Happy Winter Solstice!

young farmers

We love the Winter Solstice!

It was snowing lightly and we thought “We should get a photo….with the cats and the ducks!”

Not easy….the ducks weren’t having any of it. Kevin was preoccupied and didn’t come when we called (though he suspiciously came into the house right after we took the photos). Yuki and Kubota were both game but only Yuki made it into any of the pictures. Kubota either sat on the other side of the camera watching us or went into the hedgerow behind us, out of sight.

beginning farmer

And who was the photographer? A stack of bulb crates with our little camera balanced precariously on top.

We have a tendency to prefer the photos where we aren’t doing what we thought we would be. In the picture below, Shannon was headed towards the camera to set up another timed shot…..not realizing the camera was still shooting.

Happy Winter Solstice to everyone! We wish for you that, on the darkest day of the year, you get to catch up on some much-needed sleep! Well….that’s the cats’ plan anyway.

new farmers

Posted in On the farm | 1 Comment

Farm-Raised Seeds: The 2016 Adventure

local vegetables

To improve our food system, it’s not just about growing good food locally.

To grow delicious vegetables, we first need to plant seeds.

In the same way that vegetables don’t “come from the store,” neither do seeds.

Seeds are also grown on farms.

Our customers seek us out according to why, how, and what we grow; we also seek out seed that is grown in certain ways and with certain values.

We’ve bought some really cool seeds bred by plant breeding elder Carol Deppe who says

When you breed a variety, you breed your own values right into the variety. If you believe in huge agribusiness farms with monocultures that are managed with massive doses of herbicides, then you breed your concept of what agriculture should be like into that variety. I do exactly the opposite.” 

We definitely don’t know the story or breeder behind all of the varieties we grow. We buy seeds from companies we respect but that doesn’t mean that it’s always easy to know who bred a variety.

I mean, we grow over 100 varieties of vegetables and over 100 varieties of flowers.

But the story behind our seeds still interests us.

And we hope to also be part of the story behind at least some of the seeds that we grow.

So, every year, on our farm, we’ve experienced a seed adventure. Here’s the story of the 2016 adventure:

ACORN seeds

This year started out with the news that ACORN would be unveiling a seed mentorship program in Atlantic Canada. Shannon promptly signed up for it and was accepted as a mentee.

farm goal setting

We thought about why we wanted to grow seed. We came up with 3 main goals:

  • To build our skills. Knowing how to grow and save our own high quality seeds is a great skill to have – ones that grow better on our farm and in our region. Plus, seed-saving is an important skill to pass on to the next generation of farmers.
  • Make some money. Or at least don’t lose money. Vegetable farmers don’t often save seeds because the time spent growing seed crops is more expensive to them than the cost of buying seeds. So, we want to learn how to do it in a way that contributes to our livelihood. Our customers had been asking us for seeds to plant in their own gardens so it makes sense to grow some to offer for sale.
  • Seed-saving is one of our climate change adaptation strategies. I’ll write more about this in a future blog post. Stay tuned!

Twisted Brook Farm

The mentor I was paired with is Steph Warr from Twisted Brook Farm.

She was the perfect mentor for me because she sells vegetables at a farmers’ market and to restaurants (like us) but she makes the majority of her income from growing and selling seeds.

Steph is also a small-scale farmer who shares our values, loves to talk about seeds and varieties, is incredibly generous with her knowledge and is super fun to be around.

farm field trip

Steph came to visit our farm and I also got to take a field trip to her farm this year! Read about my farm visit in this blog post.

organic seeds

This spring, for the first time ever, we sold our seeds at the Dieppe Market. They sold really well.

Hearing how our customers’ gardens were doing throughout the season was really special, in particular to hear how the seeds we had grown were doing.

Our customers told us that the germination (how many of the seeds sprout) and vigour (how quickly they take off and grow into strong, healthy plants) was great!

saving pepper seeds

We grew a few seed crops this year for Atlantic Canada’s Regional Seed Bank.

One of them was this pepper called Yellow Doe. It’s a small, roundish, orange sweet pepper. I picked up the seeds for it at a seed swap I attended last winter in Oregon. To read about that event, check out this blog post.

lettuce seed head

We also grew a lettuce for the Seed Bank called Lau’s Pointed. It’s an interesting one with a pointy shaped leaf and great flavour.

This is a picture of the seed head before we harvested it.

storage carrots

Well, this was exciting! This was our first time saving carrot seed at our farm. The variety was Nash’s Rhumba.

