By Sara Nicholson, Food and Health Contributor, the wedge.LIVE
This past weekend I had the wonderful opportunity to attend Eco Farm Day, a two-day event organized by Canadian Organic Growers (COG). It was a day filled with speakers, presentations and trade shows on everything from soil through plants to livestock.
Many guests had booked rooms at the Ramada Inn in order to attend both days as they were from all over Eastern Ontario and even the States. The large majority of these people were farmers and it was wonderful to see large scale conventional farmers to small scale organic farmers mingling and sharing ideas. They were all interested in a common goal: taking care of their crops.
This year, the keynote speakers were Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens, owners of Lakeview Organic Grain in Penn Yan, NY. They have been in the game for over 20 years. The couple started off farming 600 acres conventionally; but, as the birth of their second child approached, and Klaas began to repeatedly feel ill after being out all day spraying pesticides in his Tyvek suit (and green plastic gloves), they decided to begin the transition to organic farming–a feat that would have sent many others running.
Despite being told conventional farming was the only way to survive in agriculture (at that time), they pushed onward with their transition to organic, and 10 years later were successfully operating 1300 acres of grain organically. https://rodaleinstitute.org/how-mary-howell-and-klaas-martens-made-the-transition-to-organic
Not everyone loves to speak in front of the public; but, when do you something for twenty years and all the trials and errors are in your bones, there is a certain ease and confidence that exudes from you, a certain energy. It speaks much louder than words. Hearing them speak reminded me that sometimes we learn more by simply being in the presence of those who have lived and experienced more than us, they need not tell us anything at all.
What really made me smile, here was a couple who had made the transition, done the impossible and had a whole room of farmers listening to them. They were not anti-this or anti-that, they were realistic, practical and to the point. They were speaking from experience and were relatable. We don’t always listen to the healthy person telling us what to eat or to the organic farmer telling us how to grow; but, we do listen to the sick person who got healthy, and we do listen to the skeptic turned believer.
Klaas and Mary care about themselves, their community and the food they are growing, it isn’t about what side they are on. Rather, their talk was about having to adapt to stay in the game. The sharing of their story and experiences was a wonderful way to start off the day.
The rest of the day allowed the attendees to either roam (get it…roam…like animals) around the trade show or listen to a guest speaker in a private room. There were multiple speakers at a time in different rooms and the themes were focused around caring for livestock, plants and soil.
Samantha Klinck from Funny Duck Farms in Jasper, Ontario, spoke about fodder production, an innovative type of feeding in which grains are sprouted and then fed to livestock. Samantha is the author of, Farrow to Finish: Pigs on your Organic Farm, and runs Canada’s first Certified Organic year-round soybean-free Whole Farm CSA Program.
At the same time, Mary Howell gave another talk on ‘Organic Grain Quality, Molds and Mycotoxin’ and Gerry Stephenson from Drumlin Farm near Guelph, Ontario, gave a talk on: ‘Moveable Greenhouses and Wind Watering’. If I could have attended three simulaneous talks I would have; but, I chose to listen to Klaas Martens speak about, ‘Crop Fertility and Reduced Till’.
Sidenote: I don’t think it took place this year; but, a great idea for COG and the Eco Farm Day event would be to film all the speakers and have videos made available to the attendees and the public in some way.
Some key points that Klaas touched on in his talk were the following:
1) The idea of letting a soil decide what it wants to grow. In other words, growing the crop that is the best adapted species for the given environment. This of course could mean crop rotation and/or changing your main crop each year, both of which only seem to make sense in the context of a changing market and an ever-changing brand.
2) Listen to your weeds! Weeds are able to tell you much about the soil (being able to identify which weeds are growing when can indicate what minerals are present in your soil)
3) Organic crops do much better than GMO crops when weather is bad (which is not a rare thing in the farming world, especially a world being affected by climate change) whereas GMO crops only do slightly better than organic when things are good.
Unhealthy soil biology + bad weather = bad news!
4) Klaas referenced Sir Albert Howard, an English botanist and a principal figure in the early organic movement. Klaas brought up Sir Howard’s idea that: the plague that swept Rome had killed so many people because they were so undernourished and weak, a result of poor soil from over-tilling. (This point was also brought up in the documentary that I watched on Sunday called ‘Symphony of the Soil’ produced by Andy Garcia’s wife, Deborah Koons.)
After a delicious lunch provided by many local Ontario farmers, including Luxy Farm in Saint-Albert, Telsing Andrews from Aster Lane Edibles in Kinburn, Ontario, gave a wonderful talk on ‘Seed Saving and Crop Selections as Plant Breeding and System Development’, a long-winded title; but, Telsing is a very energetic woman, with much to say on the topic. I was only able to catch the first half hour of her talk. I plan on reaching out to her in the future. It is evident that she loves what she does and is a true researcher, loving a challenge and ever-curious.
I skipped out early on that talk in order to listen to Joel Williams from Integrated Soils speak about ‘Diversity and Carbon’, Part 1 of his two-part talk, Part 2 being: ‘Adaptive plant and soil health management’. Joel Williams is an independent plant and soil health consultant. Born in Australia, he has also spent much time in England and is now living in Canada. He works with farmers from all walks of life; but, has been spending much of his time consulting with conventional farmers on how best to transition to organic farming. A passionate fellow indeed, his care for the soil comes from his knowledge of chemistry and biology,. He makes a note to remind us that we must also consider and not forget the physics in the equation. This point is also highlighted in the documentary Symphony of the Soil (see links below).
Too often, we have “thrown out the baby with the bath water” when it comes to taking care of our soil; we must remember that it is an interconnected web. We cannot just rely on chemicals or machines to grow our food. We must know the soil, know it’s biology, chemistry and physiology. We must learn this from each others’ stories and knowledge as well as our own hands.
There were many great speakers that day. A few others that I missed include:
Zach Loeks from Kula Permaculture Farm , Cobden, Ontario. Zach gave a talk on ‘Organic Garlic production in a Diverse Market Garden System.’
Kim Fellows from Pollination Canada (https://www.seeds.ca/pollination) gave a talk on ‘How Your Farm Can Support Native Pollinators.’
Suzanne Nelson Karreman spoke about ‘Multi-Species Grazing’ and her husband Hubert Karreman spoke once about ‘Non-Antibiotic Treatment of Ruminant Livestock’ and followd with, ‘Ontario’s Proposed New Grass-fed Dairy Standard.’
Carolyn Young spoke about ‘Small Scale Supports under Organic Regulation’ and Todd Leuty spoke about, ‘Using Trees-on-Farm Projects to Adapt to Climate Change.’
It was a wonderful day and you can bet your ducks I am going to attend next year as well.
The second day, I attended Transition Brockville’s showing of ‘Symphony of the Soil’, an amazing film that I would love to work into a workshop for children or anyone for that matter. It was a perfect parallel to the day before, touching on many of the same topics and key ideas from a slightly different angle. I wanted to write but as this article is getting lengthy, I will wrap it up and leave you the information to look into it for yourself.
About Sara Nicholson
BSc graduate of McGill University, Major in: Ecological Determinants of Health. Certificate of Nutrition from Shaw Academy. Holistic Health Advocate and Organic Gardener. Recent Founder of By the Seasons: an online grocery in the Brockville area that offers delivery of fresh and sustainable produce from local farmers. Tagline: Feel Good with Fresh Food By the Seasons!