Organizing the organic oligarchy

As we toured the Production Garden with Adam Shaikh the Market Gardener of Linnaea Farm, we were treated to exemplary permaculture designs in action. With meticulous records to back him up, Adam walked us through the garden from veggie starts in the greenhouse to the full crop rotation system occurring throughout the acre already buzzing with bees, humans, and birds of all kinds.

Adam spoke to us of the ups and downs of making your living off the land… then we helped him weed the garden, of course!

But something lurked beneath this idyllic scene. Adam spoke of the difficulties with obtaining and maintaining organic certification recognized through a governing body, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

The CFIA operates legislation enacted in 2009 to monitor and enforce Organic Products Regulations. The CFIA accredits (for-profit) certification bodies who have the power to classify products as organic or otherwise.

No longer a trust-based agreement, the organic certification grew to be overseen by higher governing bodies, while the gap between farmer and consumer has also grown steadily.

Supply and demand means even massive retailers such as Walmart have brought in organic produce. Customers are willing to pay more for organic groceries, meaning this is big business in action. Agriculture is a massive industry, but organic sales in Canada alone were almost $3 billion dollars in 2012, reaching almost $US 63 billion globally in 2011. Consumer demands are growing, and some predict the desire for an organic industry may overpower what certified organic growers can produce. People generally believe, often without merit, that organic food is higher in safety, nutrition, and health benefits. Of course there are many real benefits to eating organic, but on a multinational scale is when things go awry. This can lead to profitable corporations manipulating consumers through the lobbying the regulatory process and taking advantage of legal loopholes (such as when tap water was certified organic by the USDA).

What does this mean for small-scale farmers? To certify your farm as organic necessitates an increase in annual expenses, paperwork and all the bureaucracy involved with a third-party determining you’re worthy of an organic designation. And yet often organic certification lacks robust testing to ensure complete lack of pesticides in products that have paid the hefty premium to be included in the exclusive organic club.

Market gardeners such as Adam have resorted to relying on their unique name brand rather than following an overarching governing body who determines the qualifications across a massive industry in an even larger country. “People know Linnaea Farm produce” says Adam. Linnaea Farm has a well-deserved reputation which helps sell their products throughout the year at both local markets and through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, valuable sources of income for the resident stewards of the land. This method of growing local economies works to strengthen food security and engage relationships between farmers and consumers that can be lost in the growing demands for year-round produce regardless of season.


Moo-ving Through The Pastures

The threatening effects of climate change are becoming glaringly obvious – one only needs to look to the devastation from this year’s El Nino in Asia and Africa to get an idea of what’s becoming the new norm. With concerns being raised about how we care for the earth and each other (coincidently, 2 out of 3 permaculture ethics), solutions in all manner of design and creativity sprout. Meatless Monday was proposed to reduce meat consumption to slow demand on an industry heavy on water, waste, land, and other inputs. A vegetarian lifestyle is commendable by many notions; however, if one begins to source their meat-free products from across the globe to suit their exclusive palate, how sustainable really is that lifestyle?

On Cortes Island, we were introduced to a local lifestyle where there’s a place for both plants and animals. In fact, they complement and depend on each other! Tamara McPhail, the Executive Director of the Linnaea Farm Society, practices a system of ruminant forage use called managed intensive rotational grazing … in simpler terms, you move the cows where you want them to eat grass that day! By controlling and shifting the small area where the herd roams, we can choose where they eat and poop. This thins out the grass without leaving the ground bare, while concurrently depositing manure throughout the area. Eventually, these outputs all contribute to a successful closed loop system seen in action at Linnaea.

The herd is almost certainly wondering why 24 people just showed up to join their ranks. Probably nervous we would take all the best buttercup forage.

Various livestock herds have provided support to their leafy counterparts over the years. Each species provides a valuable lesson on how it may fit into an already bustling web of relationships between flora, fauna, fowl, and of course those humans. Pigs? Too big, they can trample the ground to oblivion. Sheep? Sometimes they find a taste for those delicious fruit trees we also love. Goats? Yet to be attempted. Right now, the herd of cows found in the pastures are the right fit for Linnaea. There’re not without their challenges: the morning I showed up to milk big Jazzy, the herd had found an ingenious way to short-circuit the electric fence and hop over to a previously ungrazed area. We found them happily munching away on prime grass real estate, looking a little bewildered at their success. Herding animals that literally weigh a ton back into their allotted pasture at 7am was an interesting way to start the day!  Regardless, their outputs all the way into their eventual slaughter are a valuable asset to the farm. In terms of food security, I admire this system for its small-scale locality, especially when Cortes Island’s remote location is considered. Their design is generally stable and sustainable, yet is also adaptable. Minimizing waste, creating logical food systems, and sharing the eventual surplus is one path to fixing some of the planet’s wounds we have inflicted through our capitalist market and increasingly globalized, decentralized, & multinational trade.