We planted it with our other fall carrots and harvested it at the same time. They will stay in storage in our cooler all winter (hopefully they’ll store well) and then we’ll replant the carrots in the spring. They’ll send up a flower stalk and then produce seeds.

pea seed saving

We saved seeds from a few different pea varieties this year. Super Sugar Snap Peas, Cascadia Peas, and a pea called Lamborn which is a tendril pea – this means that rather than harvest it for the pea pods, we harvest it for the tendril shoots that taste like peas. I got the seeds for this from a seed friend from A’bunadh Seeds.

on-farm breeding

2016 was year 1 of our first-ever multi-year breeding project. We’re developing our very own sweet red pepper. Having a hands-on project like this really helps us learn about on-farm breeding.

seed harvesting

Asian greens are kind of a big deal on our farm. We love them. We’re always trialing new varieties, especially as components of our popular Sweet n’ Spicy Mix. Because of this, we decided to start saving seeds of our favourite varieties.

flower seeds

With the flowers that we grow for our market bouquets, we’ve been saving a handful of varieties of flowers each year. This year, we saved 6 varieties, including this incredible deep pink Hollyhock.

Saving seeds and improving our seed saving skills had its challenges this year (especially with the drought this summer!) but we learned a lot and we’re looking forward to our 2017 seed adventure!

 

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Meet an Eco-Farmer

Acres USA

We were featured this year in Acres USA Magazine. In their section called Meet an Eco-Farmer. Here’s the interview:

Farm Name: Broadfork Farm

Farmers: Shannon Jones and Bryan Dyck

Location: River Hebert, Nova Scotia, Canada

Size: 15 acre farm, 5 acres in rotation between cash crops (vegetables, herbs, cut flowers) and cover crops. Only 1.5 acres in cash crops in any given year.

Established: We started our farm in 2011 on leased land, by the end of that year we had purchased our own farm.

Number of years farming: 21 years combined between the 2 of us. We started out apprenticing and then working on other farms before we started Broadfork Farm.

Years reading Acres U.S.A.: Since 2012 regularly, though we occasionally read it before then if the farm we were working on had a subscription.

Products: Mixed vegetables, herbs, cut flowers. We also do a bit of seed production and have just started raising ducks for eggs (we used to raise laying hens).

Certifications: Organic (certified by Ecocert) and Certified Bee Friendly Farm

Why did you begin farming?

We grew up wanting to make the world a better place. We were passionate about the health of the Earth and its citizens (both human and non-human). We heard so much “bad news” and small-scale, organic, agro-ecological farming felt like an active form of creating “good news.”

Have you always been an eco-farmer, or did you make a change?

Before starting our farm, we each apprenticed and worked on various farms. While each of these farms was very different, we have only ever worked on farms that were “ecological” or organic. Our own farm has always been an ecological and organic one.

What was the biggest hurdle you have overcome?

Getting a mortgage to buy our farm was a hurdle. After having spent many years working on others farms, we didn’t have very impressive records on “previous income.” One agricultural lender said they would only consider us if one of us got a full-time, off-farm job (which wasn’t our plan). Luckily, another agricultural lender saw the potential in our experience and our detailed business plan.

What do you enjoy most about farming?

I love that it’s not just one job. As farmers, we are entrepreneurs, retailers, ecosystem managers, food producers, mechanics, bookkeepers, etc. Farming offers us life-long learning and a job we can be really passionate about. It’s fulfilling and challenging work intellectually, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

What is your biggest current challenge?

Making larger, permanent (expensive) infrastructure decisions. We have a vision for a winter storage, larger wash station, general storage, and potting-shed type facility. We’ve visited so many farms with great infrastructure and farmers who tell us what they like and don’t like about the structures they have. Figuring out what will be ideal for our site, our vision, and our future is a challenge (though an exciting one!).

What is the best piece of advice you ever received about farming?

That farming is a viable career option. That we can make a living as full-time farmers. I think hearing that it’s not possible is one of the biggest barriers for aspiring farmers that can prevent them from ever starting.

What learning opportunities have helped you become a better farmer?

Serving on Boards for farm and food-related organizations. Helping to guide an organization with other people who have different experiences and skill sets than we do gives us great perspective in the running of our own farm business. We strive to attend as many farming workshops or tours during a season as we can. It’s so beneficial for us to keep gathering new ideas throughout the growing season; it keeps us motivated and pumped! We also love winter farming conferences. Our favourite is the ACORN (Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network) conference. Another great one is the New England Fruit and Vegetable Growers conference. Before we started our farm, we really benefited from the CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farming Training) Network in Southern Ontario as well as the farm business planning course through Everdale.

What do you see in store for the future of sustainable farming?

We think that the majority of new farmers are going into sustainable farming (actually this is based on the results of the Canadian National New Farmer Coalition’s survey of new farmers from across Canada). We see this trend really strongly with other new and young farmers we meet. So, we are incredibly hopeful and optimistic about the future in general. Sustainable/ecological/organic farmers have been doing great work over the last few decades in really training the next generation. All of their great work and mentorship is really starting to pay off now and we’re so grateful to them for that!

What is your favorite season? Why?

