Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Certified Organic...explained

Boy I am surprised at how much misinformation is still out there about Organics. I recently went to a farmers market where the nice lady told me that her golden flax was organic. I asked her where on the package it said "organic" and she proceeded her disertation on how her flax was grown organically and that because she didn't want to be certified she couldn't call it organic. The whole purpose of using the term "organic" is to be able to make the claim that "yes, I use organic practices to grow my produce and yes, I am audited yearly and I pay my substantial fees in order to maintain my organic certification". I get it all the time from farmers I meet that tell me their grain or hay is organic. Almost every time I ask them what certification body they use and you guessed it...turns out they are not actually organic.

I also hear people say all the time that being certified organic doesn't ensure that the produce is any better than non-organic and that anyone can say that they are organic when they are not. That may be true, but if you are not willing to subject yourself to the on-farm audit and subsequent inspections, the paper-trail that connects your food from the field to the consumer or the committment to excellence that is virtually guaranteed from an organic certification then you are probably not following the rules that would make your product organic. It's just common sense. If you are truly doing all of those things then why on earth wouldn't you just pay the fees that get you certified and recoup them in your increased sale proceeds?

Look, there is a very strong committment when you agree to become Certified Organic. The paperwork is extensive, the audit and on-farm inspection is at times intrusive and the fees are sometimes astronomical especially for a small farmer like myself. I take pride in the fact that our farm is indeed Certified Organic.

As a consumer, you will do a great service to actual Certified Organic farmers like myself if you take the time to ask questions from farmers and vendors that claim to be organic.If you want organic produce and someone is telling you that theirs is organic...ask to see their certificate. If they don't have one, and they are calling their produce organic it is illegal. I am always glad when someone asks to see my certification...I worked hard to achieve it and I am proud to show it off.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Loblaws complaining about the price of food from farmers...

after posting a $189 million dollar profit in the third quarter of this year! This is a CBC story that was brought to my attention by For the love of the soil . I would like to thank them for bringing this story to light and I thought Iwould try to spread the word a bit. Here is the CBC story .

Even though I am exposed to this type of attitude on a regular basis from friends, family and neighbors I still find it shocking that so many people just don't get it.

If you want cheap food you have two choices 1) grow it yourself or 2) buy pesticide laden, GMO, tasteless crap from a "super" grocery.

If you want good quality food that tastes so much better and doesn't create illness in your body you also have two choices 1) grow it yourself or 2) seek out quality organic food at a grocer who purchases locally, or a farmers market, or directly from a farm.

Have I understated the problem? Europeans get it. They understand that purchasing good food is more important than owning the largest truck or suv that you can buy. That food for your family is more important than a family set of snowmobiles and atv's. People near us pay as much as they possibly can for the best ski-boat they can find, but on the same day they will buy the cheapest food they can find. $50,000 for a boat is alright...$5 for a bag of organic flour is too much. If you fall in that category then I am sorry but your priorities are completely backwards in my humble opinion.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Heritage Grains for 2010 – Part 1

I have plans to establish more test plots and to expand the seed bases of the grains I have already tested.

We have established another garden in the yard by moving some fencing in an existing corral. This will free up some space in the garden up by the kitchen. We have used the “Kitchen Garden” (bottom photo) almost exclusively for our gardening needs for the past 10 years. It has always been full, but now with the need for space for grain tests we needed another garden.

We will plant the “three sisters” in the new “Corral Garden” (top photo). It is already high in nitrogen from years of hay and straw residue and cattle/pig manure. The soil is dark and in a bit of a low spot. It will have sufficient moisture all year long. I have some heritage corn, pumpkin and bean seed saved from last year and I have some additional heritage corn seed from Salt Spring Seeds.

We will plant some test plots of grain in the kitchen garden. I will only plant half of what I have in stock of each variety. That way, in case of some sort of disaster, I will not have depleted my grain seed stock completely. We need to grow the test plots within the farmyard; otherwise the deer will destroy them completely. We have a bit of a deer problem here as we are in the middle of the famous Edmonton Bow Zone of whitetail hunting. Hunters are always welcome on our farm!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Getting Started with Organics Part 2

There is of course the odd monkey wrench that gets thrown into the organic rotation plans. This year for instance was horribly dry. It was one of the worst droughts on record for our area. The ground was so dry in the spring that we were seeding into dust. We seeded anyways with the thought that this drought couldn’t last and that everything would work out. Well it didn’t.

With the dry conditions the only plants that managed to get a foothold were the weed seeds that were already in the ground in the spring. The melting snow provided these weeds with just enough moisture to get going. The seeded crops struggled mightily to keep up and we managed to harvest at least some grain.