Tamara’s further recommended reading: Fertility Pastures, by Newman Turner


Re-imagining forestry

As the ES 470 class toured around Cortes Island, we heard again and again the importance of community for support, decision-making, and initiative. The history of forestry on the island presents many “powerful community stories”, as told to us in part by biologist Sabina Leader-Mense. She gave us a short summary of the logging history here as we trekked through Hank’s Beach Forest Conservation Park. Many acres of privately managed forest lands were divested and liquidated through several corporate owners such as Island Timberlands as the market shifted over the years. In cases such as Hank’s Beach, conservation buyers bought the land. The Land Conservancy of British Columbia holds the covenant to the area which now boasts a management plan within the Regional District Park in perpetuity, an “incredible community legacy” as Sabina notably stated.

Sabina is more than just a biologist. A resident of Cortes Island, she feels a strong connection to her sense of place here. For her, it’s “a part of the whole environment you claim with your feelings”

For many “Cortesians”, it was clear that logging practices did not align with a sustainable future for the tiny island three ferries away from the mainland. For the Klahoose First Nation, whose traditional territories include Cortes Island, consultation and involvement (let alone consent!) was severely lacking from the government and private companies involved. In fact, the 300 person band blockaded an access road in 1988 to protest private clearcut logging in nearby Toba Inlet. Through many negotiations, land-use changes, a BC Supreme Court ruling, and a Treaty Interim Measure, a working agreement through BC’s Community Forest Pilot Project emerged and a Memorandum of Understand was signed in July 1999. The working arrangement signifies a 50/50 partnership between the Cortes Community Forestry Cooperative (formally the Cortes Ecoforestry Society) and the Klahoose First Nation, Together, they formed the Cortes Island Community Forest Advisory Group to apply for a 25-year Community Forest Agreement with the BC government in 2011.

Approved in 2012 through the Community Forest Agreement,  the collaborative Cortes Forestry General Partnership is responsible for 3775.5 hectares of Crown land spread throughout Cortes Island, with the possibility of 13,600 cubic metres of timber harvested annually (although this has not been yet been fully exploited).

Local management means a possibility to selectively log and plan for strategic, sustainable, and selective forestry, deemed the Community Forest Operating Plan. They have tried to follow “design by exclusion” principles, by mapping where not to go before too much gets cut. Community participation ensures those directly affected have a say in the stewardship of local resources for many years and generations to come.

Further reading:

Oliver Kellhammer & Thuja plicata (Western redcedar) in Whaletown Commons, reminding us which giants used to stand among us

“Surf the forest”

In which I quote Oliver Kellhammer excessively

Oliver introduces us to where he resides for half the year, prickly pear cactus and all

Every time Oliver Kellhammer spoke to the ES 470 class, we were clearly captivated (I assure you this isn’t the only blog post mentioning his name). He challenged our preconceived notions of land-use, invasive species, permaculture, and wildness, to name but a few. As someone who dedicated a summer to restoring endangered Garry Oak ecosystems by pulling invasive plants out of the ground, I am still pondering his views of “designer to recliner” a week later.

When Oliver suggested we surf the forest he didn’t mean we construct a new sport of duck-diving through cedar boughs and slicing turns across swales (…actually we did kind of do this when he led us through a tangled walk of his property and the nearby Whaletown Commons). By leaving his Cortes Island oasis and living half the year in bustling New York City, Oliver believes we need to “let nature do the work” for functionality, resilience, and adaptation. And he comes home to figs still growing on the deck!

Just as Oliver migrates, he asked us “how do plants migrate with people?” As city initiatives and government employees work to remove what’s deemed as invasive, unsightly, or alien, it brings up a question Oliver further thoughtfully asked us: “Who gets to decide what a place looks like?” Power dynamics and ruderal landscapes often pull our shovels in different directions when we start to assert dominance over what is legitimately native and the politics around what is allowed. “The wild is never really gone” Oliver reminded us. We cannot push it out and control true wildness, much as we try. Does it make the most sense to simply let nature be, emergent ecology and all? Eric Higgs, a UVic professor, has written extensively on novel ecosystems and their restoration implications.

Permaculture can be a form of repair, a “botanical intervention” if you will. However, it bears repeating that the “energy of wildness” is ever-present when you enter a space, no matter how urban. We’ve changed the “wildness dynamic” by fencing, landscaping, paving, and genetically modifying, but we cannot escape our “optical subconscious”, where the landscape has its own characteristics that bear advice and fruit for those who listen – the “embedded narrative”. Nature is deliberate and non-random, and Oliver convincingly spoke of how both urban and wild landscapes can be beautiful, stable, and important sources of biodiversity just the way they are. In Oliver’s words (of course), “what can I not do?” is the first question one should ask when deciding what intervention we choose and why. Perhaps “the problem is the solution” after all.

Shout-out for Oliver for being so quotable during our week on Cortes