Each season feels good when it comes up, but man, do we ever feel grateful for the winter season when it gets here! Having the time to figure out how to improve while sitting on the couch by the woodstove with a cat on our laps and hot tea in our hands is a real treat!

What do you enjoy most about living on the land?

Our farm is located in a really quiet and peaceful spot. We hear the stream running by, birds chirping, bees humming. The air is fresh, our water is good, and the plant life is lush. The stars are clear and bright at night. We do have a lot of blackflies and mosquitoes but I appreciate their role in our ecosystem too…and it’s not too much of a hardship wearing bug netting.

 

 

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Learning to Raise Ducks Organically

ducklings

This year, at Broadfork Farm, we decided to give duck-raising a try. We’ve kept laying hens in the past and thought it would be fun to try out ducks. Plus we were inspired by the nutritional profile of duck eggs (higher in nutrients than chicken eggs, likely due to their foraging style). We were also inspired by the lack of regulations around selling duck eggs. But, we’d never raised ducks before and had never worked for any farmer who had. We had no idea if we would like raising ducks or not. We read lots of positive stuff online and in books (duck people seem REALLY positive about ducks) and decided to just give them a shot.

First thing, was to figure out what breed we would get. Many breeds sounded good. Indian Runner ducks have such a charming posture and character. Ancona ducks seem laid back and have unique speckles which makes telling them apart easier. Our main goal was eggs, in particular eggs that could be a reasonably profitable part of our small farm. We decided to go with Khaki Campbell ducks which have an average lay rate of 300-340 eggs per year (that’s AVERAGE, not high).

Next step, where would we buy them? We don’t have the setup to hatch our own but we needed to buy them at the one-day-old stage because we decided to add them on to our organic certification (organic poultry need to be raised organically from day one). Google didn’t help us much with this one. When searching Khaki Campbell ducklings online, all the nearest sources seemed to be in the States or Ontario. There were a bunch of places that would only ship eggs that we’d need to hatch ourselves and ducklings needed to be picked up in person (we were not prepared to drive to Ontario to collect our ducklings). Sources in the States would ship the day-olds but only to an address in the States. We hoped we wouldn’t need to drive across the border. Well, wouldn’t you know, the old reliable Facebook helped get us on track and pointed us in the direction of Wayne Oulton of W.G. Oulton Farms. While not next door to us in River Hebert, NS, Wayne was only 2.5 hours drive (one way) in Windsor, NS. He has a wide assortment of poultry (a wide assortment of animals really) and he was willing to sell us 40-50 day old Khaki Campbells at a fair price. Our sourcing question was solved!

baby ducks

Setting up a brooder for our ducklings wasn’t too different than we had done for chicks. We still had the heat lamps, waterers, and feed troughs. We had previously brooded chicks in an enclosed porch with thick bedding on the ground and that seemed good enough for ducklings too.  We picked up some organic starter and grower mash from our friends at Barnyard Organics in PEI.

The big day came and we brought our baby ducks home. While they definitely were freaked out by the big humans looming over them, they quickly got to know their new home and where everything was. They moved around like one big unit, discovering each attraction (heat, water, food). And they cheeped incessantly (in a charming way).

We had been reading a great book called The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe (plant breeder extraordinaire) which has a chapter on raising a laying flock of ducks. Based on Carol’s advice, we purchased Niacin from a health food store (while delivering some produce) to add to their water. We’d heard conflicting reports on whether this was necessary, but we figured it couldn’t hurt in low doses and we wanted these ducklings to have the best start possible. We also got the great tip from Carol to add water to the duck’s mash to form a paste. The ducklings WAY prefer their food all paste-y and waste much less. We also made sure to put a dish of grit (in the form of sand) in the brooder which they loved.

Other than the suggestion to sing and/or whistle to the ducks (they really do seem fascinated by it!), the main other tip we got from Carol was to start their “waterproofing” early on. Many resources we read said that Khaki Campbell ducks don’t need access to swimming water. They also said that ducks don’t become waterproofed until 8 weeks of age and may drown if let to swim unsupervised before then. Carol said that ducklings should be allowed to go into water within the first few days of their life (supervised at first) which will start their waterproofing process.

We put each of our ducklings into a shallow pan of water when they were 3 days old and for each subsequent day after that. The joy they had when in the water made us realize that we could never raise ducks without giving them access to swimming water. They were splashing and diving and just so thrilled. Then they would get out and head over to their heat lamps and preen (which gets their oil gland working to waterproof themselves). By 3 weeks old, they seemed pretty waterproofed when they’d come out of their pool (even though they still had down rather than feathers).