The problem we face for next year is the weed loads in our various fields. We cannot simply follow along with our planned rotations. It is very problematic, but we have some tools to work with. A late planted buckwheat crop…summerfallow or green manure plow down followed by Fall Rye…spring seeded oats cut in the summer for hay or silage. All of these tools will be implemented to try to get our fields back in clean, weed-free shape for 2011.

The video above is a good example of what I am talking about. Red Fife is a longer maturing crop and needed to be seeded early. The field was pretty clean, but the pigweed got established and was quite a problem in the 1/2 acre that I seeded to Red Fife (seed multiplication plot). The rest of the field was summerfallowed and then seeded into wheat in July so that the cows could graze in late fall after the Red Fife was harvested...that portion of the field is very clean now. The video below gives a good indication of the value of buckwheat as a tool to remove weeds.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

New Heritage Seeds Arrived!

This is the package that greeted me in the mail yesterday. I recently joined the Seed Sanctuary sponsored by Salt Spring Seeds. Dan sent the seeds to me very quickly after I joined and they look wonderful. Of course I had to open each package and have a look at the varieties. The purple barley is amazing and I really hope to be able to create a market for this grain. First though, I have to successfully grow it out into enough seed to plant commercially.

We will start with these small seed packets. I will prepare individual places in either the kitchen garden or the corral garden. These seeds will be planted in short compact rows to enable pollination. I will thresh these grains by hand or in the threshing box and then save them for next year. From the one pack of Red Fife...I am guestimating that I should end up with somewhere around 3 or 4 pounds of grain? That 4 pounds will translate into perhaps a bushel, that bushel will produce 15 bushels, that 15 bushels will produce around 200. So you can see that within 4 years of initial seeding, I will hopefully have enough to plant in a field of some reasonable size.

Getting Started With Organic Grains Part 1 of 2

I thought I would post just some basic information on my thought processes with getting started in organic grain farming. I am not a scientific man although I adore science and natural studies. My writings are simply based on experience and what I've learned from others. Please take what I say with a grain of salt and recognize that there are myriad methods to accomplish the same task.

Once I had a few essential pieces of farm equipment collected I could imagine getting started with our first organic crops.

Organic farming is basically easy but thing always pop up that throw your plans out the window. The first thing you need to do is figure out what you have for soil and what was planted previously on your land. Without chemicals, the soil needs to be free of weeds and have plenty of nitrogen for your first crop…wheat. The ideal piece of land to get started with is a field of alfalfa or other legumous hay crop. If you can obtain this land in fall and break it then all the better. I broke my land in spring and worked like a demon to get the soil down to a good fluffy seed bed. It was a clean alfalfa crop the previous year.

2nd year…the next crop to go in would be something like Barley or Oats or perhaps even another year of wheat if you had enough moisture and the weeds stayed down. Barley and Oats need a little less nitrogen to perform well. Oats is especially good at suppressing any weeds that may have gotten a little established in the first year.

3rd year…if you planted wheat or barley in the 2nd year you will want to plant oats this year

4th year…now you have a field that probably has a bit of a weed problem and is definitely down in fertility, at least from a nitrogen standpoint. The soil itself will be noticeable more healthy and manageable. This is the year to get control of the weeds. Depending on the problem you may be able to get away with seeding a buckwheat crop to harvest. Buckwheat can be planted extremely late so you can spend a leisurely spring of intermittent tillage that will upset the weed patterns already established in previous years. In goes the buckwheat and with any luck at all you will have a nice crop to harvest in the fall.

Another option for years 3 or 4 would be to plant a crop of Fall Rye after plowing down a legume like peas or beans/oats. That would re-establish the nitrogen and get a good kill on the weeds.

The 5th year and possibly 6th should be spent trying to find a way to get the nitrogen levels back up. Any kind of legume can be planted here…preferably something that can be cut once or twice in the year to really bugger up the weed's ideas of prospering.

This is an idea of what I do. With different areas, there will be different ways of doing things. The basics of organics is to build soil wealth, keep the weeds out and grow crops that people want to buy.

As you can see in these pictures our first tractor and equipment were not very fancy! It is funny to see where we were only a few short years ago. Our first field crop was potatoes! We still plant a few every year, but it is not what we love to do so we keep it small. Maybe with the upcoming farmers markets we will see a need to step up our potato operations.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Now This Is COLD!

Sunday morning we awoke to a record low...the coldest spot in North America. Minus 47 degrees celcius. The mercury in the thermometer was well below the coldest allocated temp of -40 but I didn't know the exact temperature until I listened to the radio later in the day.

