Tag archive


Organic Stories: Covert Farms, Oliver, BC

in 2019/Climate Change/Crop Production/Fall 2019/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Organic Stories/Water Management
Covert Family Farm - Portrait proud family vintners in vineyard

Fighting Drought through Complex Ecosystems

By Emma Holmes

Irecently had the pleasure of visiting Covert Farms Family Estate in Oliver, where Gene Covert, a third-generation farmer, gave me a tour of his family’s 650 acre organic farm, vineyard, and winery. Gene’s grandpa George Covert bought the desert-like piece of land back in 1959, and although some laughed, thinking the land would not be suitable for agriculture, he, his son, and eventually grandson, Gene, have built the farm into a robust, flourishing, certified organic farm that embraces biodynamic, permaculture, and regenerative farming methods.

Gene studied ecosystem complexity as a Physical Geography student at UBC and has carried this learning through to his farming career, approaching it with a high level of curiosity for the natural world and experimentation. His wife, Shelly Covert, a holistic nutritionist, has been co-managing the family farm and in 2010 they were awarded the Outsanding Young Farmer Award BC/Yukon. Gene and Shelley are deeply connected to their land: “The relationships of our land are complex and most have yet to be discovered. As we learn more we find interest, intrigue, and humility.”

Like many places in BC, Oliver is expected to face increasing warmer and drier conditions. Already a drought prone desert, it is more important than ever to find ways to slow the water down, trap it at the surface, give it time to infiltrate, and store it in the soil.

The secret to storing more water lies in soil organic matter. Soil organic matter holds, on average, 10 times more water than its weight. A 1 percent increase in soil organic matter helps soil hold approximately 20,000 gallons more water per acre.1

The Covert’s guiding philosophy is that “only by creating and fostering complexity can we hope to grow food with complex and persistent flavours. Flavours are the ultimate expression of the mineralization brought about by healthy soil microbial ecosystems.” To increase the organic matter content of his sandy soil, Gene took inspiration from organic and regenerative farmers in other agricultural sectors and began experimenting with cover crop cocktails, reduced tillage, and integrating livestock into his system.

Cover crop cocktails. Credit: Covert Farms

Cover Crop Cocktails

Cover crop cocktails are mixtures of three or more cover crop species that allow producers to diversify the number of benefits and management goals they can meet using cover crops. Farmers like Gabe Brown are leading the way and driving the excitement around cover crop cocktails, and research is following suit, with universities starting research programs such as Penn’s State Cover Crop Cocktail for Organic Systems lab.2

To help him in meeting the right mix for his system, Gene uses the Smartmix calculator, made by farmers for farmers3. He has found that seven or more species affords the most drought tolerance. He uses a combination of warm and cool season grasses, lentils, and brassicas. Some of the species in his blend include guargum, a drought tolerant N-fixing bean, radish to break up soil at lower depths, and mustards as a cutworm control.

Gene plants Morton lentils right under the vine to fix N and suppress downy brome. This type of lentil was developed by Washington State University for fall planting in minimum tillage systems. Crop establishment is in the fall and early spring, which is when evapo-transpiration demand is minimal, thus improving water-use efficiency.

The diverse benefits of his cover crop include N fixation, increase in soil organic matter, weed control, pest control, and increased system resilience in a changing climate.

Gene Covert. Credit: Covert Farms


Frequent tillage can negatively impact soil organic matter levels and water-holding capacity. Regular tillage over a long-time period can have a severe negative impact on soil quality, structure, and biological health.

The challenge for organic systems is that tillage is often used for weed control, seedbed preparation, soil aeration, turning in cover crops, and incorporating soil amendment. Thus, new management strategies need to be adopted in place of tillage. Cover cropping, roller crimping, rotational grazing, mowing, mulching, steaming, flaming, and horticulture vinegars are cultural weed control practices that can be used in organic systems as an alternative to tillage. The most successful organic systems embrace and build on the complexity of their system, and utilize several solutions for best results.

Gene used to cultivate five to six times a year, mostly for weed control, but now cultivates just once a year to incorporate cover crop seeds under the vines. Instead of regular tilling to control weeds, he uses cover crops that will compete with weeds but that won’t devigorate the crop and that can be controlled through non-tillage management strategies like roller crimping and rotational grazing. For cover crop seeds between the rows, he uses a no-till seeder.

