Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Food Security in Bloom

I blossomed along last night to catch Michael Ableman speak on Thinking Like an Island: Food Security and Sustainability, as part of the art gallery's Art in Bloom series. The promo promised we'd hear about how "thinking like an island means minimizing reliance on “off-island” resources."

And indeed it was so. It was a lively, passionate and articulate talk, presenting alternatives for a sustainable future, "where communities develop their own full cycle food systems and city planners integrate food production into new developments." Ableman speaks with authority, from the foundations of a lifetime spent farming and driving urban agriculture programs (like SOLEfood in East Vancouver), which he now does from Foxglove Farm on Salt Spring Island.

On Salt Spring, he said, there are the problems we all share today: utter dependence on fossil fuel and the automobile and imported food; and like many other urban centres, even this island has its share of poverty and food insecurity, well hidden from public view.

Think of Earth as an island floating in a sea of space, he suggested; perhaps if we thought of it that way we might take better care of it.But it all starts with food: nothing is more basic to our needs, and yet we've handed over that responsibility to others, and we’re seeing the results in soil loss, water contamination, obesity, health problems of many kinds.

But islands of farming - for every farm should be as self-contained, self-sufficient and self-renewing as an island - nowadays have ecological and educational roles as well as to feed a predominantly urban world.

His deepest message for the future of food security has to do with education. We can learn to build food security by growing our own gardens: people need the knowledge as well as the means and land to produce some part of the food supply. We can secure it for the future by cultivating those skills in our children, who will after all reap the fruits of our time, so they might as well learn to grow vegetables while they're at it.

While you can’t impose changes on those who don’t understand the value of food, you can teach children in schools - where the curriculum needs to cover all aspects of food production with the same importance currently given to math and history. Moreover, every school should restructure its approach to food procurement, and make use of its off-duty kitchens for neighbourhood food processing and preservation.

On land tenure, a much discussed obstacle to new farmers, he proposes different models of ownership. It's wrong, he said, that the only qualification you need for this at present is capital, when stewardship is the more important quality for custodians of this essential resource.

If we are all just passing through, all that remains is the land: we owe it to the future to leave it more fertile than we found it. Land ownership, particularly of parcels of 5 acres or more, should be tied to requirements to learn how to rebuild the soil for growing. But for any new development, building permits should include food production component in proportion to population they support; industrial buildings should be required to have rooftop growing spaces.

He suggests that the armed forces should be put to work restoring growing land and our railway system. Because a local diet is not necessarily an inclusive or varied one, particularly in northern areas, we need to make use of regional foodsheds and transportation is central to providing the population. Rail is the most cost and energy-efficient way to do that.

He paused to throw a few cautions in about phosphorus, one of the three essential components in plant nutrition (along with nitrogen and potassium). Commercial farming uses about 90% of mined phosphorus in agricultural production: this includes, of course, biofuels. Phosphorus is another nonrenewable resource which is due to become scarce, and Ableman feels it's the elephant in the room, and it's going to be the next thing worth fighting for. He suggested we check out which countries hold reserves of it. The answer is: China (which has just upped the price so as to conserve supplies for its own use); the US (will run out in 25 years); and, sadly for Africa, Africa.

He mentioned some lectures he'd given on the Hawaiian Islands for the Center for Ecoliteracy. Hawaii used to be a model of self sufficiency, where the population's role in relation to the environment that supplied its food supply was fully understood; where it was appreciated that the survival of each of us is inextricably tied to one another and the world around us: and that what we do in the way of harvesting seafoods, for example, affects the survival of our community in the long term. But that knowledge has been lost and Hawaii now imports 80% of its food and suffers the same associated problems as everywhere else.

He spoke as well of time he spent as a teenager in Jamaica, and how that island too now relies upon imported food; and in its altered agriculture, geared to supply global markets, has lost what he calls its "national wealth" - the flavour of its fruits.

He quipped that it's time farmers received the same rock star status that chefs do; but then again, farming is not a spectator sport. People who don't want to farm should make friends with a farmer: you will need them. And speaking of rocks, he has a fine idea for soil replenishment, which is that every community should have a rock grinder, to enable us to replenish soil minerals by creating our own rock dust.