This is where the heritage breeds of cattle shine...alberta winters. These guys are so woolly and well built to take the cold that they hardly seem to notice how cold it is. We keep a lot of hay in front of them in these temps. In addition to the bale they are in now, we have a bale feeder in the back field with some nice hay in it. They will migrate back and forth a couple times a day between the two food sources...the walking helps to keep them warm I suspect.

Small Scale Organic Grain Farming

When we made the decision to farm organically we had no choice but to start small. I had grown up farming on a large scale with my Dad and Cousins but I did not take the opportunity to take over the family farm. Instead I waited another 15 years or so before I decided to get back into farming. I had an off-farm career and a limited budget to spend on my “farming hobby”. My wife was a self-proclaimed city girl and she knew nothing about the business of farming. She had only heard about how farmers were suffering and what a dumb decision it would be to get back into it. But I had other ideas.

I knew that farming conventionally was not an option. It went against my beliefs about pesticides; and expensive chemical inputs and equipment would never be in the budget. Not only are the output costs a problem, but the income for conventional crops is abysmal. To get started with conventional farming these days you need to be independently wealthy, certified insane or in debt up to your ear lobes. The amount of acres necessary to create any kind of respectable income dictates the size of the equipment and time needed to be able to farm successfully.

We started with what we had…a 40 acre parcel of land where we had originally kept a few horses. What could we farm on these 40 acres? We tried all varieties of livestock in order to test the merits of each. Sheep, pigs, chickens, bees. They all had their ups and downs. Deep in my heart I wanted to grain farm.

The only option left was to grow grains that I could sell at a premium price with equipment I could afford and land that I could easily obtain through renting. In other words, I started small. The Organic Certification was a necessity in order to be able to sell my product at a premium price and it fit perfectly with my desire to farm the way my grandfathers had…with their brains and acquired knowledge, not chemicals.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Heritage Grains vs. Modern Varieties

A very important question was posted by Rich in Oklahoma..."Do you have any experience or thoughts about how heritage wheat compares to the typical wheat grown today from a farmer's perspective? As an example, does it need less or more fertility, is it more or less disease prone, etc.."

I will attempt to answer this question, but perhaps there are some others that will have more to add in the comments section.

We have found that the heritage varieties require less fertility on average to reach their potential yields than compared to the modern wheats. One interesting observation was made this past year when I made the decision to seed an old Red Spring Wheat in to a field that had next to zero in the way of nitrogen. This field hadn't had a legume on it for 15 years (we've only had it for 2 years). It was one of my cleaner fields from the crop of buckwheat that I took off in 08 and I was trying to get a good clean crop of seed wheat from it. I wasn't terribly worried about yield or protein/falling number. It ended up with 13.5% protein and turned into an excellent baking wheat. The yield was actually pretty good considering the horrible drought we experienced this past summer...somewhere around 20 bu/acre. Keep in mind that I had fields nearby that were below 10 bu/acre!

I don't know if I have a solid answer for you on the disease issue. There were a couple reasons that heritage breeds went by the wayside. 1)There were some disease issues in the early part of the 20th century that caused huge wipeouts in wheat crops...rust comes to mind. Of course that led ag. researchers to develop new rust and disease resistant varieties 2) It became profitable to come up with your own wheat variety, register it and sell it to people. The large corporations became so good at it that that is pretty much all we have for seed nowadays. (ie canola, corn, soybeans).

One of the tremendous benefits of heritage breed grains is that they are landrace breeds. Meaning they have huge genetic diversity within their species. My feeling is that whatever seed that has survived to this day has been naturally selected to be as disease resistant as their modern counterparts. Now this is not a scientific claim...just a theory based on my limited knowledge of genetics and simple observation. We have not had any problems whatsoever with disease on either our modern or heritage varieties of wheat.

This genetic diversity is also what makes heritage wheats so valuable to farmers. I can grow a spring wheat up here in Canada...send it to Rich in OK and Rich would be able to grow it as good as I can within 2 years of seeding it. The plants that flourished in the OK climate would be seeded again next year. There is enough genetic material in the field that no matter the growing conditions, the crop would adapt and flourish within a very short time...especially with some selective harvesting and seed production.

I have also definitely noticed a difference in protein and taste. Some varieties seem to be better baking wheats with higher proteins than others and there is a definite difference in taste, colour and baking characteristics between the species. I can make a wheat like Park or Red Fife have a good protein number by planting them in a high nitrogen field like a clover plow-down, but as I discovered this year. Some varieties produce good proteins without this nitrogen fertility.

I question the claims about modern wheat varieties being more productive as far as yield is concerned. I mean they can grow wheat crops now in the 100 bu/acre range, but I am skeptical about whether that is the variety or the fertility inputs used. Perhaps it is like Round-up Ready Canola...a wheat variety that responds best to a certain fertility input that you purchase as a package?