So, what surprised us in raising the ducklings? They grow fast! So much faster than chicks. And they eat a lot. It seems like I can see the feed turning into duck before my eyes.  They make a mess (I had been warned), especially around their waterers, way more than chickens. And even at 3 weeks old, their thick bedding needs frequent stirring to reduce the ammonia smell. They are definitely easy to herd, they love moving as a group. They seem hardier than chicks. And kinder to each other. I adore their webbed feet. And there is nothing comparable to watching them splash around in water….chicken dust baths aren’t anywhere near as exciting.  Though they definitely don’t seem as domesticated as our laying hens. They don’t want to hang out with us much and they don’t run towards us when they see us. They are very strict about their schedule and demand to be let in and out at the appropriate times. I’m sure they think (or know) that we work for them.

Khaki Campbell Ducks

The ducks are now  fully grown, and they started laying in early October, when they were just over 20 weeks old. The males’ heads have turned a beautiful dark green colour, so we know that close to half our flock are drakes. We haven’t yet figured out how we’ll have the surplus males killed and prepared for sale, because although skinning would be easier, everyone wants the fatty, flavourful skin.

We look forward to talking to other people  who are raising ducks, and learning more as we go.

This article was originally written by Shannon for Rural Delivery magazine.

farm magazine

 

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What I Learned about Food and Farming in Italy

Terra Madre youth

photo taken (selfie-style) by Maxime Gauvin

I (Shannon) was incredibly lucky this year to be chosen as one of 56 Canadian delegates to Terra Madre Salone del Gusto in Torino, Italy. I was there for 6 days, from Sept.21 to 27th…..a fairly busy time of year on the farm….and I’m so grateful to Bryan for agreeing this was a not-to-be-missed, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and to his parents for coming out to help him on the farm while I was gone.

So, what is Terra Madre?

It’s a slow food event, a collection of different food-related happenings, the largest in the world, with people from over 140 different countries who all care deeply about the food system overall as well as their community-level food sovereignty. (this is my definition, others would define it differently I’m sure).

So, let me unpack that statement.

A slow food event: slow food is a value. It’s based on the principles of Good food, Clean food, and Fair food. Slow Food is the antithesis of everything that brings us fast food.

A collection of different food-related happenings: it’s challenging for me to describe Terra Madre as any one thing.

There were panel discussions with big names in the changing-the-food-system world, like this one called They are Giants, But we are Millions, with Jose Bove and Marion Nestle.

Jose Bove

José Bové has a powerful history of civil disobedience actions – in particular against junk food and GMOs – and now, as a Green member of the European parliament,.

Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of  many book on food including Food Politics and Pet Food Politics.

There were panel discussion with people from all around the world doing great things in their communities, like this one about The Role of Women in Food Production. On this panel sat a woman from Burkina Faso, a woman from Indonesia, a woman from Ukraine, 2 women from Spain, a woman from the Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, and a woman from Mexico.

women farmers

There were informal presentations and discussions like this one that happened at the Slow Food Youth booth called Building Future Food Leaders.

Slow Food Youth

There were food booths from every province in Italy and every country that sent a delegation to the event (over 140 countries).

Torino

raw Italian cheese

There was a huge parade of over 5000 people who walked through the streets on Torino, in solidarity with their dream of a good, clean, and fair food system.

1-img_6999

Good Clean Fair

Slow Food Canada

People were singing, shouting, smiling, and proudly waving their country’s flag and positive signs for the food future they wanted to see. At the end of the parade, everyone swapped a small food token from their country with someone from another part of the world standing close to them. (I swapped some Fundy dulse for a chocolate bar with seaweed in it with a woman from Ireland).

There were many exhibits around the city, from this one on bees and honey, with a beautiful honey pyramid with 1000 different honeys,

1000 Honeys pyramid

and displayed beehives from around the world.

honey bees

pollinators

wild bees

save the bees

round beehive

I especially liked seeing this Kenyan Top Bar Hive since we also have a Top Bar Hive on the farm (built by our super-talented friend Alex) in which we placed a caught swarm this year.

top bar beehive

natural beekeeping

To a beautiful and inspiring photography exhibit, hosted by the coffee company LavAzza. Here’s one of the photos (from a coffee farmer in Indonesia) on display and the description, which really moved me.

female farmer

Equator

There were informational booths on some of the areas of food that Slow Food focuses on, from the Indigenous Terra Madre Network to Slow Meat.

paleo

vegan ethics

And, a section of one of the city’s streets, Via Po, was converted to Via Gelato, where delicious Slow gelato could be purchased that featured good, clean, and fair ingredients. I can tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed Via Gelato!

gelato

And all this was set among the beautiful historic city of Torino.

Torino

Turino

Turin

Italy

I was incredibly lucky to stay with the most wonderful hostess, Valeria, a retired math teacher.

Gingko Biloba tree

She shared her perfectly European apartment with me, which I found out, just happened to be the closest host accommodation to where the majority of the events took place.

European apartment

She made me fabulous dinners in which she told me the region the dish was from and where the ingredients were sourced. She also shared her wonderful group of girlfriends with me and we all marched across the city each evening until midnight with them pointing out well-known sites to me and pointing out good examples of Baroque architecture.