The bottom line: though it's encouraging to see how many people want to eat well and locally today, there simply aren't enough of us doing the hands-on work of growing food. We have a couple of generations of people now who know no more than how to push keys on a keyboard. We need to consider what we’ll depend on when we can’t depend on technology, for the skills we'll require to survive on this earth include growing food and restoring the soil.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Food Poetry Tour of Saskatchewan 2011

Just wanted to let you all know to let all your Saskatchewanian friends know that I'll be reading from my new food poetry chapbook, The Earth's Kitchen (soon to be published by Leaf Press) at the following venues in April.

Please pass it on!

Sunday, April 17 at 8:00 pm at Tonight it's Poetry (TiP)
at Lydia's Pub, 650 Broadway Avenue, Saskatoon
TiP's Facebook page has more details about the series; up and comers are invited to sign up for the Community Stage.

Tuesday, April 19 at 7:30 pm at Reid Thompson Public Library
705 Main Street (next door to City Hall) Humboldt
306-682-2034 for more info, or check the library's Facebook page.

Sunday, April 24 at 7:00 pm at Vertigo Reading Series
Orange Izakaya, 2136a Robinson Street, Regina
Vertigo's Facebook page has more details about the series.

Friday, March 25, 2011


The llengths some of us will go to in order to reap a few veg was demonstrated last weekend when we trekked through a damp field of llamas

to procure a nice bit of dung.

It's said to be the best kind of manure to add to your garden because it doesn't need composting. It's not too hard to shovel. And it doesn't smell too bad at all, either. Reasonably organic as well, since these llamas

are not fed on medicated feed, which is often the case with other types of manure, such as horse.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Farmer2Farmer in Saanich

Wednesday I joined - at a guess - around 70 farmers from Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands for a Farmer 2 Farmer information exchange. Bob Maxwell, Linda Geggie and Barbara Brennan

introduced the day, and then Pat Reichert

of Island Natural Growers on Salt Spring Island kicked off with a keynote address. She talked about her research into food production on Salt Spring, a task she describes as "not for the faint of heart, or those with short attention spans". She found that around 96% of the produce consumed there is imported; and that the change to BC's meat regulations had a devastating effect on Salt Spring meat production which dropped 50% in the face of requirements to ship all animals off the island for slaughter and butchery.

Island Natural Growers created a demo project - Farm Food Link - to help local organic growers distribute their products to local businesses and institutional buyers on Salt Spring. It's now a going concern called Growing Up Organic. ING has also partnered with the local Farmers Institute and the Chamber of Commerce, Salt Springers for Safe Food and the Earth Festival Society to form the Salt Spring Food Alliance. They've achieved much in a short time through an over-arching Infrastructure Project. There's a packing and distribution centre in the works, which would provide a central point for small farms to ready their goods for market; an abattoir project, which will provide a mobile abattoir offering both slaughtering and butchery services for Salt Spring (to be shared with Pender Island); and a community compost project. There's a land lease project in the works as well to improve access to affordable farming land on the island.

Thus inspired, we were invited to join a couple of sessions on topics ranging from Increasing Profitability through specialization? Diversification? Both? to Emerging Food and Ag Business Opportunities in the Region to Integrated Pest Management: What’s bugging you?.

I was at the Pollination Power talk, where we heard from pollinator activist Nathalie Chambers and beekeeper Ed Banas.

Nathalie Chambers' monumental fundraising efforts to save Madrona Farm have been followed by work with The Land Conservancy where she leads the Pollinator Enhancement Program. Wild bees, she said, are under some of the same threats that are decimating honeybees: loss of habitat and nectar sources, diseases and pesticide use.

