Monday, April 22, 2019

Earth Day should be every day

Happy Earth Day everyone!

It was certainly a lovely, warm day here at the farm, one of the few we've had so far this spring. Seemed like winter wanted to hang on forever, and then of course, spring flooding from lots of rain, still frozen ground, and rapid snow/ice melt...sigh...this is why I'll be building raised beds in the vegetable garden. I always optimistically schedule my first direct seeding of sugar snap peas in the field for end of April, but that hasn't been possible for years! My fingers are crossed that with raised beds, I can actually hit that end of April seeding date next year...

I read a CBC opinion piece today saying that Earth Day is no longer relevant:
       " The planet now finds itself in grave danger. We're way beyond holding a day once a year to raise awareness on the issue. If your house is on fire, you're not going to ask the family, "Any ideas on how we should celebrate Fire Safety Day this year?""

I remember when I was a young teenager in Edmonton (where I was born), celebrating Earth Day with sincere hope for the future. I still even have an Earth Day t-shirt from then. But now I read about all that is happening in our environment, and see little to no political or social will to change things. Bumblebee species are in decline (in fact, pretty much the whole insect world). Flooding, raging fires, severe storms. Climate change used to be something that I thought we needed to be acting to prevent now, but I didn't think we'd actually be experiencing its effects within my lifetime, and I'm not expecting to die for hopefully a few more decades.

Currently, my only regular contact with the outside world (yes, farming is that isolating) is working part-time during tax season in a local tax office which has many people come in and out all day. I overhear lots of complaints about the price of gas going up from the federal carbon tax...but everyone makes sure that we've applied for their climate action incentive credit (yes, the federal government is flogging that horse, a lot). And with the shift in governments both locally and around the world to politicians who don’t want to make the drastic changes necessary to actually slow (not even halt or turn around) the climate change train wreck happening right in front of us…I’m not feeling like anyone wants to change anything at all.

Meanwhile, here at the farm, and in my growing circle of agroecological farmer friends, all we do is talk about climate change, and farming practices that will actually sequester carbon. We prioritize increasing biodiversity on our farms, and definitely don't use chemical products for killing insects or plants we don't like. We're totally into compost and all its magical effects and dream about having more livestock, so we can get more manure, so we can make more compost. This must sound so strange to most of you. Lately, I feel like an alien when socializing outside organic farming circles.

This year, I’m again the president of the National Farmers’ Union – Ontario, Local 344 for Grey County (yeah, that’s a mouthful). As a board, we decided on three priority issues for the year: climate change, indigenous solidarity, and new farmer support. With a federal election this year, we’ll be doing our best to challenge local candidates to state their positions on these topics. And we’ll be researching what parts of the Green New Deal and Leap Manifesto, the two most radical political movements in North America for divesting from oil and prioritizing climate change action, relate to farming, and what we can do now on our farms.

With my farmer friends, we dream of a world where all farming is done agroecologically, without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Where RoundUp (glyphosate) and genetically modified crops (most of them modified to resist RoundUp, so you can spray that crop with RoundUp to kill all the weeds, but your crop stays alive) are banned. Glyphosate causes cancer, as two U.S. courts have already ruled…but Health Canada and other government agencies won’t/can’t admit this. Why can’t this be admitted? Because if glyphosate were banned world-wide, global agriculture as we know it would collapse, pulling down hedge funds, chemical companies, seed companies (which are mostly the chemical companies anyway), farm equipment manufacturers and retailers, banks with agricultural lending (which is all of them)…the list goes on. And of course, people would starve in the short term, because not enough people know how to farm without the chemical inputs and genetically modified seeds. So the non-organic farms all around me continue to spend as much on fertilizer, pesticides and seed, as they make from their crops, if not more. Because that’s the way agriculture is done. Farmers are producing commodities. Not food, not ecological stewardship, not vibrant rural communities. The fewer farmers it takes to farm more and more land, the better, right? Efficiency is king in this capitalist world. Resiliency is at the opposite end of that spectrum.

So now, I’m really depressed. Why do I start writing blog posts late in the evening instead of going to sleep? Because I’m sick and tired of holding my tongue, or not wanting to get political with people, or having to explain myself while the other person's eyes glaze over. I don’t want to preach to people, or point the finger and accuse people of using too many plastic straws, because that’s not the point. Frankly, individual actions are nothing in the face of the massive societal changes that need to happen. We literally have to decide, as a society, that no more fossil fuels are to be removed from the ground. No oil washed off sand. No more refining. No more pipelines, or train cars moving bitumen around. We need to get off fossils fuels, full stop. We need to stop producing food covered in chemicals, which destroy the environments in which they’re grown. We need to stop shipping food all around the world to be processed and eaten. We need economies to be localized, where we all adapt to producing what we need closer to home, and doing without that which we cannot produce locally. In a globalized world where shipping and logistics companies like Amazon are king, a localized economy sounds like some sort of hippy dream, right? Well it’s not. Much as I love eating mangos and oranges, I can survive without them. I can survive eating food that could be grown right here in Ontario, or even in the rest of Canada. I don’t have to eat food that is shipped from South America, or Asia (though I would miss rice, I am Chinese after all). I could survive wearing wool and linen (flax) clothing. Though frankly, if we all just started swapping our clothes instead of throwing it out, we already have a massive supply of clothing right here. We could have solar panels on every building surface, and size/community appropriate wind turbines for electricity. I so desperately want an electric vehicle instead of my Dodge Caravan, but unfortunately, do not have the funds to get one.