Intensive Rotational Grazing

Integrated grazing sheep or cattle in vineyards is not a new concept, but it became much less common since the rise in modern fertilizers. It has been increasingly gaining steam in recent years due to the myriad benefits it provides. The animals act as cover crop terminators, lawn mowers, and weed eaters while also improving the overall soil fertility and biological health4. The appropriate presence of animals increases soil organic matter, and some on-farm demonstration research out of Australia showed significant reductions in irrigation use, reduced reliance on machinery, fuels, and fertilizers, and increased soil organic matter.5

Incorporating livestock into a horticultural system adds a completely new management challenge and thus level of complexity. It comes with the risk of compaction and over grazing if not managed properly. The key is to move herds frequently, controlling their access to different sections and never letting them stay too long in one area. As well, the grazing window needs to be limited to after harvest and before bud-break to prevent damage to the cash crop

Grapevines and mountains. Credit: Covert Farms

Increased Resiliency

Since experimenting with and adopting these management practices, Gene has found his cost of inputs has dropped and he has noticed a significant increase in soil organic matter and reduced irrigation requirements. Based on his success so far, he has a goal of eventually dryland farming. No small feat on a sandy, gravelly, glacio-fluvial soil in a desert climate facing increasing droughty conditions!

On-Farm Demonstration Research

A farmer’s experience and observations are critical in problem solving and the development of new management practices. Increasing farmer-led on-farm research is fundamental to improving the resiliency of producers in the face of ongoing climate change impacts, such as drought and unpredictable precipitation.

Farmer-led on-farm research compliments and builds experience by allowing a farmer to use a small portion of their land to test and identify ways to better manage their resources in order to achieve any farming goal they have, including climate adaptation strategies such as increasing soil organic matter to reduce irrigation requirements. The beauty of on-farm demonstration research is that it is farmer directed, it can be carried out independently, and it uses the resources a typical farmer would have on hand.

If you’re inspired by an idea, or a practice you have seen used in another agricultural system and are interested in conducting your own field trials, I highly recommend the BC Forage Council Guide to On-Farm Demonstration Research: How to Plan, Prepare, and Conduct Your Own On-Farm Trials.6 It is an accessible guide that covers the foundations of planning and conducting research, allowing you to achieve the best results. While it was created for the forage industry, the guide covers the basics of research and is applicable to farmers in any sector.

My highest gratitude and praise for the farmers who are finding the overlaps at the edges of agricultural models, where one becomes another—and leading the way into the new fertile and diverse opportunities for sustainable food production in a changing climate.

Thank you to Gene Covert and Lisa Wambold for their knowledge, passion, and insights.

Emma Holmes has a BSc in Sustainable Agriculture and an MSc in Soil Science, both from UBC. She farmed on Orcas Island and Salt Spring Island and is now the Organics Industry Specialist at the BC Ministry of Agriculture. She can be reached at: Emma.Holmes@gov.bc.ca

References and Resources:

1. Bryant, Lara. Organic Matter Can Improve Your Soil’s Water Holding Capacity. nrdc.org/experts/lara-bryant/organic-matter-can-improve-your-soils-water-holding-capacity
2. agsci.psu.edu/organic/research-and-extension/cover-crop-cocktails/project-summary
3. greencoverseed.com
4. Niles, M.T., Garrett, R., and Walsh, D. (2018). Ecological and economic benefits of integrating sheep into viticulture production. Agronomy and Sustainable Development. 38(1). link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13593-017-0478-y
5. Mulville, Kelly. Holistic Approach to Vineyard Grazing. grazingvineyards.blogspot.com
6. BC Forage Council. (2017). A Guide to On-Farm Demonstration Research. Farmwest.com. farmwest.com/node/1623

Unsustainable Use of Water

in 2019/Climate Change/Fall 2019/Land Stewardship/Water Management

An Impending Global Danger

S. K. Basu

Water conservation has been an increasingly important priority across the planet in developed, developing, and under-developed nations in both hemispheres. The alarming increase in global human population across the planet has been putting excessive pressures on all our natural resources. Water is one such commodity that has been hit hard and hence needs urgent attention. Excessive, non-judicious, and explorative use of water for domestic, agricultural, and industrial purposes with no long-term planning has been one of the factors at the root of the state of globally available potable water today.

For a long time, our utter negligence and lack of sensitivity towards sustainable use of natural resources has aggravated the current global crisis of water in every aspect of human life. It is us humans inhabiting the green planet that are critically responsible for the rapid loss of freshwater water resources and initiating this global crisis. Climate change and global warming are further making the situation worse and are anthropogenic in nature.