She proposes three simple steps that everyone can take to improve the lot of pollinators:
  1. To feed all types of pollinators, ensure there is adequate pollen and nectar available from February to November: native plants are very helpful for this, because native bees are 4 times more attracted to native species than to introduced plant varieties. Native species are also timed to flower in succession: which is something farmers should aim for when planning cover crops as well.
  2. Provide habitat: 70% of bees are solitary ground nesters: the dirt “volcanoes” you may see in the ground indicate their presence. Keep an area of exposed soil undisturbed for them (they like south facing sandy slopes too). Another 30% of bees live in trees, stumps and snags – so leave some of those.
  3. There's a knowledge gap between scientists and the wider community: but the simple fact is that most pesticides are lethal to invertebrates. She urged us to check out Xerces.org to learn more about organic pest management techniques. She recommended looking into this Wikileaks article which explains the deliberate approval of a pesticide known to be toxic to bees.
Ed Banas talked about pollination from a honey bee keeper's perspective; about the hazards we create by a fondness for pristine lawns (dandelions and white clover are excellent food sources for bees). And it's not just the immediate deaths from pesticide spraying that are problematic, he noted, but the generational deaths that follow, when contaminated nectar and pollen are taken back to the hive and fed to the more vulnerable young. He also talked about the crippling effects of using coated seeds, which are treated with fungicides and/or insecticides; when they germinate, they exude a kind of sugar that bees take back to the hive together with its hidden load of pesticides. Corn is particularly often treated, but so are many other seeds: he strongly advises people check seed packs to make sure they're uncoated.

There was a break and time for another couple of sessions. I dropped into Marketing-it’s about relationships? where there was much talk about the ins and outs of blogs, websites and social media; and Random Acts of Agriculture - which was a forum to share ideas and innovations. The latter group had some interesting ideas to float: Nathalie Chambers told us of her "Random acts of cooking" - a dream of travelling from farm to farm on a truck with a coleman stove and picnic table, ready to cook up produce right on the farm, to show people how good and easy fresh food can be (she did this to enthusiastic response at Madrona's farm stand until VIHA caught a whiff and shut it down).

Other suggestions included telling consumers that eating good, local, organic food is within reach of almost everyone: you don't need to commit all your resources, or blow your whole income on food, but buying just a little - a flat of organic blueberries here, a few heads of lettuce there, a pound of local garlic - from a lot of farmers would help them enormously. There was some puzzlement by the farmers present over the misperception that supporting businesses like the Red Barn and the Root Cellar was equated with supporting local growers, when both of these outlets import most of their stock. They were also peeved by the latter's marketing slogan (“Farm Fresh, Dirt Cheap”) which is simply untrue as people should know by now: good food costs more, and cheap food really isn't. Don't worry, said someone, the global economy will take care of that: once cheap oil is taken out of the equation, the profit margin won't be so attractive for imported food.

A couple of the farmers talked about grain growing on Vancouver Island. One, a hay producer, explained that the market for hay has tanked and that the Island's hay fields could easily be converted to grain growing, but there's a lack of infrastructure for other aspects of the process, like milling and grain storage.

Unfortunately taking all that in meant missing Mary Alice Johnson's talk about Land Leasing and LLAFF (Linking Land and Future Farmers): a regional land registry and database to link up those looking for land with those who have land they wish to share or lease.

After lunch there were roundtable sessions, giving a bit more time for questions and answers about growing new farmers, marketing, government funding, agricultural infrastructure and more. A lively and useful day... may there be more!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

March work party at Haliburton

Things are well at Haliburton Farm where I joined the Saturday work party. Seedlings are thriving and will soon be on sale or in the ground.

Having learned, I suspect, the lessons of the fall of Sumerian civilisation (brought about by soil salination caused by poor drainage in an area of rapid evaporation) the farmers are putting lots of drainage in the fields this year.

Gord Hutchings was there for a few hours, offering a native pollinator workshop, and installed a mason bee barn on the property to provide housing for lots of orchard mason bees.

Meanwhile we went in search of invasive species to pull

and found lots of Daphne (spurge) laurel, the scourge of Victoria (alongside the scourges of Himalayan blackberry, broom, English ivy, morning glory/bindweed, holly, garlic mustard, and... a few others).