Which brings me to my latest source of depression. CSA membership sign ups are down this year, and not just for me. Many other organic CSA farmers are experiencing the same thing, and if I believe the various CSA marketing gurus who’ve found my email address, this decline is widespread. Their solutions essentially ask CSAs to be more accommodating to their members, allowing full customization of weekly packages, via their super duper on-line ordering platforms. Because that’s what non-CSA grocery box delivery services can do…because they don’t grow the food!!! I’ve realized over the years that the only people who enjoy being CSA members, are those who enjoy the challenge of cooking in season, with whatever vegetables, meat, eggs, legumes, etc. are presented to them. Those who need specific ingredients for every meal, find CSA packages hugely challenging and often end up discarding unused items. I certainly understand the challenge of coming up with a healthy meal that your whole family (of picky children) will eat, and so I definitely sympathize, but that doesn’t mean I can, or should, make vegetable packages customizable. The logistics of vegetable growth means you harvest what’s ready, when it’s ready…which is actually great, because you get the freshest and most tasty and nutritious veggies! And customizing harvesting and packaging would require more labour, which my farm just can’t afford. In fact, few organic farms can afford more labour, which is why there are so many seasonal organic farm internships (board and lodgings, maybe a stipend) and places for WWOOFing volunteers. But wait, we could afford more labour, if we could actually charge the real cost of production of food, but that’s impossible in Canada where people expect the cheapest food prices. And none of us actually want to be the private farmers for only super rich people anyway. I am not a serf.

So, ranting aside, please consider joining an agroecological farm CSA, any farm CSA, not just mine. Yes, it will be more challenging to produce meals with what you’re provided, but the ingredients will be so fresh and tasty, you’ll have to do less to make them taste good to your family. In the summer time, I eat more than half my vegetables raw anyway! And you’ll be supporting a farm which isn’t causing climate change, but doing all they can to mitigate climate change. Take your climate action incentive credit and put it towards signing up for a CSA membership. It’s a step towards a more localized economy, which is better than no step at all.

Happy Earth Day everyone. I know the Earth will still be here long after I’m gone. I would prefer if human beings were still part of its ecosystem.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Exciting farm changes for 2019!

To think, I thought I'd have a bit more time to be able to update this blog last year, with Emma being a bit older and being back at work 3+ days a week, but that definitely didn't work out! We all made it through last season, but it was quite difficult, for many different reasons, not the least being the weather. The growing season started with drought and ended with extreme humidity, which means early season greens and peas did poorly, and some crops didn't get a start at all, and it was super hard to cure late season squashes because there was so much mold everywhere thriving in the moisture. Days were spent examining squashes and wiping them down with vinegar to prevent mold growth, though they were all in single layers with plenty of air flow. One bright spot in the season was the success of the tomatoes and eggplant, which definitely thrived from all the heat units in the earlier part of the summer! Then winter hit hard and early in mid-October and just stayed, preventing some of the end of season field clean up. The second week of October was hot and humid, and the 3rd week had the first snow on the ground. I definitely breathed a sigh of relief when the last vegetable harvest of the season was delivered to everyone so I didn't have to worry about regular vegetable harvests anymore.

And then we started lambing again November 7! In theory, I knew my ewes, having some Dorper genetics, could lamb 3 times in 2 years, but as it hadn't happened over the past few years, I wasn't expecting it. But somehow, when the ewes went out on pasture in June/July, even with the drought, they were in good enough body condition to be bred. In future, we're going to have to be much more intentional about our timing of leaving the ram in with the ewes. We're just too soft hearted and don't want to separate the ram from the rest of the flock to hang out on his own.

This past year was definitely the year of the lambs for Black Sheep Farm! Our first (and expected) round of lambing started in late February and resulted in the birth of 26 lambs by early April. That means we averaged 2 lambs per ewe, with 2 of them having triplets, 2 having singles, and the rest with twins. The majority were rams, so 2018 was the first year that we had enough lamb to actually sell in bundles. And even with the drought, we managed to keep all the sheep well fed on pasture, moving them in and out of the barn as needed, to let the pastures regrow, feeding them hay while in the barn. Managed intensive grazing definitely gets more intensive in drought conditions as the sheep actually had to be moved twice a day to keep them happy enough with their pasture to prevent breakouts. So much moving of moveable electric netting fence pieces...but it must have worked as the ewes all regained body condition after lambing and all those lambs definitely fattened up well. And our pasture fields are one more season into overall soil regeneration. We'll see this year if the various pastures have gotten denser and lusher with plant matter. Some of the pastures have been under managed grazing for a season or two longer than the others, so it's pretty easy to see the progression of pasture improvement each year. One of our changes this year will be to bring the 6 acre hay field out of hay production, and use it exclusively for grazing, and see what changes that brings over the next few years.

