour, and financial costs over time; reducing erosion and increasing soil health; providing a natural canopy and windbreak for grazing livestock and poultry; providing nutrients to the ground below; spreading the risk in agriculture and increasing climate change variability.

When considering an agroforestry approach on a farm, it’s important to keep in mind that not all areas are appropriate for planting trees. Powell says, “When trees are applied to an area, you need to understand what varieties are native to that area and ecosystem, whenever possible. If the goal is to integrate livestock, it’s important to consider that not all livestock are appropriate for certain areas and species of trees. Find a local expert, speak to the local council and consult with First Nations communities.”

Approaching agroforestry by studying local agroecology is a good first step. Natural systems are thriving for a reason and farmers can learn a lot from natural ecosystems. Powell says, “It’s less energy to maintain a system the more of the natural cycles and processes you can retain. That’s what agroforestry does.” This approach can hugely benefit our climate, especially if more agricultural lands in BC incorporate agroforestry practices. Young says, “I am a firm believer that if we change parts of how we live, our emissions would decrease. A big part of how we live is choosing better agricultural practices.”

farmfolkcityfolk.ca


Emily Lorenz is the Engagement Coordinator for FarmFolkCityFolk and is passionate about supporting farmers and ranchers across BC.

Feature image: Alders fix nitrogen in wooded areas. Credit: Farm Folk City Folk.

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.

Finding the Rhythm of Agroforestry

in 2022/Climate Change/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Summer 2022/Tools & Techniques/Water Management

Andrew Adams

Trees, shrubs, and seeds all wait to begin a lifetime or two of photosynthesizing sugars for human and animal consumption and enjoyment.

The road where Walter’s backhoe broke in a muck of two summers of nonstop rain is now ditched and has a new layer of gravel. Part of me broke in that spot. I walked away from that machine until the following spring when I magically got it out despite its broken axle.

The field has its drainage ditches dug for freshet or non-stop rain.

There are many ponds on the property now and I want more.

My back is feeling well and my heart still says go forth and plant.

For several years, I was always happy working way more acres than someone should with basically no machines. I had always been athletic and loved to challenge my body as well as my mind. Three hard summers in a row, a handful of years working in the bush while farming, and two kids later, I am no longer 25.

I sat on an advisory committee on climate change adaptation for farmers a few years ago and the models were stark. As soon as I saw the models, what was predicted to happen in 10 years started happening now. And we felt it.

The shake up in the world’s food system and transportation system over the past few years was jarring to most individuals within reach of a satellite dish or radio wave. We were no different.

Glorious tomatoes. Credit: Andrew Adams.

I had a local friend and restaurant owner come to me during the beginning of the pandemic and say, “It’s happening just like you said it would with food shortages. I thought you were crazy.” I likely am crazy, as it runs in my family, but I think it’s been obvious to many that our system of growing and transporting food is a bit broken.

There was nothing like facing record-breaking weather events, disasters, a pandemic, and supply chain disruptions—and now having two kids—to spur me into thinking long-term a bit harder.

Two things became apparent to me: we needed to expand our greenhouse side of the farm to mitigate the effects of our already harsh environment (we are on class 7 land), and we needed to make plans for long-term resiliency and move quickly because I am not getting any younger, as they say.

We expanded our greenhouse operations with loans, sweat from friends and family members, and lots of studying. Now, we can grow large volumes of annual vegetable crops relatively safe from the major challenges of the season. Basically, we reduced our risk on our annual income.

It was time to start the long-term project.

The soil is alive. Credit: Andrew Adams.

We had read of Indigenous food forests being found in what is known to many as British Columbia and standing the test of time.

We had dabbled over the years in trialing various varieties of berry plants, fruit trees, etc., just by placing them in our clay soil and watching them year by year. We watched some die and we watched some thrive and we watched some just exist in a state of almost cryogenesis in our gleysolic clay and we knew their native cousins in the forest.

We watched native species of fruit-bearing shrubs and nut-producing trees provide nearly every year to our family and to the wildlife despite the type of season it was weather-wise.

A good dear friend who I would call an adopted mother and mentor in the world of local botany and growing in difficult climates had a library and then-some of all the information we needed to pursue this adventure.

We began studying more often about trees and shrubs and visiting my mentor every week to soak up as much information as I could, and then we made the decision. This past year, I purchased prodigious amounts of seed, shrubs, flowering plants, and equipment.

The field will be laid out with wind breaks of willow and red osier dogwood to provide not only wind break but food for wildlife if they out-sneak the guard dogs. A wall of dessert to keep them from browsing the more valuable human-destined crops. It will encircle the field like a horseshoe with the open end facing the south.

A forest of food starts with good intentions and seed. Pictured here are butternut seeds, related to walnuts and pecans. Credit: Andrew Adams.

The next interior layer will be flowering shrubs for pollinators and nesting song birds, followed by apple trees and small “thickets” of butternut trees. The next layer of the agroforest will be the Saskatoon and then Haskap berries. And within the all layers, various native plant species will be reintroduced within the population for more diversity.

The orchard will take a few years to begin bearing fruit physically but it will continue do so with minimal input—as opposed to our annual vegetable crops—once established. Much of the maintenance of the field can be done with our implements and tractor which is a huge bonus, because apparently you can’t work 18-hour days on the farm and be the best dad in the world.

I hope my boys and the community (which includes the local ecosystem) will benefit from the orchard but like all projects, only time will tell, and the time will be marked in the rings of lignified carbon.

If it works financially once up and going, we have plenty more acres that will receive the same silvicultural prescription based on local ecosystem observation.

Is this regenerative agriculture? Is this permaculture? I really don’t like to place labels on anything and some folks are down right cultish about some of those words. How about we call it a slow dance with the ecosystem in which we are all in step.

Transportation disruptions. Credit: Andrew Adams.

hopefarmorganics.com


Andrew Adams is the co-founder and farmer at Hope Farm Organics in Prince George. Andrew has a Bachelor’s of Science in Agriculture from Kansas State University and his partner Janie has a Bachelor of education. After seeing the state of food security and agriculture in the north the two felt obligated to make real change in the form of organic food production and thus created Hope Farm in 2011.

Feature image: Walking through the potato patch. Credit: Andrew Adams.

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

Footnotes from the Field: Cause and Effect

in 2022/Climate Change/Footnotes from the Field/Summer 2022

The Relationship Between Religions, Agriculture, and Civilizations

Marjorie Harris

“The way we see the world shapes the way we treat it. If a mountain is a deity, not a pile of ore…if a forest is a sacred grove, not timber; if other species are biological kin, not resources; or if the planet is our mother, not an opportunity… then we will treat each other with greater respect. Thus is the challenge, to look at the world from a different perspective.” – David Suzuki

David Suzuki has provided a provocative consideration about how we perceive the world and how that impacts our treatment of the world and each other. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Brian Snyder, a recently retired executive director of Ohio State University’s Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT) program, to discuss similar ideas about how agriculture impacts the world and ourselves.

Brian has 40 years of experience managing programs having to do with agriculture and food systems, with a business degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a theological degree from Harvard. He is just the expert to expand an understanding on the cause and effect of our world perceptions and the results we are harvesting.

Brian has been observing agricultural systems and their underlying religious philosophies, and he has come to the startling conclusion that all religions emerged to explain and justify cultural systems that run contrary to natural systems, and seek to overcome natural systems. Religion is often a justification for things that are contrary to nature, rather than a set of principles to build one’s life upon—as we have been led to believe by consumerist belief systems embedded into the foundations of the world’s religious systems.

Reframing History

For the bulk of human history people have been hunter-gatherers subject to the cycles of nature, whether they be feast or famine. With the archeological discovery of the Gobekli Tepe, the entire understanding modern scholars had about the origin of agriculture in relationship to religion was flipped upside down. The Gobekli Tepe temple structures are located in the Cappadocia region of northern Turkey and have been dated to 15,000 years old. They are now identified as the world’s oldest and first temples. The Gobekli Tepe temple complex was built before the beginning of agriculture, as agriculture is thought to have been established about 10,000 years ago. No evidence of domestic grains or livestock are present at the Gobekli Tepe site, only wild animal bones.

Until Gobekli Tepe’s discovery, it was thought that religion had been developed in response to the rise of agriculture. That theory has now been challenged, with an alternative interpretation being that agriculture developed in response to a religious presence—the rise of agriculture is coincident with the rise of religion. As Brian explains, religions can function to justify the use of agriculture to grow human populations beyond the natural carrying capacity of the land. The intentional raising of crops through tillage in an organized way created an abundance of food, providing more than was needed for the population.

From a cultural standpoint, this was an inflection point: the abundance of food led people to take the false belief that they were in control; yet nature is still, and always will be, beyond human control with regard to climate and the geological and celestial movements that control the growing seasons.

Brian observes that there is some sort of inherent divine presence that looks after all these things in the world. As depicted in the Christian Garden of Eden creation story, humanity started in the garden where nature took care of itself and provided for the people. At the point where people started to grow gardens and livestock for themselves, they seized governance for themselves, from nature. This is recorded in Genesis as the Fall of Man—human beings taking control of this natural process, with the idea of growing the population beyond what the land could naturally support.

The Cain and Abel story is an explicit struggle between livestock and crops over famine, water quality, and food security. Humanity hasn’t moved beyond these basic struggles, which have existed since the beginning of agriculture. In other religions, reincarnation offers a way to survive current problems and come back, without ever questioning what there will be to come back to if there is extinction?

Losing Ourselves to “Feed the World”

Today’s agricultural rhetoric is that we have to feed the world. We must be ready to feed people who are not here yet, have not been born yet—under the industrial corporate agriculture system the population will continue to grow unabated. The result of this rhetoric will be a further reduction in ecosystem biodiversity and biodiversity of crop-types, through the direct corporate control and ownership over the genetic materials for seeds and livestock.

Here is the challenge for humanity. It is both spiritual and scientific. What was divine was biodiversity propagating itself and creating ecosystem abundance in response to the natural environments. The population has grown beyond the carrying capacity of the earth already and reduction of species has been dramatic in recent decades. These events are playing out in the final Fall of Man—in the Christian mythos, as humankind’s punishment the ground will produce only thistles and weeds.

The sixth extinction is on the horizon.

There is controversy around humanity’s immense control over the quantity of food varieties, which have been radically reduced in number. In Pre-Columbian times in Peru there were over 3,000 varieties of potatoes growing in unique ecosystems. The Indigenous peoples would have considered each variety of potato to be a completely different type of crop. Over the past 500 years, with selective breeding programs and the spread of the potato worldwide, the global food system now depends on less than 30 varieties. Reliance on just three varieties of potato helped to precipitate the great Irish potato famine of the mid 19th century. Our ever-increasing dependence on soybeans and corn with reduced genetic diversity places humankind on the brink of the most tragic circumstance—that is, a worldwide catastrophe.

The organic agriculture ideal is to take spent land and regenerate it, to create sustainable agriculture systems. This highlights one of the challenges we face, the challenge of changing how we see the world.

Food companies are designed to maximize resources and monetary returns, rather than the methods used to regenerate the land and diversity of species. Corporate interests funnel genetics into a reduced sphere of diversity. Industrial farming with artificial commercially-produced inputs is all about farming as a necessity to continue to expand the population. From the Brazilian Amazon rainforest to the northern Boreal forests of Canada, generally accepted farming methods are to cut and burn the forest for land, strip the soils of nutrients by cropping, and then moving on to cut and burn more forests for more crop land.

At this point, there is no meaningful pushback from end consumers and farmers. The vast majority of people do not feel a strong inclination to turn the system around. Humans continue to consume unabated without concern. The consumer rhetoric is for the population to grow.

Expanding Our Approach

Hunters and gatherers were adapted to what nature provides. What was the trigger that catapulted humans into religion and agriculture? Perhaps there were evolutionary stressors that led humans to think that they could move beyond dependence on natural systems.

Genesis speaks of the knowledge of Good and Evil, where human beings think that they understand how things work, and then turn things to around to what they think most benefits humans. Bending nature to produce more than it naturally would, and then worshipping the human capacity to overcome natural processes.