Discovered that the black sheep standing hopefully at the other side of the fence had a taste for ivy and blackberry leaves (not Daphne which is toxic) and took care of some of that for us. Patches kept watch, as a watchdog should:


Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Moratorium on GM Alfalfa: last day to write the committee

Last day for Canadians to write to the committee members of the House of Commons Agriculture Committee who vote on a motion for a moratorium on the approval of GM alfalfa. CBAN has ready made letters you can send to each of the committee members. Once case where a little action can help a lot!

Here are some cheesy bees to encourage you...

Monday, March 07, 2011

Organics ABC

I spent much of this past weekend at the COABC (Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia) annual conference which was conveniently held in Sidney and attracted some great speakers and lots of friendly farm folk, with tasty organic fare to fuel the conversation ("When was the last time you saw organic milk at a conference?" we marvelled in the coffee queue; "This would be a first" we agreed.)

The two headliners for my interests were Chris Thoreau, an urban farmer from Vancouver, speaking about how to make money from farming in cities, and Todd Kabaluk, a researcher from Agriculture Canada, speaking on current research into wireworm.

Thoreau's talk on Friday night promised to go beyond community gardens to explore some of the economic aspects of urban farming. An entrepreneurial bent is needed to make money from farming in the city, and Thoreau's aim is to prove it's a viable economic model for some, both by farming himself and by creating an urban farming network in Vancouver (where there are 19 urban farms - comparing poorly with the 700+ that now exist in Detroit .. but on the other hand, there is - let us be grateful - not the same degree of vacant lots in Vancouver)

City FarmBoy is believed to be the longest standing urban farmer in Vancouver, farming 14 backyards and one rooftop. Farmers on 57th work with residents of the George Pearson Centre providing food and involvment to people living in the facility. Thoreau's own business, My Urban Farm: small scale sunflower sprouts delivered by bicycle. SOLEfood has literally taken over a parking lot on East Hastings, with the help of a grant from the city to set up. They use raised beds to grow food to sell at high end restaurants, farmers market, recreation centres and so on, using the proceeds to hire people and train farmers.

And then there was a reception, featuring Crannog Ales and Summerhill wines.

Friday night nibbles included...

On Saturday, we had opening addresses from Dag Falck,

of Nature's Path, explaining the negative effect that "natural" food branding is having on certified organic food sales. He pointed out that only half a percent of all farmland in North America is under organic cultivation, which means that shortages of organic ingredients are imminent if the sector continues to grow. There is a widespread misunderstanding of the meaning of the term - led by marketing - that leads the public to pay a premium for goods made from agricultural products that are - and cost- exactly the same as conventional products. There is a white paper on the subject, from COTA (Canadian Organic Trade Association).

Alex Atamanenko

spoke about organic items topical in Ottawa, including Bill C-474. There is still a shred of hope around the topic, with a new campaign to support a moratorium on GM alfalfa in Canada. He addressed the worrying elements in CETA (Canada–European Union) trade negotiations that threaten seed-saving, and later confirmed what I'd heard about the first-time inclusion of municipal level obligations that could end institutional support for local foods (the proposed changes would "prohibit municipalities from using procurement for sustainable development purposes such as promoting food security by adopting “buy local” food practices"). So lobbying is suggested at the municipal as well as federal level.

I went on to a talk abou soil ecology and alternative mulches for organic blueberry production; basically a discussion about traditional use of sawdust vs composts. One of the reasons was to reduce the loss or injury of plants through plant-parasitic nematodes, which can more easily be kept in check by natural predators such as those found in soil enriched with organic matter.

Then there was a coffee break

and I skipped out to do some errands. After a vibrant lunch

there was a panel on Community Farms, land leasing and other ownership models with Jen Cody of Growing Opportunities; Nichola Walkden of The Land Conservancy; and Heather Pritchard of Farm Folk City Folk. There was a lot of discussion about the ins and outs of land tenure when working with a collective or community model; issues to do with zoning, neighbours and conditions of tenancy.