One crazy sheep incident that we hope never to have to deal with again, was our first brush with flystrike. In late September, in those weirdly humid weather conditions, Brush got flystrike. First, we tried to catch her on pasture to get a better look, but when that didn't work, we had to bring the whole flock into the barn, but in the process of herding them, she took off! We eventually found her in the woods and had to catch her to bring back to the barn. I won't go into detail about how things looked, but essentially, it's the sort of situation that brings me nightmares. Just look up flystrike and you can watch all sorts of videos that you'll probably wish you hadn't clicked on. Anyway, we tried to rinse the maggots and eggs away and cut away the affected fleece, but were extremely unsuccessful, especially since we didn't want to nick Brush's skin and cause a wound that would make things worse. In the end, we doused her backside with iodine (which started a maggot exodus that I still gag to remember) and called our sheep shearers, who could luckily come to see us the next afternoon. When our shearers, Jake and Sam Sloan came the next day, they sheared away the fleece on Brush's backside and confirmed that we had both caught the infestation just in time, and the iodine treatment had actually worked 100%, killing all the eggs and maggots. She had a small wound from maggot eating, which healed up very nicely without any further treatment. Phewf! Apparently when our shearers are usually called in to deal with a sheep with flystrike, it's usually too late and the sheep has had its flesh eaten away enough that it just has to be put down. In Ontario, this isn't usually something to be worried about in fall, but rather spring/early summer, which is partly why we shear our sheep before they go out on pasture (and with enough time to grow back enough fleece to protect them from the sun). But this is the first fall in the 10 seasons I've been at the farm, when I've experienced such constantly humid conditions.

My major takeaway from 2018...climate change is going to require constant adjustment, innovation, and attention for us to be able to keep farming. We need to scout regularly for signs of stress in the plants and animals, and ensure that we adjust for weather conditions to make sure everything manages to stay healthy. Vigilance and action. I knew farming would never be boring, but I was hoping it wouldn't be quite this exciting :( I know there are a lot of farmers who are on the verge of burnout from all the added stress and management from having to respond to uncontrollable weather conditions, or just stand by and see entire crops wiped out as there's nothing they can do. There are no more expected weather conditions...we're just going to get whatever comes year by year and hope that our planning is resilient enough to make sure enough food can still be produced to feed ourselves and our members. And while many farmers' solution to unpredictable weather is to build more greenhouses, I just can't bring myself to go that route. I've never felt right working in a greenhouse and have always preferred the open field. And greenhouses come with their own set of challenges which I'm not willing to deal with in addition to managing field growing and animals.

The major change for vegetable production is that we will be moving away from rotating the 1 acre vegetable field, and switching to fixed place, raised vegetable beds. This is both to cut down on soil tillage and to gain 3+ more acres of pasture for animal pasturing. So when the vegetable field has dried enough for working this spring, we will start to build raised beds for planting, which will eventually (over years) become no till, as they get built up with the addition of organic matter in the form of mulch and compost. Part of the reason we can make this change is because of the compost available from the increase in the number of sheep at the farm, as well as the addition of chicken manure, as we will be raising both meat birds and laying hens this season.

The priority of all these changes...we want to keep improving our soils. This is at the very root of how we will both respond to, and mitigate, climate change. Healthy soils, full of microbial and animal life, and organic matter, are what will keep things growing through all extremes (except for a 40 day flood...but we were promised to never have that again, right?). Managed intensive grazing both improves soil life and sequesters carbon, because you're encouraging all those plants to remain in a growing state, improving their root systems, and constantly harvesting the energy of the sun through their leaves. Seems like such a simple solution, right? But it's certainly not what modern science promotes, because it takes time, and encourages the inherent biodiversity of nature to heal and improve itself, instead of human interventions that can be patented and controlled, to make money in the corporate economy to which we human beings seem unwilling to find an alternative. But that's me being cynical. Cynicism isn't going to change the world, but healthy soils, full of life that we can't even imagine, can do it. So that's what we're going to continue to do at Black Sheep Farm, do our best to promote the health of the soil, even more than before, cutting back on tilling as much as possible, and increasing animal pasturing so more land can have its soils regenerated. And we're still planting trees and perennials, so there can be an increase in long-term life. Who knows how much the world can change in the next twelve years if even just this farm, and all the farmers who I know and respect, continue to promote the growth of healthy soils over all else. So please look us up, find us, and support us in any way that you can.