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Organic Stories: Lasser Ranch, Chetwynd BC

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

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

Jolene Swain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Sparkly Eyes, Grit, and Land Access

in 2020/Crop Production/Current Issue/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Marketing/Organic Community/Summer 2020

New Organic Farmers on Leased Land

Tessa Wetherill

Spring on an organic produce farm looks like baby greens, tiny radishes, overflowing seedling greenhouses, and freshly turned soil. Everything feels precious and new and brimming with possibility. Touring around Loveland Acres in Salmon Arm with farmers Robin and Maylene, those feelings were especially palpable and poignant since it’s their first season on the land. They’ve had a long journey getting here, one filled with familiar challenges and dreams. The other familiar things these farmers have are sparkly eyes and grit, ineffable qualities that go a long way in agriculture.As a farm business, Loveland Acres’ main goal is to provide high quality organic food for as many months of the year as possible. Robin and Maylene have been personally committed to eating as locally and seasonally as possible for many years and have identified a gap, often referred to as the hunger gap, in the availability of local produce in the region.

Crop rows in gorgeous soil under row cover. Credit: Tessa Wetherill.

“We want to help promote the Eat Local message all year round,” says Maylene. Which is why their next big project is to purchase and convert a shipping container into a commercial kitchen, an investment that will give them a place to process their produce, dry peppers, can tomatoes, and make pickles.

In discussing this next step in their business plan, Maylene points out that “no one talks about the money when starting a small farm.” She makes a good point. Even with all their sweat labour, these new farmers have invested a huge amount of money that they saved over a long time of working two jobs each into infrastructure, systems, and set up. They have poly tunnels, seedling greenhouses, storage spaces, and a very impressive irrigation system—all necessary to launch into marketing their products this season. The next step in building towards their goal of providing local food 12 months a year will take more capital than they have available right now, but seeing what these farmers have done in a couple years, I have no doubt they will make it happen.

In 2014, Robin and Maylene both left their professional careers in publishing and printing to pursue a siren song towards sustainable organic agriculture and a better quality of life. In her former life in Toronto, Maylene describes her experience with insomnia and a feeling of unease with the constant race and pace of the city and industry she worked in. When Maylene is asked what she loves most about farming, the answer is easy: mental space. Thinking about whatever she chooses all day long, rather than the 300 emails in her inbox. Contemplative, diverse, connected labour. That said, they both admit to having the occasional nightmare about their greenhouse flying away and that time they missed the window on flame weeding carrots!

Robin in the high tunnel hoop house. Below: Maylene with the celeriac harvest. Credit: Loveland Acres

Robin and Maylene met interning on an organic farm in Ontario. They fell in love with each other and the land and made a life-altering decision. Being in that environment and working in sync with the processes of nature, they both immediately began feeling healthier and sleeping better. They were learning that this was the life they were called to. They spent the next four years working and volunteering on farms across Canada and eventually found full-time employment working on a third-generation family-owned orchard in the Okanagan.

“For any aspiring farmer, working in agriculture is essential. It is the best way to learn and get hands-on experience. The only catch is that wages in agriculture are prohibitively low, which makes the prospect of land ownership, especially in the Okanagan, pretty unrealistic,” says Maylene. “With the average agricultural wage hovering around $14 an hour and the average price per acre of land in the Okanagan sitting at about $100,000, it’s not hard to see that land ownership is essentially out of the question for most agricultural workers.”

The high cost of land was the biggest hurdle they faced. Starting their new farm business on leased land was the only viable option for them, which is how they ended up connecting with the B.C. Land Matching Program (BCLMP) and with me, the land matcher for the Okanagan region.

Robin on the tractor. Credit: Loveland Acres.

Loveland Acres is one of 78 matches the BCLMP has supported on over 4,600 acres across the province since launching in Metro Vancouver in 2016 and expanding province-wide in 2018. The BCLMP provides land matching and business support services to new and established farmers looking for land to start or grow their farm business, as well as landowners interested in finding someone to farm their land. The benefits of land matching are hands-on support services to help new farmers and landowners evaluate opportunities, access resources, and ultimately find a land match partner. The program aims to address a lack of affordable farmland as a significant barrier for farmers entering the agricultural industry. The BCLMP is delivered by Young Agrarians, a farmer to farmer resource network, and is funded by the Province of British Columbia, with support from Columbia Basin Trust, Cowichan Valley Regional District, Real Estate Foundation of B.C., Bullitt Foundation, and Patagonia.

After registering for the BCLMP, we worked together to refine their focus on what attributes Robin and Maylene were looking for in a piece of land, taking the guesswork out of the leasing process and then connecting them with interested landowners.

“The BCLMP is so much more than a program that links landowners and land seekers. They helped us negotiate a stable and secure land lease, provided advice and access to a lawyer to look over our agreement, and connected us with their business mentorship program,” says Maylene. “If Tessa hadn’t reached out to us, we’d probably still be unsuccessfully trying to convince bankers and mortgage brokers that we weren’t crazy, and that, yes, you could make a living growing vegetables on two acres of land, with only a walk-behind tractor and a few simple pieces of equipment.”

Robin and Maylene knew from the beginning that organic certification was a priority for them, so when they were introduced to landowners Dag and Elina Falck, who own the land on which Loveland Acres has made their home, there was an instant spark of connection through their shared values.

Maylene with the celeriac harvest. Credit: Loveland Acres

Besides wanting to give their customers a guarantee that the food they produced was being done in a way that met the highest criteria for environmental sustainability, they have also felt the support of a community of fellow organic growers in the region. The pair emphasized the importance of being connected to a group of people who understand what they are going through, are available to answer questions, and generally help alleviate the feeling of being alone in a tough industry. On one particularly bad week, filled with unfortunate life events, including a car breaking down and other irritations, they recalled attending the annual general meeting for the North Okanagan Organic Association (NOOA). Just being in a room with other organic growers gave them the encouragement they needed to push through and keep going.