Our bad habit of using excessive agrochemicals to secure agricultural productivity has been contaminating both groundwater and surface water resources alike. Various agrochemicals in the form of pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides, as well as synthetic fertilizers and numerous plant growth regulators, have a long life in the soil before undergoing biodegradation. Several of these chemicals slowly percolate into our precious underground water sources. Other chemical residues surviving in the soil long after application are washed away by irrigation water or rain into adjacent freshwater bodies thus contaminating them over time. The presence of such chemicals in freshwater bodies promotes changes in both physical and chemical parameters of water and stimulates the growth of undesirable bacterial species that reduce available oxygen in the water, making the water unsuitable for human and animal consumption and threatening the acquatic ecosystem.

Water conservation holds the key to our future. Credit: S. K. Basu

Furthermore, the legal and illegal release of untreated industrial waste water into natural ecosystems is also proving detrimental to local aquatic flora and fauna, making them unsafe for human and animal consumption. Under the unacceptable and unfortunate circumstances of the release of untreated industrial waste water into ecosystems, highly expensive treatment processes are now being installed in order to render the water, flora, and fauna suitable, and to reduce the impact on the local environment. The cost of treating waste water is thereby increasing the base price of water making them unavailable to a large section of our society. This in turn promotes social discrimination, as well as improper allocation and distribution of water. No long-term planning for water conservation, as well as judicious use of water resources and treatment of waste water, has been observed across several under developed and developing nations.

Another significant impact on the looming global water crisis is due to the unplanned network of infrastructure development that interferes with the natural courses of rivers, tributaries, distributaries, streams, rivulets, springs, rapids, waterfalls, etc., negatively impacting recharging of groundwater and natural fresh water bodies (lakes, pools, ponds, bogs), as well as estuarine and marine ecosystems. Unsustainable infrastructural developments, such as building mega dams, as well as numerous micro water dams, is actually proving detrimental to our economy and ecology alike. Such dams for hydro power projects built in key riverine areas without proper impact assessment evaluations and planning have a short life, undergo rapid sedimentation that reduces the water holding capacity, promote occasional floods, damage local aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and affect local biodiversity. These impacts increase both our economic as well as ecological expenses with long-term detrimental consequences on both human and animal lives.

Conservation of natural bodies is of prime importance to protect local ecosystem and biodiversity. Photo credit: S. K. Basu

It is therefore extremely important for all of us to look to sustainable and judicious use of our water resources. Unless we move forward with sustainable practices and look for ways to conserve our groundwater as well as freshwater resources, we are doomed ourselves in the not-so-distant future.

Farmers and crop producers can have a significant positive impact through limiting or restricting over applications of various agricultural chemicals to prevent the rapid pollution of both ground water and freshwater resources.

Stringent laws should be established and protocols instituted to make sure that no untreated water could get into a natural environment and ecosystem via any available legal and illegal routes. We may need to change legislation and enact new laws and charge new taxes to prevent industrial pollution of our natural aquatic systems. Judicious and sustainable water use should be promoted by different government and non-government agencies and programs launched for public education and raising awareness of our global water crisis.

If we do not learn to be responsible today, we cannot expect to have a better tomorrow. Conservation of water should be promoted at every level and should be included in the course curriculum at primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels of education to capture our younger generations. Our new light bearers and future citizens are an important stakeholder in this process.

Over exploitation of water is an important factor contributing towards global fresh water crisis. Credit: S.K. Basu

Non-judicious use of water as well as unacceptable wastage of water needs should be curtailed or prevented to the best of our abilities. Water conservation approaches such as rain harvesting should be promoted in both urban and rural areas alike to use this precious commodity from a long-term conservation and judicious use perspective. Construction of dams and infrastructure across sensitive aquatic ecosystems should be re-evaluated and reviewed before implementation.

Our current actions are important steps to achieving success with water conservation. All stakeholders in the process needs to be involved, educated, and made aware of our future global water crisis, jointly work towards strong global initiative and networks for successful water conservation and adoption of better water use practices. All members of society need to be actively engaged and involved in working towards water conservation practices. Our actions today will certainly help and make a difference in conserving water for the future.

Saikat Kumar Basu has a Masters in Plant Sciences and Agricultural Studies. He loves writing, traveling, and photography during his leisure and is passionate about nature and conservation.

Feature image: Ecology and economy must walk hand in hand . Credit: S. K. Basu

Go to Top