Italian grandmother

One evening, we went out to a potluck at a yoga studio where a few other students who were also delegate hosts  brought their delegates from Iran, Spain, and the U.S. The food and conversation was incredible!

yoga studio in Torino

Besides the Terra Madre events, I loved scoping out the many daily farmers’ markets in the city, seeing how vendors were displaying their produce and which kinds of produce were available in late September.

market in Torino

farmers market

pumpkins

flowers for sale

The only slicing tomatoes I saw (there were also Roma-types and cherry tomatoes) were these ones.

Italian tomatoes

Valeria asked me if I grew tomatoes on our farm. I said we grew around 50 varieties, but none that looked like this one. The next day, she surprised me with a package of seeds for this variety. I’m excited to grow it next year for a taste of Italy! I can’t express how wonderful it was to meet and live with Valeria during this event and I am eternally grateful to her.

With the great free daily lunch cafeteria for delegates, eating was not an expensive prospect. I especially loved the mackerel one day and the slow-cooked squid another day (it was my first time eating squid!) AND the piles of cheese available. Oh, and the Italian plums. And the chicory/radicchio salads.

Italian buffet

Italian plums

Parmesan

Italian lunch

I had an incredible time meeting people who share my interests. I highly recommend any Canadian apply to be a delegate to this special event. It happens every 2 years, always in Torino.

A good first step would be to become a member of Slow Food.

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This Saturday is our Last Week at Market!!!

rainbow carrots

Well, it’s hard to believe (except when our fingertips were freezing last weekend) that this coming Saturday (Oct.22nd) is our last day of market for the year!

We’ll miss a lot of things each Saturday:

  • picking up our weekly treats of raw vegan desserts, cheeses, and seafood
  • seeing all of our smiling fellow market vendors and wonderful market manager and market staff
  • and, of course, our beautiful customers who constantly inspire us and whose appreciation of what we do keeps us motivated!

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You for such a great market season!!!

We’ll be attending lots of farming conferences and workshops this winter and making all kinds of plans to make next year even better.

See you on Saturday!

your farmers, Shannon and Bryan

Sunchokes

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I Think Our Ducks Hate Me

Khaki Campbell Ducks

So, I’m pretty sure the ducks think I’m the worst.

I tried my best to get them to love me. When they were little, I would hang out with them as long as I could and sing songs or read aloud to them. While I was busy on the farm, I’d play an interview I did (on the Farmer to Farmer podcast) so they’d get used to my voice (full disclaimer, I’ve never listened to the podcast myself….I hate hearing myself speak!).

ducklings

I looked for treats around the farm for them to make sure they didn’t miss out on anything delicious (well, not always delicious to me….although I guess I’ve never given slugs a fair shot).

I avoided direct eye contact with them when I read that it might make me seem like a predator.

When they were traumatized from an overnight raccoon visit, I added Rescue Remedy flower essence and homeopathic arnica to their drinking water to help them get over the shock. (yes, I’m a hippie)

I tried being extra smiley every time I passed by them after reading that some animals can tell when humans are smiling (like pigeons).

I bought them only the best local and organic grains and turn it into an oatmeal –like paste by adding water (they will no longer touch their food while it’s dry).

I make sure their rotating forage area includes fresh grass and other plants, low shrubs, and trees so they have exactly the type of habitat they want in any given moment.

But still they hate me.

organic ducks

They run away and hide every time they see me.

They only eat the treats I leave them when they know I’m good and gone (if they even eat them at all….sometimes they leave them untouched just to spite me).

Some of them will always veer off while I’m herding them just to let me know how much I suck at it.

And then, when I’m gone, they have a nice, loud laugh at my expense. So I can hear just how happy they are when I’m not there.

Khaki Campbell ducks

But still.

I do adore them and am so happy they live on this farm with me.

 

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Biodegradable Plastic Mulches No Longer Allowed in Canadian Organics…..What Now?

Black Knight Scabiosa

I originally wrote this article for and it was published in The Canadian Organic Growers Magazine’s Spring 2016 issue. TCOG (for short) magazine is a great magazine that you can either subscribe to online or as a print/paper copy. Check it out! This article was written as a follow-up to the first article I wrote on this issue originally published in the ACORN newsletter (and later published in The BC Organic Grower).

After years of using biodegradable biobased mulch films (or biofilms for brevity), in early 2015 certified organic farmers in Canada were told that biofilms would no longer be considered an allowable input. Farmers from across the country were understandably upset and confused.

Biofilms offer benefits in weed control and soil warming.  And they biodegrade within 2 seasons, eliminating the need to be picked up. Every ecologically-minded farmer who was using or wanted the benefits of regular plastic mulch, was happy to avoid adding more waste to the landfill.