The willingness these farmers have in engaging with the community and accessing all possible resources to support their dreams has been instrumental in moving them into the exciting place of possibility they are at now. When I asked, what’s the most exciting thing for you right now, they responded by loading me up with freshly-harvested arugula and French Breakfast radishes, which I ate in handfuls on the way home.

Land matchers love being able to help farmers achieve secure access to land to start or expand their businesses, and to help farmland owners enjoy the benefits of agriculture of all kinds on their land. Farmers, get in touch to start a conversation about leasing land for your operation! Landowners, reach out to the BCLMP to help a farmer access land, whether you have hundreds of acres of farmland, or a small urban plot. There are so many growers looking for spaces to produce food across the province, and your land might just be the perfect fit.

Find Loveland Acres online!

First farmers’ market . Credit: Loveland Acres.

Send an email to land@youngagrarians.org and a land matcher will get in touch to learn more about your needs and vision and help you get on your way to making a match.

The B.C. Land Matching Program is funded by the Province of British Columbia, with support from Columbia Basin Trust, Cowichan Valley Regional District, Real Estate Foundation of B.C., Bullitt Foundation, and Patagonia.

Tessa Wetherill farmed full-time and with all her heart for 11 years, first in Vancouver and then the North Okanagan, before joining the Young Agrarians team as the BCLMP’s Okanagan Land Matcher. She loves all things that grow—plants, people, and communities—and what really lights her up are relationships and collaborations that form strong, diverse human ecosystems.

Feature image: Robin and Maylene with starts. Credit: Tessa Wetherill

Maylene with low tunnel row cover hoops. Credit: Tessa Wetherill

Footnotes from the Field: Fairness in Organic Agriculture

in 2020/Current Issue/Footnotes from the Field/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Organic Standards/Standards Updates/Summer 2020

Anne Macey

Originally published in The Canadian Organic Grower, Spring 2018, and updated by the author in May 2020, with thanks.

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) has established its Principles of Organic Agriculture. Within those, IFOAM includes a Principle of Fairness, which states “Organic agriculture should be built on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.” The IFOAM text elaborates further, saying this principle “emphasizes that those involved in organic agriculture should conduct human relationships in a manner that ensures fairness at all levels and to all parties—farmers, workers, processors, distributors, traders, and consumers.”

Many of us have always thought of organic agriculture as a food system that includes social values, yet nothing in our standards speaks to social issues. The focus is very much on agronomic practices and permitted substances. Animal welfare is addressed, but when it comes to people and relationships, North Americans have resisted any suggestion that social justice standards are needed. The argument is that those kinds of standards are written for the global South where exploitation of the work force and poor working conditions are more common. The US and Canada have labour laws to protect farm workers.

I am not so sure, and in any case, fairness in the food system is about much more than treatment of farm workers. Fairness and basic rights include fair trade, fair pricing for the farmer, and fair access to land and seeds. It means fair wages for workers, decent farmworker housing, and more. I agree that incorporating social issues into standards could be problematic, but it is time we had a serious discussion about whether they are needed—and, if not, whether there is an alternative approach. How we can create trust and demonstrate that organic farmers respect their workers as much as the critters in the soil? How can we ensure farmers get a fair price for the quality food they produce?

Colleagues in the US (Michael Sligh, Elizabeth Henderson, and others) worked on these issues with the Agricultural Justice Project (see sidebar on Social Standards in Food Production), developing social stewardship standards for fair and just treatment of people who work in organic and sustainable agriculture. These standards currently fall into the realm of “beyond organic” with the stated purpose:

  • To allow everyone involved in organic and sustainable production and processing a quality of life that meets their basic needs and allows an adequate return and satisfaction from their work, including a safe working environment.
  • To progress toward an entire production, processing and distribution chain that is both socially just and ecologically responsible.1

Here in Canada, two things got me thinking more about the need to introduce something on the topic of fairness in the Canadian Standard. The first was hearing about the poor housing with no potable water for migrant workers on a fruit farm in the Okanagan (not an organic farm), despite laws being in place to protect those workers.

The second is the debate about farm interns and apprentice rights on organic farms. With high labour requirements, many organic farms depend on WWOOFers and other short-term interns for their work force. But sometimes the relationship sours and the workers end up feeling exploited. While many farmers commit to providing a rich and rewarding experience for their interns, in other cases conditions are less than ideal. An intern’s expectation will likely include learning what it takes to become a farmer, not just how to weed carrots.

Maybe we don’t need to spell out lots of specific requirements in the standards, but we could at least make some principled statements about the need for organic agriculture to provide fair working and living conditions for farmers and their workers, whatever their status. For years this type of approach was used in the livestock standards, without the need to spell out exactly what was needed for compliance. We only articulated more specific rules when consumers became unsure about the ability of organic agriculture to address animal welfare issues and started looking for other labels. We could also include statements about fair prices and financial returns for farmers or buyers’ rights to a good quality product.

Unfortunately, since writing this article not much has changed. To bring the discussion to the table, I made some proposals for the 2018 standards revision process. The Organic Technical Committee set up a task force on the topic but no agreement was reached, although it might end up as an informative appendix to facilitate the review in 2025. In the meantime, following a discussion at the 2020 COABC conference we wondered if COABC should conduct a pilot project which, if successful, could be brought forward to the 2025 standards review. Perhaps a first step might be for organic operators to have a “letter of agreement” or similar in the first language of their employees and interns committing the operator to uphold the principles of social fairness regardless of any other formal labour contract that might exist.

The conversation continues.