As you can see in the video above. I can achieve some pretty nice yields with organic practices and less modern varieties. This field was the first year after a spring alfalfa plow-down. It was Park Wheat (a 60's variety). It yielded in the range of 50 bu/acre. You can see the same field below being seeded that same year.

Seed and Plant Sanctuary

We have just joined the Salt Spring Seeds - Seed and Plant Sanctuary For Canada program. Dan Jason, owner of Salt Spring Seeds, has an extensive collection of heritage based seeds for the field and garden. We have bought seeds from them in the past. The service that Dan offers is tremendous. I submitted my $20 payment via paypal yesterday afternoon (to join the Seed Sanctuary charity group) and right away I received an e-mail from Dan that the seeds I requested will be in the mail today! I am going to spend a little time this winter writing about the various heritage plants that we have grown around the farm in the past.

The Seed and Plant Sanctuary works like this. A $20 active membership gives you access to the seeds of the Sanctuary. You can choose up to five varieties from their databases. If you send the sanctuary records of how they do, you will be entitled to choose another five varieties the next time around. As long as you continue to maintain varieties and let Salt Spring Seeds know about them, your initial membership fee keeps you as an active member.

I will catalogue the different plant varieties that we have on hand and I will try to provide some notes on how well the various plants have performed for us. We currently farm about 300 acres of certified organic land. It is my goal to be growing 100% of our acreage in heritage crops. In order to achieve that though, I also have to market these heritage crops and be able to readily sell them. The new flour mill should help in that regard. There are numerous opportunities for heritage flour to be produced and sold in our little region alone.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Farmers Market

Well, I was in contact today with the manager of the Spruce Grove Farmers Market and confirmed that we will be a vendor at the market beginning in April of next year! This will be our first foray into the world of Farmers Markets and there is a lot to do between now and then. We have to develop our display, develop and print marketing literature and obtain the appropriate labelling information for our products. Not to mention actually producing the products!

We will be selling our Certified Organic Grain and Grain Products. These include wheat, barley and oat flour, whole wheat berries for home use and whole flax. We still need to place the order for our flour mill which will come in from the U.S. sometime early in the new year. We also need to finalize our packaging and get it purchased. There is lots to do, but we have been planning this for some time now so it is not overwhelming. We have all winter to get er done.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Winter Hits Gold Forest Farms!

On Friday we got around 25 cm of snow! What a wonderful surprise that was. With how little precipitation we have received this year, this snow will go a long way to help with soil moisture in the spring. It is only the beginning of December so we should get a lot more along the way this winter...fingers crossed. The downside to our wintery conditions was the temperature this morning. I awoke today and looked at the thermometer on the kitchen window...minus 36 degrees celcius.

The truck was plugged in overnight and it started without issue, but man it was tough to get it going down the road. That transmission oil must have been pretty thick! It's funny, but I don't really mind the cold like this. Don't get me wrong, I don't enjoy it but there is a certain amount of pride that comes with 'surviving' a cold spell. We have lots of wood stacked and with the fire going continuously, the house stays nice and cozy. The animals are well fed and they don't seem to be in any distress. The cattle waterer is still thawed. The block heaters on the equipment are all working. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Year-end of Grain Farming

Well, the year of grain farming is pretty much over. I still have 9 totes of organic wheat in the yard that need to be cleaned and bagged and there are still some bales in the field that I will haul home this coming weekend. But other than that there just isn't that much left to accomplish. Most of the equipment is home and waiting for maintenance but without a heated shop that sort of stuff can wait till march. The tractors and combine and swathers all need oil changes and other minor repairs.

I will also need to unload the 160 bushels of screenings from the back of the Hino and grind that up for pig/chicken feed with the mixmill. Here is a video I shot last week when I drove the 3788 home for the last time this year.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Pigs Are Ordered!

After an absence of porcine critters on the farm for the past year, we have finally ordered our weaners! I met with Alan of Irvings Farm Fresh over the weekend at a local farmers market. Alan raises pastured Berkshire pigs and operates a commercial meat processing/sales facility that is on-farm. It looks as though he is doing quite well with his operation. When I asked Alan about stock for sale, he admitted that he had 4 weaners for me from a litter that is a week old. I went ahead and told him that we would take all four...three barrows and a gilt. They will be ready to bring home sometime around Christmas. That gives me time to get their barn ready and the feed and watering systems back on-line.

We will raise the barrows on our certified organic feed and whatever pastures that will be available during their stay at Gold Forest Farms and then process them for sale. The gilt we will probably keep, and in the meantime we will look for a suitable young boar and perhaps another gilt or two. Since we sold our Large Blacks I have been anxious to get pigs back and I had my heart set on another heritage breed like Berkshires.