When I first learned about non-GMO, corn starch-based biofilms, I was excited about the potential. I had never been a fan of plastic mulch but neither was I happy to frequently cultivate my soil, which decreased my capacity to build soil organic matter and store carbon. In our first season on our new farm, converting hay fields to beds of vegetables, using biofilm kept the plentiful weeds from taking over and helped us achieve enough yield to make a living. Until the spring of 2015, Ecocert, our organic certifier, allowed us to use it.

So, what happened? Well, it turns out that none of the biofilms currently available in the marketplace are 100% bio-based (which is the requirement in both the Canadian Organic Standard (COS) and the U.S. National Organic Program Standard) but rather contain only 10-20% biobased material. The rest is made up of polymers from fossil fuels (petroleum and natural gas), dyes, minerals, and sometimes heavy metals.  There are no 100% biobased biofilms, nor are there any expected to be available in the near future (despite what I’ve heard from some salespeople).

On our farm, we started using a biofilm called BioTelo and then moved to a product called Bio360. Both of them include a material called Mater-Bi, produced by a company in Italy called Novamont. Mater-Bi is made with non-GMO cornstarch, but also contains proprietary, biodegradable ingredients from renewable, synthetic or mixed sources. And it’s those extra ingredients that are the problem.

The revised COS published in November 2015 authorizes the continued use of these biofilms—including tilling them into the soil after use—until 2017 only (to allow farmers time to figure out their new management plans).

As a result, the search is on for alternatives to biofilms at certified organic farms across the country. We’d been thinking about this topic throughout last year’s season, and spoke with  many other farmers about it. Most of the other organic farmers I’ve spoken to who have been using the biofilms are still unsure of how they will replace their use. Here are some ideas we’ve considered or heard from other farmers:

Pulling up the biofilms at end of season

Last year (2015), we still had leftover rolls from the prior season so we covered some beds with biofilm and removed it by hand (and rakes). This could be an option some people might choose every season. But, what do you do with the biofilms you picked up? Throw them away like you would with regular black plastic, though that is an expensive choice since biofilms are pricier than black plastic mulch. Philosophically, trashing biofilms over black plastic might seem attractive simply because the films are compostable under ideal composting practices and so they might break down in the landfill (though that is not an ideal composting situation). Truthfully, it is not easy to pick them up. Regular black plastic takes time to pull up and can definitely break apart but biofilms start breaking down within a single growing season and as soon as you grab some, bits break off.

overwintering onions

Regular Plastic Mulch

While we’ve never purchased black plastic mulch, we were given a roll with our mulch layer and are used it last fall for overwintering onions. Black plastic mulch and black biofilms are comparable in terms of weed suppression, soil warming, moisture-conservation, and reduction of nutrient leaching.  Since many organic farmers have purchased expensive, mechanical mulch layers in order to lay their biofilms, the easiest thing for them to do is switch to regular plastic mulch (or sell their mulch layers).

Black plastic burdens landfills. Some landfills have stopped accepting plastic mulch while in other regions recycling programs have been created for black plastic waste (though it’s still cumbersome and expensive to transport). There is also the fact that some soil and crop residues are removed with the mulch.  While the volume of soil and organic matter removed may seem small on any given sheet of plastic, it definitely adds up and works against what organic farmers are trying to do, which is build their soils. This plastic not only ends up in landfills (which would be the ideal scenario for it), it also frequently gets burned (air pollution) or gets blown or washed away (80% of plastics in oceans comes from agriculture).

geotextile

Landscape fabric/Geotextile

In previous years, we’d only used landscape fabric between widely-spaced crops like tomatoes and winter squash. The narrow space between the 2 sheets of fabric serves as the row, which we mulched heavily with compost to inhibit weeds. This system has worked well. There was only one weed to pull from our winter squash field last season! We knew of many other farmers who used it for tighter spaced crops with success by burning holes at the proper spacing (cutting it leads to unravelling of the woven plastic) which we tried this year for cut flowers.  Increased use of landscape fabric is likely on our farm though we have heard concerns about plant diseases remaining in the landscape fabric since it is reused each year and difficult to sanitize.  A great benefit to the landscape fabric is that it breathes and rain can be absorbed in the soil underneath it. If you take care of it, it can last for 10 years or more.

Roller Crimper

Rolling/Crimping Winter Rye

We’ve been interested in the idea of rolling or crimping cover crops to create mulch. As small, diversified farmers, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to invest in a roller crimper to attach to the back of our tractor, especially before knowing how this might fit into our overall system. So, after hearing the idea from a friend in the States, we tried using our tractor-mounted rototiller as a roller crimper. The idea is to use the rototiller without the PTO turned on and just ground drive the rototiller over the rye after pollen shed (when it can be killed by crimping the stems). 2015 was our 2nd season trying it. We found we needed to go over the rye twice about a week apart to kill it (two passes is also typical for a roller crimper). We ended up having too many weeds like dandelion that came through the mulch so decided not to plant into it but this was due to our initial bed prep prior to seeding the rye rather than it not being a worthwhile activity. This would really only work in our region (Atlantic Canada) for late-season plantings since the stage where rye can be killed happens later in the season (early-July) in our region. It also doesn’t contribute to warming the soil at all; in fact, it keeps the soil temperature cooler.