Social Standards in Food Production

Domestic Fair Trade: The Agricultural Justice Project is a member of the Domestic Fair Trade Association along with a wide range of farmworker and farmer groups, retailers, processors and NGOs from across North America. These groups are united in their mission to promote and protect the integrity of domestic fair trade.

Farmer Direct Co-op, a 100% farmer-owned, organic co-op based in Saskatchewan, was a leader in domestic fair trade, as the first business in North America to earn that certification. Its membership includes more than 60 family farms producing organic small grains and pulse crops in the Prairie region.

Domestic fair-trade certification is based on a set of 16 principles, encompassing health, justice, and sustainability:

  • Family scale farming
  • Capacity building for producers and workers
  • Democratic and participatory ownership and control
  • Rights of labor
  • Equality and opportunity
  • Direct trade
  • Fair and stable pricing
  • Shared risk & affordable credit
  • Long-term trade relationships
  • Sustainable agriculture
  • Appropriate technology
  • Indigenous Peoples’ rights
  • Transparency & accountability
  • Education & advocacy
  • Responsible certification and marketing
  • Animal welfare

Source: Domestic Fair Trade Association

Aquaculture: The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) includes social requirements in its standards certifying responsibly farmed seafood. “ASC certification imposes strict requirements based on the core principles of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), these include prohibiting the use of child labour or any form of forced labour. All ASC certified farms are safe and equitable working environments where employees earn a decent wage and have regulated working hours. Regular consultation with surrounding communities about potential social impacts from the farm and proper processing of complaints are also required by certified farms.”

Source: Aquaculture Stewardship Council


Anne Macey is a long-time advocate for organic agriculture at local, provincial, national and international levels. She has served on the CGSB technical committee on organic agriculture, the ECOA Animal Welfare Task Force, the COABC Accreditation Board and on the Accreditation Committee for the International Organic Accreditation Service, as well as her local COG chapter. She is a writer/editor of COG’s Organic Livestock Handbook, a retired sheep farmer, and a past president of COG.

References:
1. Agricultural Justice Project. 2012. Social Stewardship Standards in Organic and Sustainable Agriculture: Standards Document. agriculturaljusticeproject.org/media/uploads/2016/08/02/AJP_Standards_Document_9412.pdf

Biodynamic Farm Story: Farming Amidst the Pandemic

in 2020/Current Issue/Grow Organic/Organic Community/Summer 2020

Anna Helmer

Biodynamically, there is nothing to be done but carry on. As far as I know, Rudolph Steiner did not articulate any advice on performing the pandemic farm pivot when he envisioned what has become Biodynamic farming. Mind you, he did live through the big flu of the early 20th century, so I think it quite possible that there is resilience to the effects of physical distancing built into his ideas.For evidence, I can tell you that at least one of his Waldorf schools has handled the necessary pivot to online learning with aplomb. The first day back from spring break, a five-day Grade 1 lesson plan plopped into my inbox: the product of an assortment of computer applications and teachers devoted to delivering school to the children. The student has remained engaged and the whole thing is somewhat magical, I have to say, especially given their previous abhorrance of screens.

Our farm has too performed a pivot—but it is too early to tell how it will turn out. It doesn’t look all that different from last year so far. Planting potatoes, planning on selling them. Further details to be decided later. It can’t be sorted out right now, with the information we have. Not to boast or anything, but I feel numb about it.

The thing about COVID is that everyone is affected. I can’t possibly bang on about my own tough situation full in the knowledge that others must have it much tougher. When regular, run-of-the-mill, middle-class tax-payers are facing an uncertain future, one assumes one’s troubles are standard to the point of tediousness.

Suffice it to say, COVID-pression must be a widespread, underlying condition on almost every farm this spring. If you haven’t got it, I think you should. It’s time to slide. You just have to pass through the phase of despair to get to the numb phase, where you just keep plodding along. It’s easy to trigger if you ponder the fact that a lot of your customers don’t have jobs and have no prospect for a job. They have been homeschooling and entertaining their kids for weeks. Many of them have realized that these kids are difficult and have trouble hearing the word “no.”  Most of the things that generally offer happiness, satisfaction, and inspiration aren’t available right now, or possibly even soon: waving kids off to school (in retrospect, a personal favorite), office drama, alone-time (Oh! Oh!), conferences, vacations, etc etc. If this isn’t you, isn’t that nice. It is your customers. Thank goodness the mainstream food system is underperforming, and the people have to eat. They may go local afterall, so get to plodding along.

You’re welcome for bringing the bouyant down a few pegs. Someone had to do it. Nothing worse than perky positive types when one is trying to be resilient. Speaking for myself, I knew I had issues when my rough draft included the following in a list of pandemic upsides:

Cheap gas. Isn’t it fun to fill up? Nevermind the climate. Gas-guzzlers for the win!

Don’t worry. I came to my senses and edited it out.

The conventional food system is creaking and in some cases cracking. Turns out slaughtering and processing tens of thousands of animals a day by a low-paid, disposable —yet irreplaceable—workforce in an industry owned from top to bottom by billionaires keen on profits is a weak model. What could possibly go wrong? COVID. That’s what. Get real.

I am not editing out my scornful tone.

Back to farming. I am writing this May 13th. You are reading well into June or July. I wonder what’s happening now?


Anna Helmer hesitated for so long over writing this sign-off bit that it no longer made sense to put anything here at all.

Bonus: As part of their Growing Pains series, CBC’s On the Coast interviewed BC organic potato farmer Anna Helmer on how COVID-19 has changed the way she’ll sell her crop this year: “It hit like a ton of bricks. Those mid-March markets in Vancouver. All of a sudden, we were doing a quarter of the sales that I’m happy with.” Have a listen!

