Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Trouble for Bees

Wow, this season has been going by in a hurry. It's been a great growing season so far...fingers crossed that this continues! I've been even more lax than usual updating this blog. Running the farm on my own this year, with part-time help from my neighbour Dave, has been really great, but also super busy. And there are so many environmental issues on my mind lately that I don't even know where to begin.

For starters, below I've shared with you an article written by Pat Carson (friend from Chesley) about bees and the negative effects of neonicotinoid pesticides.

Bees are in the news if not in our gardens

This Spring I waited to see how many “candles” our Fort McNair red chestnut would produce and looked forward to the humming of happy bees as they zoomed to it. The tree flowered beautifully and I waited for the bees. They never came! I didn’t see one bee at the tree this year and in fact have seen only a handful of bees in our front yard “bee friendly, hummingbird friendly, butterfly friendly, moth friendly, frog friendly, bug friendly” garden. I wondered why and I was concerned. It seems that our bee keepers are concerned too as they have endured the loss of hundreds of thousands of bees and hundreds of hives over the past few years.
In order to educate myself on this alarming situation, I decided to attend a “bee/pollinator” workshop at River Croft Farm just outside Neustadt. The workshop was part of the 4th annual celebration of the Neustadt Community Growing Project (in conjunction with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and in support of conservation farming projects in Africa). The farm of Gary Kennedy and Deborah Kellar who hosted this event is definitely “pollinator” friendly with native plants, old fashioned perennials and giant sunflowers in abundance.
Kevin Eccles, Mayor of West Grey, welcomed us to the event and talked about changes in rural life. In his grandmother’s day, farms were “mixed” and she would preserve the bounty produced by the farm for the family’s needs in the long winter ahead. That slowly changed as agriculture and society changed after the Second World War. He notices now resurgence in that practice as people become involved in the organic food and food-to-fork movement. At the municipal level he expressed interest in the idea of native plants along road verges while consideration has to be given to the need for winter snow removal as well. “Without honey bees we don’t eat” he concluded.

The first workshop speaker was Carol Dunk, President of the Ontario Horticultural Association, who talked about the “roadside use of native plants” as well as giving us a mini-lesson in all the kinds of bees we have and how they pollinate flowers and crops. She encouraged us to reconsider our own yards by getting rid of the grass and planting a garden to provide a habitat for bees, butterflies, moths and frogs. She also encouraged us to talk with our local municipal councils as to how to make bee-friendly areas along roads and public spaces. This is something that WE can do!

The next speaker, Jim Coneybeare, is a third generation bee keeper. In the 1920s his grandfather was a bee keeper in the Leamington area. His father also kept bees until he lost 1100 hives in the mid 60s due to the intensive use of insecticides on the tomato crops there. Later the family decided to move to the Wellington County area near Fergus and things went well for 5 years until they noticed bees dying in great numbers again. The common factor seemed to be insecticide use, this time in the form of “aldrin” which, like DDT was eventually banned. (Aldrin was banned by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and was cancelled in the United States in 1974 in order to “protect plants”. It was found to be extremely toxic to trout and bluegill.) Jim has continued in his family’s tradition of keeping bees for his livelihood by moving hives to our area. His presentation was sobering, alarming and worrisome. 
Here is just some of what I learned: The suspected insecticide causing the deaths of millions of bees worldwide is a class called “neonicotinoids” – a class of neuro-active insecticides chemically related to nicotine. (“neonics” for short) It is currently the most widely used class of insecticides in the world. 98% of corn, 100% of canola, 65% of soya, 35% of wheat and winter wheat crops are all treated with “neonics”. Other crops are also treated but these ones are the big concern for bee keepers because of the huge acreage involved. These systemic insecticides are applied to the seed prior to planting and when the seed germinates some goes into the nectar, pollen and leaves. Systemic insecticides are long lived, from 200 to 1000 days. However when the ground freezes the insecticides stay in the soil, thereby overwintering for the next planting season, when more treated seeds gets planted. Only 1.6–20% of the active ingredients actually work on the intended recipient, the plant and the rest from 80-98.4% pollutes the soil and water without any intended action to the plant. Last year “experts” said that it was a “one off” year because of such dry weather but this year has been wet, and Jim Coneybeare said that 85% of his operation has been affected, compared to only 25% last year. He may be able to hang on as a bee keeper for two more years. According to Canada’s PMR (Pest Management Regulatory Agency) 75% of dead bees last year tested positive for neonicotinoids. “Sub-lethal” dosage over prolonged exposure affects both the communication and navigation systems of bees. Eventually they die. A bee hive should have about 50,000-60,000 bees but this year his hives are populated by maybe 10,000 which means they will be susceptible to winter die- off and he’s expecting a 50-60% loss over the coming winter. This class of insecticides is by volume 10,000 times more powerful than DDT in destroying insect life. One treated corn kernel ingested by a blue jay will kill it. The Ontario Bee Keepers are “seeing a wall going up protecting the continued use of neonicotinoids” and Jim doesn’t know how it’s going to be overcome without banning them. “We are not privy to the scientific data surrounding “neonicotinoid use and our efforts to rule it out are being stonewalled. What we do know is that our bees are dying in cataclysmic numbers and that the only common denominator appears to be the use of neonicotinoid insecticides. Parts per million are also showing up in water sources.” 
The final speaker was a local farmer, Nathan Carey, who has formed a group called “Friends of Pollinators”. He got involved when he noticed that his wild apple trees were”quiet” in the spring. Farming practices have changed and “integrated pest management” which had a resurgence “has been derailed by ‘neonics’ because they are so easy to use and so effective.” His conclusion though is that neonicotinoid insecticides need to be banned. “We can work through the economic issues by banning neonics BUT we need pollinators!” Questions by the 60 or so people in attendance were many. One participant stated that “We may be revisiting Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. For people who don’t know this book, it was written by an American biologist in 1962. It catalogued the environmental impacts of the indiscriminate spraying of DDT and questioned the logic of releasing large amounts of chemicals into the environment without fully understanding their effects on ecology or human health. The book suggested that DDT and other pesticides may cause cancer and that their agricultural use was a threat to wildlife, particularly birds. Eventually DDT was banned in 1972 for agricultural use in the USA and worldwide under the Stockholm Convention. In April 2013 the European member states voted to issue “a continent-wide suspension of neonicotinoid (insect nerve agents) pesticides. This is the world’s first ever continent-wide suspension on widely used pesticides alleged to cause serious harm to bees. Nathan Carey and Jim Coneybeare clearly stated that “a loud public outcry is needed” in Canada to save the bees. (and perhaps us!)

The time to create that loud public outcry is NOW. Write your Member of Parliament and MPP, write the Minister of Agriculture, write the Premier of Ontario, write Prime Minister Harper demanding a moratorium on neonicotinoids. (no stamp required!) In the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

Written by Pat Carson with thanks to friends, Gary Kenny and Deborah McKellar, for hosting this event. Check out the website of “Friends of the Pollinators – Grey-Bruce” which is a group working towards the protection of pollinators in Canada. Local organic farmer Nathan Carey has spearheaded this group: The following article in the Guardian is also worth checking out:

I've signed numerous petitions and written letters to my MP and Premier Kathleen Wynne to ban the use of these 'neonics' until further study can be made. This ban is already in place in the European Union. Yet here in Ontario, organizations like the Grain Farmers of Ontario are actually sending postcards out to their members to ask their MPs to keep seed treated with neonics available! This definitely did not please the many Ontario grain farmers who are against the use of neonicotinoid treated seeds. It seems to me that the agricultural industry will be in a lot more trouble in the long-term if pollinators are killed off, then if they use different pest management techniques than these poison seeds.

I'm trying to find a local beekeeper to keep his/her hives at my farm as I don't use any insecticides, herbicides or fertilizers, and it doesn't seem like there are many large fields planted around me with crops using neonicotinoid treated seed. My farm, with its constant flowering of various plants from spring to late fall, and relative distance from extensively chemically treated fields, would be quite a haven for struggling bees. A beekeeper will be visiting the farm on Labour Day to see if this is a good place for his hives...I'll keep you posted if honey bees will be making at home at Black Sheep Farm!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Field and Plantings

Field work this year started with a bang in late April when the weather went from very wet and cold to hot and sunny. Today's actually been the first day of real rain since the beginning of May. Before the weather change, I could barely get on the field (mostly too wet) and only managed a few stints of rock picking in drier sections of the field. It's still taking a while for the whole field to be dry enough to rototill (or get tractor disked), but luckily, I was able to rototill the southern section for all the early plantings on May 1. There have been two more sections rototilled since then, so just over 1/3 of the field is now prepped for plantings.

To get a jump on sugar snap peas, I actually wheel-hoed their bed on April 28 and hand seeded the peas...and they're up! 

They're just an inch or so out of the ground now and germination across the bed looks nice and even. Once we get past this cold weekend, they should take off! Planting #2 of the sugar snaps went in on May 8, so the successions are in the ground.

Yesterday afternoon, I wheel hoed the first sugar snap pea bed (yes, weeds are already starting to establish) and also the garlic beds (planted last October) which are looking great!

I look forward to garlic scapes in June, hopefully when vegetable package deliveries can start!

The greenhouse is full of seedling trays right now, mostly brassicas (cabbages & kales), lettuce, spring onions and cucurbits (cucumbers, summer squash, pumpkins, winter squash). All the hot crops (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, hot peppers, tomatillos) are still in the house and will be potted up and moved to the greenhouse after this next (hopefully last!) cold snap.

The leeks and onions were transplanted into the field on Wednesday this week. I won't be starting them in open trays next year but will soil block or use sectioned trays so transplanting will be much easier, and less traumatic to the plant! When I first had my onions and leeks started in a greenhouse by Elmira my first year, they seeded into open trays, and I didn't consider an alternative since. But that means transplanting is very laborious as you're fishing little leek/onion strings out of the trays to plant into the field. Blocks will be much easier in future.

This year, there are 29 vegetable types going into the field, with 102 different varieties. I've listed them all in the field plan (draft) below.

The field plan shows vegetable type, varieties, succession planting (if applicable), and whether row cover is needed (all coloured parts). I have to row cover 20 beds in the field this year, to keep flea beetle off the brassicas, and cucumber beetle off the cucurbits. Hopefully that means there will actually be cucumbers, zucchinis, squashes and pumpkins this year! I missed them so much last year, especially after all the time spent killing cucumber beetles by hand ;P

Over the years, I might come down in vegetable types and varieties, but for now, I still haven't found all my favourites. Plus, it's just fun to try out new seed varieties each year! Diversity is a key part of the risk management for the farm.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

New brochure for 2013

This is the farm's brochure for this year. I'm very lucky to have a super talented designer for a sister :)

I've also added a new 'FAQs' page (see sidebar).

Email if you're interested in subscribing for this year.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

2013 CSA Vegetable Subscriptions now available!

Agnes had twin black boy lambs on February 23!

One of them looks like he'll be turning white soon...the black just seems to be on the tips of his fleece. So far, they seem healthy and happy over at my friend Kristine's farm where they're being boarded for the winter due to last season's hay shortage. I'll be visiting them regularly to take pictures, but can't wait to bring them home once pastures are ready for grazing, hopefully in May.

The birth of little lambs is definitely a great reminder of it's vegetable CSA subscription time! The main difference this year is that I've added 'CSA' into my farm, which stands for 'Community Supported Agriculture'. For the first four years of my farm, I took on all the risk of farming myself, but after last year's drought, I realize that the farm's risk needs to be shared with its eaters.

Functionally, this doesn't change much for vegetable subscribers. They should still get the same amount of vegetables throughout the year, unless disaster strikes on the field. This doesn't mean that as the farmer, I just throw my hands up in the air and declare the season lost. I would still mitigate any drought and pest issues as I did last year and do my best to provide everyone with as many vegetables as possible (which did work out in the end for 2012). And in general, when planning the season's plantings, I always plant for much more volume than needed, and also diversify vegetable crops for risk management. I will also be buying and using a lot more row cover this year to keep off the pests. But in case there's nothing reasonable that I can do, I won't have to return subscribers' money, which has mostly already been invested into vegetable plantings in the field.

There is a flip side to this too...CSA members would also benefit from any farm bounty! So if it turns out to be a great year, you will get more vegetables than you'd expect...which you can eat, preserve, or give away to your friends, family and neighbours.

I've also made some planting changes for this year. I won't be growing spinach any more as it seems to be a really hit and miss crop for my area. Instead, I will be growing baby chard for spring, and mache for fall. I'll also be trying out collard greens, and leaving broccoli, cauliflower and brussel sprouts off the list. Sweet corn and potatoes won't be grown either this year, but I'm bringing back eggplant and sweet peppers. We'll just have to see what happens with them all!

If you're interested in joining Black Sheep Farm's CSA this year, please check out the details on the 'Subscription' and 'Vegetable List' pages and email me at

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Winter flying by!

I apologize for the extreme gap in blog's a testament to the craziness that was 2012. I went from a tough, but ultimately successful, vegetable season, to a 2.5 month dream project that's just wrapping up now.

First, last season. I think I've written enough about its difficulties, so I'll just say that many lessons have been learned (will be using a lot more row cover and mulching this year, and trying out a sticky bug trap called Tanglefoot), and in the end, we were able to provide our clients with enough vegetables for the season. Our best crops were tomatoes (many given to clients, and lots sauced and in my freezer) and surprisingly, carrots! I didn't expect the carrots to be so productive given the conditions and Jeremy and I were surprised by a final harvest of almost 400 lbs, instead of the 100 lbs that I was hoping for. I still have a few pounds left in my fridge today.

After our last vegetable delivery on Oct. 31, I spent the next few days sending the laying hens for processing and dealing with animal chores and general farm cleanup. My friend Kristine (a fellow vegetable farmer a bit further north than my farm) contacted me about partnering with her to apply for a project. For over a year now, she and I and a few others have been talking about how it would be great if we could use our academic skills to do research in sustainable agriculture and food systems, the very field in which we work as 'on the ground' farmers. Well, after a couple of weeks of proposal writing and re-writing, we submitted it and crossed our fingers. The week or so leading up to our proposal acceptance was nerve-wracking, with constant email checks to see if there was any news. And then we got the contract and hit the ground running to get all the work done in around 10 weeks.

The project itself was to set up connections between public sector buyers (daycares, homes for the aged, hospitals, schools, universities/colleges) and local producers, to increase the volume of local food purchased by these institutions. In the process, we spoke to many institutions and producers, learning about their needs and capacities, reading many papers on somewhat similar projects in Canada and the U.S., and thinking creatively about ways to address the various gaps we saw. It is certainly no easy task to increase local food purchasing at the city level, as there are many buying and cooking processes to change, and farmers will need to grow more food and invest in new processes themselves, but the city we were working for and its farmers, seem quite keen to make things work. This city has a food charter and an environmental action plan, so there's political will on the one hand and producer willingness on the other - where there's a will, there's a way! I'm definitely rooting for all parties involved as progress with them would be a great example for the rest of Ontario to follow...including my own municipality :)

Right after we wrapped up the project (at least the written part...I'm making a presentation to city council in the next few days as the final piece), I got right onto vegetable planning for this season. I felt it was a bit symbolic for me to place my seed orders for the year on Valentine's Day...a gift for this farm that I love. Next, I need to plan my field layout and schedule in the various plantings that will happen throughout the season. At the same time, marketing material needs updating. I'm aiming for a finalized subscription brochure for send out by the end of February. Then, it's tax time, which should be fairly simple as I've already reconciled all my receipts for the past year (done right after the seed orders were placed).

One thing there hasn't been much time for this winter...a few days for energy recharge after a tough season. Last season, I gave my brain and body a rest with a January of puzzle building and number crunching (I know, spreadsheet work isn't what most people consider to be restful ;P). The excitement generated from working on a project that connects farmers and institutional buyers may do the trick this year instead :)