Winter Rye

Mowing Winter Rye

This year we also experimented with mowing some overwintered rye after pollen shed. It died off and left a nice residue into which we transplanted fall kohlrabi and cauliflower. We transplanted half our planting into a regular raised bed that had been tilled. It was not easy to transplant into the mowed rye and we needed trowels to create the holes for the transplants. The plants and yields were later and smaller overall in the no-tilled beds. I think next time we would increase the spacing of the plants in the no-till beds (from 18 inches to 24 inches or more).

We’re also planning on trying to solarise some overwintered rye next spring while it’s still short (with clear plastic though we may also use some black silage tarp to see how they compare) and then plant into that once the rye has been killed.

Protektnet

Paper-based mulches

We were interested in a product called Weed Guard Plus, which is a paper-like product and is the only OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) approved mulch in the U.S. The soil warming properties are lower than with black or clear biofilms but it does inhibit weeds. However, the company Weed Guard Plus has not applied for their product to be certified as allowable in organic agriculture in Canada due to the added costs and paperwork required. They don’t think the potential Canadian market is worth it at this time and their current Canadian distributors haven’t asked for them to certify it. Another downside of this product is the cost which is higher than biofilms. The rolls are also heavier and so costs of shipping to Canada would also be higher. I’ve heard conflicting reports on how easily the paper mulch can be layed with a mechanical mulch layer with some saying it’s a challenge and others saying it works fine as long as you take pressure off the wheels.

We’ve trialed some this year in a perennial flower bed (since flowers are not approved for organic certification in Canada anyway). It’s too soon for us to say whether we like it or not yet.

If you think this is a weed management tool Canadian organic farmers should be able to use, I encourage you to contact both the company (Weed Guard Plus) and the Canadian distributors of it (Vesey’s) and tell them you want it to be certified as allowable in Canada!

Mulching with other materials

Many people mulch with straw or hay though there are downsides like keeping the soil cool (which can be an upside but not as a replacement for biofilms), being a haven for slugs and rodents, being inaccessible or expensive to find organically and being either labour-intensive or needing specific machinery to apply. We have used compost to strip mulch single rows between landscape fabric for crops that are planted farther apart (winter squash, summer squash, melons, tomatoes) which worked really well for keeping the weeds down. Despite it being a pricier and more labour-intensive practice, we are very interested in increasing our use of compost as mulch to replace biofilms. The benefits extend beyond weed management and increased soil temperature to increasing soil organic matter and providing opportunities for non-mechanized no-till (a la Singing Frogs Farm in California).

Discontinue Organic certification

I’ve spoken with some farmers who feel that biofilms are still the best option for their production system and that discontinuing their use would reduce the profitability of their farm business too much, in terms of labour savings with regard to weeding, and removing the plastic at the end of the season. In order to keep using biofilms and to continue tilling it into the soil after use, these farmers are considering discontinuing their organic certification. There are many farmers in the U.S. who followed that path when they weren’t allowed to use biofilms, feeling that plastic mulch was less of an “organic” option on principle. These farmers tended to be direct-marketers who could explain to their customers why they felt using the biofilms was important to them and how it fit with their values.

rototilling

Physical cultivation/weeding

This is of course the old stand-by. And the use of biofilms hasn’t replaced the need to weed. There are still plenty of crops that are not being grown with mulches. The reason so many farmers have been happy to use these mulches is due to the high labour or machinery costs of weeding and cultivating. Organic farming has been criticized for its high use of physical weed control which disturbs the soil biology and organic matter (exposing carbon molecules to the air, where they combine with oxygen to create carbon dioxide). Many organic farmers have been trying to move towards reduced tillage systems. Organic farmers have been using many weed management practices very successfully, including the use of cover crops, crop rotations, stale seed bedding, solarisation (clear tarps to burn weeds and weed seeds), occultation (black tarps to exclude light) and flame weeding. Biofilms and other mulches haven’t replaced the need for these techniques, rather they reduced the associated labour for certain crops.Farm sunsetUltimately, for our farm, no single method or product is going to be able to replace the benefits we thought we had with biofilms- there are no quick fixes or easy answers.

Our goal is to produce nutrient-rich food for the human species while minimizing harm to other species. And that is not easy (the general food-producing systems of our world have mostly done the opposite). This is why organic food costs more and why it should cost more. We’re not taking the path of least resistance; we’re recognizing that this planet is only ours to respectfully share.