Photo courtesy of Helmer’s Organic Farm

Organic Stories: Crannóg Ales, Secwepemculecw (Sorrento) BC

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

Rest is Key to Innovate (and Survive a Pandemic)

Michelle Tsutsumi and Rebecca Kneen

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

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

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

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

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

Crannóg Ales 20th anniversary glassware. Credit: Crannóg Ales

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

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

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

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

What does extending deeply mean to you?

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

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

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

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

Snake napping on a compost pile. Credit: Crannóg Ales

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

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

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

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

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

Sheep eating hops vines after harvest. Credit: Crannóg Ales

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

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

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

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


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

BC Organic Conference 2020 Recap

in 2020/Organic Community/Spring 2020

“This is the moment for food in British Columbia.”

BC’s Minister of Agriculture, Lana Popham, opened the 2020 BC Organic Conference with a message of hope. In front of a very large crowd of organic growers, producers, and supporters, she spoke of the convergence of the increased demand for local food, a growing interest in where it all comes from, and a renewed interest in producing it. More and more British Columbians are engaged in how their food moves from farm to plate and they’re taking a lot of pride in choosing goods that are grown and made here. “This is the moment for food in British Columbia,” she proclaimed.

This feeling of hope—of support, growth, and optimism—was woven throughout the entire conference weekend. Not just because the conference theme was The Future of Organic, but because, after decades of hard work, the organic sector has consumer confidence and is more connected and ambitious than ever!

Jordan Marr speaking at the opening reception at KPU

BC Organic: Challenges and Opportunities for the Future

Dag Falck, Organic Program Manager at Nature’s Path Foods, gave this year’s keynote address and encouraged everyone to stand together for a peaceful, just, and sustainable world.

He examined some of the current threats and challenges to organic principles, particularly in light of what is happening to erode the organic standards south of the border. He outlined some of the current responses and opportunities globally, such as IFOAM’s Organic 3.0, and the emergence of additional certification labeling such as Regenerative Organic Certification.

But most importantly, he concluded by presenting his ideas of the best steps that can be taken to ensure a bright and growing future for BC Organic:

  • Farm organically as what it originally was created to be
  • Focus on soil health as a foundation for all
  • Focus on what organics is, not what it isn’t
  • Avoid criticizing others and invite participation (don’t demand it)
  • Challenge group thinking and dare to be different
  • Work together to reach common goals

In case you missed the keynote (or want to experience it again), you can view the full presentation here.

Kwantlen Nation Elder Lekeyten with Lana Popham at the opening reception at KPU
Farm tour at KPU

The Future is Here

This year’s conference featured two farm tours (UBC and KPU) plus over 15 sessions and workshops. From emerging technologies, innovative techniques, and new training opportunities to the latest on organic policies, standards, and research, it’s clear BC’s organic sector has one foot firmly planted in the future. As always, the sessions were informative and full of passion, and motivated us all to take action and continue to move things forward.

There were also some bittersweet moments: Carmen Wakeling’s term as COABC President ended, and Jen Gamble wrapped up her long-time role as COABC’s Executive Director of Operations. We’d like to thank them both for all the passion they brought to their positions and for all of their work to support organic farming in BC. We wish them both the best!

And, a big welcome to COABC’s new President, Heather Stretch, and Executive Director, Eva-Lena Lang.

Heather Stretch, Lana Popham, Eva-Lena Lang at the opening reception

Award Winners

Congratulations to the 2020 award winners! DeLisa Lewis took home the Brad Reid Award, which honours an innovative leader who has strengthened the organic community by moving the sector forward. Jon and Sher Alcock of Sunshine Farm were the winners of this year’s Bedrock Award, which honours work on the foundations organics.

Learn more about these incredibly deserving recipients!

So…What Does the Future Hold?

Right now, BC is home to over 900 certified organic businesses. COABC will continue to work with the Ministry of Agriculture to strengthen the term “organic” and make leaps forward in truth in labeling. COABC will keep striving to reduce one of the biggest barriers to becoming certified organic—that darn paperwork—through the COABC’s new online certification system, iCertify. And, it will focus on emerging issues, such as the organic certification of cannabis in BC.

KPU farm tour inside the geodesic greenhouse

One of the best parts of the BC Organic Conference is the wrap-up session, when everyone gathers together, looks back on the weekend, and shares their hopes and dreams for the organic sector. With so much knowledge, drive, and experience in the room, the ideas were insightful and plentiful—and not out of reach. Well-paid farm workers. More respect for manual labour. Accountability for conventional farmers. Public understanding of the true meaning of organic and all its principles. Relationships with, not ownership of, land. Diverse and bioregional available seeds. More funding for first-generation start-up farms. Social justice. And too many more to list!

How do we achieve these dreams? Together. Express gratitude to those who are moving the sector forward, engage in research, share your knowledge, embrace Indigenous perspectives, attend public meetings, care for those who are struggling, and find common ground with other organizations. Oh, and help out farmers who have kids. Include and involve children whenever possible and babysit them as often as you can!

And above all, have hope! The future is bright. The future is organic.

Thank you!

A huge thanks to Gavin Wright for organizing this fabulous event, KPU’s Elder in Residence, Lekeyten, for opening the event, BC’s Minister of Agriculture, Lana Popham, and Agriculture Co-Critic, Ian Patton, for their opening remarks, Natalie Forstbauer for putting together another successful silent auction (even though she now lives in Saskatchewan!), MC Jordan Marr for his highly entertaining words, and Ken McCormick for his excellent video of the event. And also to the event sponsors, silent auction donors, food donors, volunteer staff, hotel staff, and KPU staff for all your time and efforts towards another amazing weekend together. We couldn’t have done it without you.

Two of the many volunteers who helped make the conference possible!