Once you have the ears to hear the reductionist approach, it echoes in every news cycle. People are concerned about financial inflation first, then climate change and food security as afterthoughts. A shift is required in the way we see the world and each other. The solution is both spiritual and scientific.

“Thus is the challenge, to look at the world from a different perspective.” – David Suzuki


Marjorie Harris, IOIA VO and concerned organophyte.

Feature image: Göbekli Tepe detail. Credit: (CC) Davide Mauro.

Household Greywater: An Untapped Resource

in 2022/Climate Change/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Summer 2022/Water Management

By Ron Berezan

This article was first published by The Canadian Organic Grower magazine in Summer 2011, and is reprinted here with gratitude.

“When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.” – Benjamin Franklin, 1746

Turn on the tap and there it is; that shimmering, miraculous substance that flows through our rivers and lakes, our soils and plants—the rain that falls and the air we breathe, and indeed through the very eyes that read this text and the hands that hold this page. While millions of people around the world spend hours every day in the search for safe and drinkable water, we who live in relative water luxury, turning on the tap at will to meet our needs, are slower to recognize that water is a limited and very precious resource, without which there can be no life. For most of us, the well has never been dry.

Canadians are among the highest water consumers in the world, using an astonishing 600–700 litres of potable water per person per day in cities across this country.1 Yet if we consider the water used to grow the food we eat, agriculture being the most water- intensive human activity on the planet, not to mention other industrial water uses, our true rate of consumption is much higher. The good news is that through simple conservation measures, both in household and agricultural activities in Canada, our per capita water use has been decreasing in recent years. Given the marked decline of river levels on the prairies of the past few decades, along with other predicted changes in the hydrological cycle associated with climate change,2 there is little doubt that the years ahead will challenge us to draw much deeper from the well of wise water use.

One of the least explored and under-utilized options for water conservation in Canada is household grey water recycling. While other more arid regions of the world have been using grey water extensively for decades (some southwestern American states are now mandating grey water use in new residential developments), most Canadians are still unfamiliar with the very term. Household “grey water” by definition is any water that has been used for cooking, washing dishes, bathing or doing laundry. Grey water is to be distinguished from “black water” which is water that contains human waste, i.e. toilet water. Some water experts also include harvested rainwater from rooftops in the category of grey water, although there are notable differences between the two.

Apart from the obvious reduced water consumption associated with grey water use, there are two other compelling arguments in its favour. Firstly, whenever we use tap water, we are using energy—energy that has gone into the purification process as well as the pumping process to pressurize the lines that deliver water to our homes. Reducing water use also reduces energy use.

Secondly, grey water, when used in the landscape, comes with an added bonus: nutrients! All of the residual food waste left in our kitchen sink after washing dishes, and the soap itself (providing it is fully biodegradable) can become fertilizer for our gardens. As a common permaculture adage suggests, “pollution is an unused resource.” Indeed, when we consider natural systems, all waste from one organism or one process becomes food for another. Careful, appropriate grey water use in the landscape can connect our home ecology more firmly to the ecology of the place that we inhabit.

Before rowing our boat any further down the grey water stream, however, we should pause to consider the boulder lurking just below the surface—the question of regulation. Provincial plumbing codes and municipal bylaws vary throughout the country and many do not address the option of using grey water in the landscape at all. (They usually address using grey water inside the home for toilet flushing.) Suffice to say when I contacted municipal and provincial authorities in Alberta and asked, “Is it acceptable for me to bucket out my bathtub and use the water for my trees?” I was given a resounding “Yes!” in response.

When I further asked whether I could develop a more efficient way of moving the water from the tub to the trees, the response was more tentative and uncertain. It seems that outdoor grey water use is a ‘grey area’ in most jurisdictions in Canada. The bottom line is that you need to establish what is permitted where you live before you develop a grey water system.

Grey water advocate extraordinaire Art Ludwig, author of the highly useful Create an Oasis with Greywater,3 observes that the biggest mistake people make when using household grey water is that they contain the water in cisterns or buckets. The result is anaerobic decomposition of the nutrients and the inevitable unpleasant smells that come with it. Grey water should be confined no longer than 24 hours and ideally should be moved immediately from the source to the destination. Furthermore, any plumbing lines installed for grey water must be completely separate from water supply lines to ensure that no cross-contamination of potable (drinking) water can occur. While the health risks associated with grey water use are relatively very small, most grey water system designers recommend that there be minimal opportunity for contact between grey water and people, and that it be used to water perennial gardens, trees, and shrubs rather than annual vegetables.