 

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Do You Prefer Fast Food or Slow Food?

All photos in this blog post taken by Sonia Marwick.

slow food

Have you ever even heard of Slow Food?

Slow Food is a movement that Bryan and I really get behind. It’s a movement towards food (and a food system) that is Good, Clean, and Fair.

These 3 simple words (good, clean, and fair) will mean different things to different people.

To me, good food is nourishing, beautiful, flavourful, and thoroughly enjoyed.

To me, clean food is grown and distributed and prepared in ways that respect and honour the people who will eat the food as well as honouring  the beings (human and non) whose community (including air, soil, water, and habitat) and life was affected by the growing/distribution/preparation of that food.

To me, fair food means that eaters truly value what it took for them to be able to eat this food. This translates directly to our personal career as farmers…that farmers (and fisherfolk and foragers) should be respected and valued. As well as all farm workers along the chain of production. And then taking it down the line, to the food distributers, to the food processors, to the restaurant employees (including the fast food restaurant employees), and grocery store employees. Fair food means asking the questions, Are people paid a fair and liveable wage? Are people treated fairly when they’re sick and shouldn’t be working? Are people worked to the bone, are they always stressed out? Is that industry known for its mental health issues and its suicides? How can we make a positive change when choosing the food we buy?

To really be mindful of as much of the whole picture of the food each person eats is what slow food is about for me. And knowing that your knowledge and mindfulness can only develop further. None of us can see the whole picture behind everything we eat right now. But it’s fun and empowering to keep learning!

And then to really savour, appreciate, and adore every bite we take! For me, at this time in my life, this is Slow Food.

Slow Food is a movement that has been gaining ground since the late 80s. It all started in Italy when people there were getting riled up by food system issues….including the growing presence of fast food restaurants in their country, so renowned around the world for their food culture.

Their aim: “To counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how food choices affect the rest of the world.”

Instead of just saying what they didn’t want, they said, here is what we DO want.

 

Slow Food Canada

Recently, we attended a potluck of our local Slow Food Chapter (Slow Food Northumberland Shore). It was my kind of party. It happened in the middle of the day (which we love since we’re early to bed, early to rise kind of people) and everyone brought delicious food…..food that was, to them, Good, Clean, and Fair. It was awesome to sit around together at the beautiful property of Bay Entreprises (who sustainably raise Malagash oysters), right on the Malagash Bay and know that anyone I talked to was going to have a lot of the same food priorities as me and we could start our friendship with that in common. The picture at the top of this post, of the salad topped with many edible flowers was the dish we brought.

sustainable shellfish

I mentioned the potluck was at Bay Entreprises….and we were treated to the most delicious oysters! They’ve been farming Malagash, Tata and Tatamagouche Bay oysters and quahogs since 1899!!!

It was a wonderful lunch with great conversations and a presentation from the NS Slow Food youth representative to We Feed the Planet in Milan last fall.

Slow Food Nova Scotia exists to honour the tradition of experiencing the taste of local food in a social and convivial atmosphere through excursions to farms, special dinners, tastings and public projects.

So, members get together at their local Slow Food events, but globally Slow Foodies also get together, every 2 years at Terra Madre Salone del Gusto in Italy. And this year, I’ve been selected as a Canadian delegate! It’s been a dream of mine for a long time and I finally get to go this September. I’ll definitely write up lessons learned and take lots of pictures to share on the blog.

If you’re interested in Slow Food, you can check out the international website and facebook page.

The Canadian Slow Food website and facebook page.

The Slow Food Northumberland Shore website and facebook page.

The Slow Food Nova Scotia website and facebook group.

The Slow Food Cocagne Acadie website and facebook page.

And the Slow Food Youth Canada facebook page.

 

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The Eastern Alternative

Warren Robertson

Last month, an awesome guy named Warren came out to the farm to interview us and take shots for this really cool TV show he makes called The Eastern Alternative.

The show is all about people living in Atlantic Canada and why they stay here rather than leave. In Warren’s own words,

“Every other day you hear or read another depressing article about the Atlantic Provinces and the out migration of people in search of economic opportunity. Well, this show’s purpose is to tell the stories of the people that are here, why they’re here and what they are doing to make it work.

It is my belief that the people that are here, are here for good reason. These shows are my efforts to try and change the conversation and celebrate what these great provinces have to offer.”

Well, the episode is now out and Warren did a great job making our farm look good and editing out any stammers or stumbles as we rambled on about our farm.

I always love seeing shots from above and Warren took some great ones with the drone he brought along. You can also see me herding our ducks!

Check it out by clicking here. And then watch all the other great shows he’s made!

And here is a beautiful shot of our greenhouse that Warren took and posted on The Eastern Alternative facebook page, which I highly recommend you follow to keep up to date on each new episode as it comes out.

greenhouse

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