 

Rebecca Kneen shares the latest information about the 2020 review of the Canadian Organic Standards
Helmer’s Organic Farm with their seed potatoes at the tradeshow

Changing the Climate Conversation through Agriculture

in 2020/Climate Change/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Spring 2020/Water Management

Julia Zado

Tackling climate change is a daunting task. With each season we see drastic weather events affecting farmers across Canada. The food we eat and how it is grown can and does have a significant impact on climate.  Farmers are on the frontline of the climate crisis and are in a unique position to positively impact climate change.

In 2019 FarmFolk CityFolk released “Climate Change Mitigation Opportunities,” a report researched and written by Shauna MacKinnon. This report aims to change the narrative that climate change cannot be stopped. Although some agricultural practices create significant greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture has the potential to deliver fast and effective climate solutions.

“Our report is eye opening. We want to move the conversation from adapting to climate change, to mitigating and stopping climate change,” says Anita Georgy, Executive Director for FarmFolk CityFolk.

According to MacKinnon, changing the climate conversation is possible and already in motion: “individuals and communities are already shifting energy use and changing land management in ways that can prevent climate change from reaching its worst potential.”

The report demonstrates that in order for Canada to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets, policies and programs must include agriculture and food systems. This will allow for a much larger and inclusive conversation between communities to make necessary changes, “helping shift the climate conversation from abstract to tangible, inadequate to meaningful. Agriculture and food systems are one of the keys to unlocking a lower carbon future and motivating action.”

Mark Cormier_ Glorious Organics. Mark with green cover crop which helps reduce evaporation and soil loss. Photo by Michael Marrapese

The agriculture industry produces greenhouse gas emissions; however, it also has the unique ability to absorb carbon and incorporate it into the soil, which in turn improves the health of the soil. Much research is being done about exactly what practices are most effective, and how to store carbon for the long term. Healthy soil with higher carbon levels not only increases crop yields, it also holds more water and can better withstand the extreme weather effects of climate change such as drought or heavy rainfall.

The report details how certain farm-level management practices can increase or deplete organic carbon in the soil, using regenerative methods of farming and grazing that focuses on rebuilding and restoring soil. Without the use of synthetic fertilizers or inputs, restored soil health can improve productivity and carbon drawdown.

“There are a wide range of on-farm practices that can help both reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and mitigate climate change that many BC farmers are already using, and saving money at the same time,” says Georgy.

Glorious Organics, a cooperatively owned and operated farm in Aldergrove, is dedicated to soil conservation techniques including low-till, cover cropping, and intercropping. Committed to climate solutions, Glorious Organics has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by switching to a solar water pump system from a gas system, which has the added benefits of reducing water use, thanks to partial funding from the Environmental Farm Plan.

Drip Tapes in Upper Field at Glorious Organics. Photo credit: Michael Marrapese

With its emphasis on carbon storage to rebuild soil health, regenerative agriculture offers different strategies to manage and reduce reliance on external inputs. “These practices can also provide additional co-benefits, such as improved water holding capacity and increased habitat for biodiversity,” says MacKinnon. “The integration of livestock and annual crop production is an important part of these approaches, diversifying production, breaking up pest cycles, and providing manure to replace synthetic fertilizers.”  For example, Shirlene Cote, of Earth Apple Farm in Glen Valley, rotates her chickens through the fields, both to control pests and provide natural fertilizer.

In the report, MacKinnon recommends prioritizing “agricultural practices that can store carbon, produce nutrient-rich food, improve water management, and provide greater biodiversity.”

The report calls for policymakers at all levels of government—federal, regional, and municipal—to fully engage in a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors, agriculture and food systems included. The changes suggested represent a major shift in Canadian agriculture—a shift that requires support from all of us.

MacKinnon concludes, “there is much room for improvement in Canadian agriculture production, from reducing nitrous oxide emissions in the Prairies to reducing livestock methane. Beneficial management practices have already been identified to begin to reduce emissions and reduce the reliance on external inputs, and producers are continuing to push the boundaries in finding more sustainable production methods.”

“Agriculture and food systems contribute less emissions compared to the transport and energy sectors and for that reason have potentially not been a focus of federal and provincial level mitigation strategies as of yet. The time has come for us to join the conversation,” says Georgy.

In February 2020, FarmFolk CityFolk announced its participation in Farmers for Climate Solutions, a new national alliance of farmer organizations and supporters. “The ultimate goal for Farmers for Climate Solutions is to impact policy change,” says Georgy. The alliance is calling for Canadian agricultural policies that help farmers mitigate and adapt to climate change, and support the increased use of low-input, low-emissions agricultural systems.

Farmers for Climate Solutions is a collaborative effort led by the National Farmers Union, Canadian Organic Growers, FarmFolk CityFolk, Rural Routes to Climate Solutions, the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, Equiterre, and SeedChange.

This new alliance will give farmers a platform to share stories about climate impacts, practical solutions and policy recommendations, and engage Canadians to support their vision. Farmers for Climate Solutions includes a pledge for both farmers and the general public. Farmers and supporters are encouraged to sign the alliance’s pledge and add their voices towards achieving climate-friendly agriculture while maintaining farm livelihoods.

“Individuals can support change through their everyday food choices. This is an opportunity to strengthen the connection between food products and climate change, and promote further dialogue,” says Georgy.

So far over 600 farmers and engaged citizens have signed the pledge.


Julia Zado is the Engagement Manager for FarmFolk CityFolk and is passionate about supporting local farmers and small scale producers. farmfolkcityfolk.ca

Feature image: Shirlene Cote, operates Earth Apple Organic Farm and is one of the Western Canada spokespeople for Farmers for Climate Solutions. Photo by Brian Harris

Biodynamic Farm Story: Unfinished Conversations

in 2020/Marketing/Organic Community/Spring 2020

Anna Helmer

At the recent COABC conference I enjoyed an unfinished conversation with a peerless organic industry leader about how certain words traditionally associated with our alternative/organic farming movement are being co-opted by mainstream agriculture. Case in point: General Mills using the word “regenerative” to describe some decidedly non-organic, chemically supported farming practices. Some consumers don’t give a hoot one way or another of course, but a certain segment really wants to do the right thing and have previously associated the word “regenerative” with good farming. Using that word is an obvious ruse intended to reassure a large conscientious consumer group: General Mills wants to keep their business.

The galling thing, as far as being an organic farmer goes, is that we might feel “regenerative” is our word. For starters, we used it first; furthermore, we practice it; bottom line, we believe in it. We are using it to heal the earth. General Mills is using it to sell more sugar-cereal. It’s quite irritating.

And what are we to do about it? Cue the unfinished conversation.

Well, we can keep talking about it, amongst ourselves and in our marketplaces. Preaching to the choir ensures that everyone is on the same page, singing the same song. Very important that, but pretty much paves the way if not to rebellion, then certainly outbursts of inappropriate and/or unwelcome individuality, complicating the issue.

Private enterprise has thusly spawned several certifiers, with standards ranging from whimsical to fanatical, offering farms a chance to formalize their relationship with the word. This will remind the older set of the early years of the organic business and send shivers down a few spines.

The next obvious thing is to fight for it at the government level. Get some public policy developed around it. Some standards. We could be fighting for the use of that word like we have for “organic”.

Basically, the fight for “organic” is far from over and it’s not yet clear who is winning, despite all the hard campaigning. I think you can still have the word “organic” in your farm name even without certification. We are very lucky to have people fighting for this word and they do not need the burden of another word. Allow them to focus.

It is possible, left to their own devices whilst organic gets sorted, that these big companies will publicly stumble over the banana peels they will find littering the road to “regenerative” and all the rest of those words: “natural,” “whole grain,” “plant-based,” and of course “sustainable.” A lot of consumers are not stupid and will recognize marketing when they see it; and having done so, won’t buy it. Our fingers are crossed.

It’s a difficult conversation to complete, isn’t it?

Complete it I will, however, by simply moving on to another topic. And this one is affecting me very directly.

Any produce market vendor who understands retail will tell you that the surest way to sell something is to whack it into a plastic bag and put a price sticker on it. Just today at market, one of my staff spent the entire four hours making tidy little plastic bags of potatoes. Probably about 70% of sales today came from $6 bags of Sieglinde potatoes.

These are the bags the Vancouver Farmers’ Market management wants to ban. I have been moaning about this coming ban to anyone who would listen (and some who would not) for months now. And I will just stop you there as you come up with suggestions on how to replace them. You can’t replace them. It’s plastic: it doesn’t break down and there is no replacement.

Plastic is amazing. It has changed our lives in dramatic and important and lasting ways.

Unless I hear a little more celebration of plastic, I am not going down without a fight.


Anna Helmer farms in Pemberton where there are a surprising number of rules, policies, and standards for such a population of keenly individualistic farmers.

 

Organic Stories: West Enderby Farm

in 2020/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Marketing/Organic Community/Organic Standards/Organic Stories/Past Issues/Winter 2020

From Carrots to COR

Darcy Smith

Carrots: “hard to grow, but easy to sell,” says Paddy Doherty, who farms at West Enderby Farm with his partner Elaine Spearling. When late November rolls around and most vegetable farmers are finally kicking up their feet for a few moments of rest, Paddy and Elaine’s farm is still a hub of activity. “It’s like having a dairy cow, you never get a break,” jokes Paddy. “You start selling in July and go until April. Farmers are on vacation and we’re still packing carrots three, four days a week.”

“Carrots are very intensive. When you’re not weeding, you’re harvesting or irrigating, no downtime.” But they’re worth it.

In 2011, Paddy and Elaine founded West Enderby Farm in 2011 on a 40-acre former dairy farm. They knew they wanted to pursue a wholesale business model. “We didn’t want to move up to the North Okanagan and immediately start competing with our friends at the Armstrong Farmers’ Market,” Paddy says. “So, we decided to grow a crop to sell to local grocery stores and wholesalers.” And there are never enough carrots to go around.

Hilling carrots at West Enderby Farm.

Plus, back when Paddy was involved in the early days of COABC, he remembers a wholesaler saying, “It’s great that you have broccoli for a month in the summer, but really, winter is our busy season. That’s when people want to buy vegetables and spend more time cooking.” An idea was planted, and decades later, when the pair wanted to relocate to the Okanagan and start farming again, it would bear fruit.

At the time, they didn’t know anyone who sold directly to grocery stores in any volume. It’s always difficult to break into the wholesale market: “you need volume to be able to even talk to them,” Paddy says, but over the last decade, the rise of local and organic food has shifted the marketplace. With consumer demand for local food, retailers are “much more open to the idea of buying from farmers, even though there’s a lot of hassle involved for them,” having to deal with a lot of little farms.

How did West Enderby Farm get a foot in the door, or, rather, a carrot on the shelf? “We needed a decent looking bag, some marketing, a barcode, but mostly we needed to be able to service them for at least six months with sufficient stock,” Paddy says. Today, Paddy and Elaine grow 50-80 tonnes of certified organic carrots a year, along with a handful of other crops, including cauliflower and beets, for the wholesale market.

Details of the carrot harvesting and sorting process.

On the farm, Elaine does the crop planning, soil analysis, and lots of field work, to name just a few. Paddy keeps the machines running and looks after organic inspections. They hire three or four workers over the growing season. Elaine also orders all their seed, and they’re very particular about quality. A current favourite is Bolero, because it “gets sweeter the longer it’s in storage, grows well and consistently, makes a nice shaped carrot, and has good germination and vigour,” says Paddy. But they’re always on the lookout for new varieties. The downside to Bolero is its brittleness, leading to breakage in machine harvesting and packaging. “Commercially, nobody would grow Bolero if they were any bigger than us.”

Paddy and Elaine both have deep roots in agriculture and BC’s organic community. Elaine has a degree in agricultural botany, and taught organic farming for many years at UBC Farm and in the UK. Today, she sits on the steering committee of the North Okanagan Land to Table Network when she’s not out in the field. Paddy is the President of Pacific Agricultural Society (PACS), a member of the National Organic Value Chain Roundtable, sits on the COABC board, and is a part of the Okanagan Regional Adaptation Working Group for the Climate Action Initiative.

Look back 30 years and Paddy and Elaine were raising sheep in Quesnel, and watching regional certification bodies pop up around the province, with “differing standards, and differing ideals and procedures,” Paddy remembers. “It was quite interesting. The government approached us, and there was a group of aligned certification bodies that came together, that was the initial nucleus of COABC.”

Elaine sorting carrots.

Paddy was volunteering with the Cariboo Organic Producers Association (COPA), and tapped into the provincial movement. “I was always an environmentalist, it’s the way I was raised,” he says. “Organic farming is my way of doing what I believe in as my mode of production.”

At the time, there was new legislation in BC that would allow the development of a provincial regulation around organic. Not everyone was on board with a mandatory label, so they moved forward with a voluntary program in 1992, the BC Certified Organic Program (BCCOP). [Editor’s note: the Organic Certification Regulation passed in 2018, making certification mandatory for use of the word organic.]

About helping build the BCCOP, Paddy says, “I guess I enjoyed it, getting people together and getting agreements, and had a talent for it, so I kept going.” As he puts it, “I just hung around and kept on showing up and learning. We were inventing new things, the Ministry of Agriculture helped a lot but we had to invent a lot of it.” Then came the development of Pacific Agricultural Certification Society (PACS). “I learned a lot in that process, starting a commercial CB from scratch and writing a quality manual for that,” he says.

Further details of the carrot harvesting and sorting process.

At a national level, in response to an edict from the EU requiring a national regulation to ship organic products to Europe, “fruit growers in BC were very concerned about their access to EU markets.” Paddy led the development of a project to get an organic regulation together in Canada to ensure access to EU markets.

From there, Paddy when on to work with IFOAM, where he “met some really cool people, and traveled, and made relationships that are important to me today,” and with ISEAL as the standards manager, working in the global sustainability standards community. “There’s so much more beyond organic, there’s the Forest Stewardship Council, the Marine Stewardship Council, and a hole pile you haven’t heard of—all trying to save the world in different ways, using this system of consumer pull, and voluntary standards systems.”

Today, Paddy is busy working on the latest standards review, and leading a project to attempt to solve the problem of a brand name inputs list, as a project of the Organic Value Chain Roundtable. The Roundtable is “a place where leaders of the organic industry can come together to solve problems,” explains Paddy, and it’s been instrumental in bringing together a Canada’s disparate organic movement, from coast to coast, and up and down the value chain, from retailers, to producers, and everyone in between. “It didn’t turn us into one organization, but it definitely helped us focus our energy.”

Bins of washed carrots

“Organic may only be 2% of the market,” Paddy says, but “we have come leaps and bounds.” A small market share belies the outsize impact that organic farming has had on agriculture as a whole. “I do see change, change in production and in the market, towards more sustainable production. What we’ve done with our very strict standard is challenged other types of production to meet our bar.”

“As soon as you put organic carrots on the shelf, it shows consumers that they have a choice, and then the non-organic farmers are faced with, ‘How can I differentiate myself?’ It just changes the dynamic. It encourages a move towards more environmentally friendly production.”

Back on the farm, Paddy and Elaine are thinking about what’s next. They’re looking for someone to take over the carrot business, Paddy says, “but I wouldn’t mind growing cauliflower, that does well, we could grow cauliflower in the summer and take the winters off.”

West Enderby Farm’s view of the cliffs

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

All photos: West Enderby Farm

 

Ask an Expert: Organic Agriculture 3.0

in 2020/Ask an Expert/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Organic Standards/Standards Updates/Winter 2020

History of the Debate About the Future of Agriculture

Thorsten Arnold

This article was first published by the Organic Council of Ontario on January 18, 2019, and is reprinted here with gratitude.

The organic farm and food industry is facing major challenges. IFOAM, the international federation of organic agriculture movements, is spearheading a debate on how the organic movement can tackle these in the future. This blog summarizes the history of this debate and some questions of interest for Canada.

In 2015, Europe’s major organic farmer associations identified major challenges, with ongoing relevance for the present. Most importantly, the growth in organic production has been slow and farm conversion to organic practices are stagnating. Even if the current growth of 5% per year is sustained until 2050, the organizations concluded that the impacts of organic agriculture would remain insignificant with respect to the movement’s goal of reducing the adverse impacts of agriculture on the planet’s ecosystem and resource base. The organizations also identified several structural barriers within and outside of the organic sector, and posed the question, what could the next development phase of organic agriculture, coined Organic 3.0, look like?

Organic agriculture is classified into three development stages. Organic 1.0 describes the early period, when farmers responded to the industrialization of farming with a call to respect natural cycles and soil health, and retain a lifestyle that is in tune with nature. This early phase was inspired by Rudolf Steiner’s agricultural courses but also with the warning about “Limits of Growth” by the Club of Rome. Organic 1.0 was characterized by a colorful and incoherent movement that was innovative but failed to link into the mainstream food system. Around 1970, a growing number of unsubstantiated organic/biological/ecological claims increasingly confused consumers and retail traders, highlighting the need for harmonizing the “organic trademark”. European farmer associations reacted by defining a number of guidelines and private organic standards (e.g. Demeter, Bioland, Naturland, BioSwiss, BioAustria), many of which are popular today. During the early 90s, governments throughout the world adopted national organic standards and equivalence agreements between these. This global harmonization enabled international trade in organic goods and also opened retailers to organic products. The successful shift from ideology to standard-driven production is subsumed as Organic 2.0. Today, private and national standards co-exist in many European countries, with private standards being widely recognized by consumers as more stringent and small-scale, whereas national standards cater to industrial organic production and processing.

IFOAM International did not favour a two-tier system, as many member countries do not share Europe’s history of successful private premium organic standards. In a follow-up paper (Nigli et al., 2015), the authors of Biofach 2015 re-formulate the five challenges of organic agriculture as (1) weak growth in agricultural production, (2) the potential of organic agriculture to provide food security, (3) competition from other sustainability initiatives including greenwashing, (4) transparency and safety in value chains, and (5) the need to improve consumer communication. While authors agree that a two-tier system is not necessary, they voice concern about the organic label losing its leadership claim amongst a multitude of emerging sustainability labels. Authors see the current stagnation of organic growth, and the slow speed of innovation in national standards, as a fundamental threat to the organic movement and its goals.

In 2016, IFOAM responded in a paper that gives direction to Organic 3.0. In recognition that “promoting diversity that lies at the heart of organic and recognizing there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach”, IFOAM identified six features that Organic 3.0 should address (IFOAM 2016, p3).

Fig.2 Toward six features of organic agriculture for true sustainability (Source Arbenz et al., 2016)
  • Feature #1: A culture of innovation where traditional and new technologies are regularly re-assessed for their benefits and risk.
  • Feature #2: Continuous improvement towards best practice, for operators along the whole value chain covering the broader dimensions of sustainability.
  • Feature #3: Diverse ways to ensure transparency and integrity, to broaden the uptake of organic agriculture beyond third-party certification;
  • Feature #4: Inclusiveness of wider sustainability interests through alliances with movements that truly aspire for sustainable food and farming while avoiding ‘greenwashing’;
  • Feature #5: Empowerment from the farm to the final consumer, to recognize the interdependence along the value chain and also on a territorial basis; and
  • Feature #6: True value and cost accounting, to internalize costs and benefits and encourage transparency for consumers and policy-makers.

With some further guidance to different players in the organic movement, IFOAM called upon national and regional associations to fill these features with meaning. Since then, organizations across the globe have engaged in a more focused discussion about the future of organic agriculture.

Fig.3 IFOAM proposes changes to how the organic movement operates (Source Arbenz et al., 2016)

What Does the Future of Organic Look Like?

North America’s organic associations remain sceptical about a two-tier approach to the organic label. Still, farmers who strongly exceed the national standards feel insufficiently represented by the organic associations and unable to compete with some of the largest organic production corporations. Next to the Demeter biodynamic certification, there are at least two recent private initiatives that promote premium organic certification. Currently in its piloting phase, the Rodale Institute’s Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) integrates animal welfare and labour fairness requirements and uses three tiers to reward leadership. Secondly, the Real Organic Project is an “add-on label to USDA certified organic to provide more transparency on these farming practices”. USDA organic certification is a prerequisite to participate in this add-on program. This family farmer-driven project embraces centuries-old organic farming practices along with new scientific knowledge of ecological farming.

In the face of these international developments, Ontario’s organic organizations must respond to the grassroots emergence of a de-facto two-tier system. This is not only driven by farmers who feel insufficiently represented by the “mainstream” national organic standards, but also by consumer understanding of the organic label. Organic-critical mainstream articles play a major role in consumer perception, such as a recent Toronto Star article “Milked”, which found less-than-expected differences between the milk from a large certified organic brand and conventional milk. Even though the article’s findings were based on misleading and unscientific grounds, it still points to a growing concern from consumers about the differences across the organic sector. How can consumers learn about these differences? And how do we, as part of Ontario’s organic movement, promote the national organic standard without abandoning those innovators that exceed the COS requirements, and strive for further recognition?

Organic 3.0 aspires to build leadership within the organic sector as well as bridges with mainstream agriculture. This means innovating beyond the COS requirements and sharing experiences with the entire agriculture sector. As Prof. Caradonna, U of Victoria, reports, many non-organic farmers are already taking up some of organic’s proven practices: cover cropping, reduced tillage, and smarter crop rotations. How can we strengthen this cross-over to maximize benefits for our shared planet? And, what can the organic sector learn from the innovative non-organic producers, e.g. for no-till field crops? How can the farming sector better generate, accumulate and pass on knowledge that is independent from input vendors, whose advice is biased by self-interest? How can farmers learn from each other to sustain farm profits, healthy people, and our beautiful planet?


Thorsten Arnold is a member of the Organic 3.0 Task Force of the Organic Value Chain Roundtable. Thorsten also serves on the board of the Organic Council of Ontario and currently works with EFAO as strategic initiatives & fundraising coordinator. Together with his wife Kristine, Thorsten owns Persephone Market Garden.

Feature image: Fig.1 Evolution of the organic movement (Source Arbenz et al., 2016)

Further reading:
OCO’S response to Toronto Star’s article Milked.
Organic agriculture is going mainstream, but not the way you think it is.

References
1. Niggli, U., et al. (2015). Towards modern sustainable agriculture with organic farming as the leading model. A discussion document on Organic: 3. Jg., S. 36.
2. Arbenz, M., Gould, D., & Stopes, C. (2016). Organic 3.0 for truly sustainable farming & consumption. 2ndupdated edition: IFOAM Organics International: ifoam.bio/sites/default/files/organic3.0_v.2_web_0.pdf.

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