Art Ludwig’s image of a branched drain.

Ludwig recommends keeping grey water systems as simple as possible by avoiding pumps, filters and other mechanisms that can easily clog up with particulate matter. Indeed, placing a basin in the dish sink or bucketing out the bathtub, though minimalist, can be a very effective option, particularly for occasional use.

For those who desire a slightly more automated system, Ludwig’s top recommendation is what he refers to as a “branched drain to mulched basin” design. Simply described, this system involves cutting into the existing drain pipe below a sink or bathtub and installing a ‘gate valve’ that allows you to direct the water outside through 1½-inch flexible PVC pipe and a series of ‘double ells’ that split the water into a few different directions.

Once outdoors, the flexible PVC is just below ground surface or beneath a layer of mulch. The different lines empty into shallow mulch-filled basins near trees, shrubs and perennials. As soon as the nutrient-rich grey water comes into contact with the soil, it is immediately fed upon by soil microbes which break it down into its mineral form. Then, it can be taken up by plants and cycled indefinitely. The grey water itself never sees the light of day. This is, of course, a seasonal system that can operate only when freezing is not occurring.

A slightly more complex system, and one which I successfully operated in my urban yard in Edmonton for many years with minimal maintenance, is called a “constructed grey water wetland.” This system involves the creation of a wetland system through which the grey water flows and is purified in the process. It ran from April to October in our case—the water moved by gravity from the main floor bath tub through a 1½- inch PVC line into a series of two “rock and reed” beds outside a few feet from the house. These were 14-inch deep trenches, 12 inches wide and five feet long, lined with rubber and filled with ½ to 1 inch of gravel.

Native wetland plants, such as sweet flag (Acorus calamus) and cattails (Typha latifolia), were planted into the gravel. Bacteria living on the surface of the gravel decompose the nutrients in the grey water (biodegradable soap, dirt, hair, etc.) and turn them into food for the reeds, which grow at a surprisingly robust rate. It is helpful to inoculate the rock and reed beds with healthy local pond water to ensure the presence of appropriate wetland microbes.

By the time the water moves through the rock and reed beds (approximately 48 hours), it is amazingly clean (wetlands are the kidneys of the planet!). The water flowed from the reed beds into a small pond containing additional wetland plants and provided a lovely aesthetic and great habitat for small fish, insects, birds, dragonflies and many other species. As additional water moved into the pond, it overflowed into a mulched woodland garden composed of a variety of native perennial and woody species and edible mushrooms. We drew water from the pond to irrigate nearby garden beds, and regularly harvested the reeds to add to the compost pile, ultimately transforming the ‘waste’ water into biomass, soil and eventually into food.

Using grey water in the landscape is a far simpler and safer process than most people imagine. While we have been the beneficiaries of hundreds of years of evolution in municipal water infrastructure and sanitation planning, we seem to have “thrown the baby out with the grey water” in missing this ubiquitous resource. In addition to the regulatory barriers that may still exist to widespread uptake of grey water recycling, there remains the cultural and emotional resistance that some may feel towards the practice. Those of us in the organic movement, however, may be more accustomed to pushing the social boundaries and creating fertile ground for others to walk upon.


Ron Berezan is an organic farmer and permaculture teacher living on Canada’s west coast in Tla’Amin territory. He works on food security and sustainability projects throughout Canada and in Cuba. theurbanfarmer.ca

Feature image: Cattails filter water. Credit: (CC) Sharon Mollerus.

References
1. National Resources Canada: nrcan.gc.ca
2. Dr. David Schindler: alberta.ca/aoe-david-schindler.aspx
3. Create an Oasis with Grey Water – Choosing, Building and Using Greywater Systems. Art Ludwig. Poor Richard’s Press, Santa Maria, CA. 2006. oasisdesign.net

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.

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