Then it was time to turn to the most evil insect of them all. Todd Kabaluk gave a thorough consideration to the life and times of the wireworm, mortal enemy to all potato growers and many others besides. As has been previously discussed here, it's a long-lived pest with a big hunger and an undiscriminating palate; laying waste to seedlings and rendering root vegetables unsaleable. There are no known enemies, though research is looking for these; and it's hard to kill since its whiskers allow it to whisk up and down in the soil, so you can't be sure exactly where it is. As Kabaluk wryly observed, "Wireworms are where you find them".

One place you will certainly find them is in forage crops/ set-aside/ any longer-term grass (like lawns and turf) where moisture levels are steady and there's lots of food in the roots of grasses. Till that under and you move the grass and the wireworm beneath the soil; when the grass decomposes, and the wireworm loses its food source, you have created a situation where the wireworm must seek a new food source. If you've planted a crop, expect visitors, as they're attracted to the CO2 emitted by the roots.

Although some useful research has been done - involving brown mustard as a rotation crop; use of aromatic oils like citronella; and use of a fungal biological control - there is no quick fix available yet. Kabaluk is focusing on better methods of monitoring their numbers (to reduce the need, e.g., for corn farmers to automatically treat seed with clothianidin even where wireworm numbers are not known). The best summary he could recommend of non-chemical treatments is this article from 2008.

Supper was good and featured lots of salmon from Sointula, as well as local cheese and charcuterie. And a very nice apple and berry crumble to finish.

A last look at the silent auction items

- I was outbid on everything (luckily) - and some jolly tunes from the Jugbandits, and that was it for me. I couldn't make it to the Sunday sessions as I had a bee talk to attend.

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Friday, March 04, 2011

More on farmland/cityland

Following on the heels of the Farmlands Dispute program, here's a video about a long-running local battle for farmland south of Vancouver. The current owner is a developer..

"Saving the Southlands" tells the story of the 30-year battle to protect a 500-acre parcel of prime farmland in Tsawwassen from proposed housing development - set against the backdrop of an emerging food security crisis in BC. The film features a number of Tsawwassen residents, Richmond City Councillor and ALR co-founder Harold Steves, agrologist Arzeena Hamir, and also profiles several local community farming success stories. Funded entirely by local citizens, a number of whom were also involved in the production, its release comes in the midst of a landmark public hearing after which council will vote on whether to apply to the Agricultural Land Commission to return the Southlands to the ALR. The property was removed 30 years ago under questionable evidence, but has remained protected by its municipal agricultural zoning thus far. Owner Century Group has been ramping up its efforts over the past year to get that changed. Now inclusion in the ALR could finally bring this saga to a close, opening the door to other potential models, such as a land trust with urban farming and nature conservancy components, favoured by many in the community.
- Common Sense Canadian

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Farm/city overlap and Suzuki's Top 10 seafood

Yesterday's episode of CBC's The Current included a segment called Farmland Disputes, a discussion of what happens to farms that are swallowed by cities. It's uncomfortable territory.

There is no doubt we need to protect growing land for food, but those lands, particularly when they are overtaken by the city limits, are too expensive for farmers to buy, particularly when farmers are paid so badly - and in careers that lack pension plans. When retirement comes, many of our aging farmers hope to sell their land, or rezone it for development, in order to make up a retirement fund. But that takes more land out of the food production picture. The program reported that
  • Only 6% of Canada's land is suitable for farming
  • Class 1 farmland, on which you can grow almost any crop, makes up about .5% of the total
  • Between 1971 and 2001, Canada permanently lost 14,000 square kilometres of its best farmland to urban growth
  • Almost half of Canada's urban land is sitting on dependable farmland
  • The population of all our cities is growing beyond the limits of existing housing
Where land is being protected - and developers do tend to be winning the battles - much of the land sits idle, because there are not enough new farmers. And aspiring farmers often cite the cost of land as one of their chief obstacles. Until we have governments that back farming and promote a national food policy, we'll go on losing land. Meanwhile, we must sit watching it slip away until the crisis point is passed.

Turning one's worried face to the sea, here's another handy fridge guide for sustainable seafood, courtesy David Suzuki: