Things to Celebrate

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2nd year alfalfa coming along nicely

2018 is off to a good start for us, the rain started just hours after finishing up seeding the cash crops. We still have some green manure plowdown to seed (an oat/pea mix) but the rain is a welcome break. This year we are growing wheat, oats, peas, rye, and alfalfa.
We planted a big garden this year, which I’m very excited about. We didn’t plant much of one last year because of my poor health and the busy spring, and boy did we miss it! I can’t wait to go pick fresh lettuce and herbs, or dig new potatoes for supper.

 
We’ve had lots to celebrate this spring, as we have three new nieces! Nolan’s twin nieces, Nyla and Farah, were born in April, and my niece was born in May. Little Gwenyth decided to come right in the midst of seeding so we haven’t made it down to Edmonton to meet her yet, but I’m absolutely dying to see her and my nephews! I’m hoping we can swing a visit next week.

 
My brother, Keegan, graduated from grade twelve last Friday. Nolan had finished seeding the wheat at 3 am that morning, so even more reason to celebrate! We are very proud of Keegan, he plans to work for a year and then go to Grande Prairie Regional College to begin his academic journey towards becoming a “wicked chemistry teacher.” He already has a good knack for teaching, as he has had some experience tutoring. I think he will do very well. I’m so proud of him and the person he has become, there were definitely a few feelings leaking out of the corners of my eyes when he walked up to receive his diploma.

Something else to celebrate – my health has been improving (knock on wood). I have been working hard for a long time now to learn to manage my symptoms and I feel like there is finally a tangible difference! I still have my bad days, (that’s why I decided to write today instead of work in the garden), but they are fewer and less severe than they were in the winter. Last winter a “bad pain day” meant I was in bed most of the day and needed pain pills to be able to walk to the bathroom. Now my “bad” days mean I’m maybe not doing physical work but I’m still able to make a meal or two and I can walk without pain killers, usually!

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Fall Rye heading out already!

On my good days I have been able to help service equipment, garden, do yardwork, bookwork, run meals out to the field, mow, and do parts runs. I’m a lot slower than the old me and it’s still not as much as I’d like, but it’s an enormous improvement over this time last year. I’m being careful to pace myself and not get too excited and overdo it, but already I am absolutely gleeful that I am able to get outside and work and move my body. I feel like I am making gains every day, and I can feel and see my body getting stronger again. I’m excited to not be so sick and cooped up this summer, I think it’s going to be a good one!

 

Informed & Organic

I have been reading a lot of articles lately on the whole pro-GMO/non-GMO debate. I won’t quote them or link them here, as some came from well-known agricultural publications that in my opinion could stand to take a slightly less-biased stance when writing these pieces. If you are interested in reading them, please feel free to email me and I can tell you where to find them. I myself won’t be giving those pages any more shares/views.

I will however, clear up a few things.

1. As an organic farmer and consumer, I actually do know what GMO/GEO/GM/ bio-technologically modified foods and seeds are. The articles I have come across tend to refer to organic and non-GMO supporters as being uneducated on the subject. The idea that organic consumers and producers are uneducated is insulting. If I consider myself a farmer who cares about my career at all (which I do) and a consumer who cares about her health and environment (which I do) then of course I have done my research (and yes, I realize this may not always be the case but as someone who personally knows plenty of non-gmo and organic advocates, they are anything but uninformed on the subject).

2. The biotech industry’s biggest argument right now is that consumers are uneducated as to what a GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) is, and that heritage seeds and selective breeding actually falls under this umbrella term. I find this interesting as more than a few reputable sources actually refer to Genetic Engineering and Genetic Modification as one in the same. The World Health Organization, for example, defines GMOs as:

“Organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.” 

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, defines them as organisms that do “not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.”   That is, they are created by unnatural DNA recombinant technology.

3. These biased articles are a direct attack at the organic movement. Not that I feel it’s threatened. If they are arguing semantics of terminology and grasping at opportunities to call organic supporters uneducated and uninformed, then they are obviously running out of ideas.

4. Whatever they decide to call it or not call it, I, as an organic producer and consumer, am not doing what I do to fight against some silly term. It’s much bigger than the wording (whatever that ends up being). If I can no longer say that I am “non-gmo” then I will instead say that “I am against the unnatural alteration of genetic material in our food using DNA isolation and recombinant technology. I support selective breeding which is a very different and quite natural process, and is a type of biotechnology that has been used for millennia by farmers and growers that care about what they are producing/eating.”

If you are interested in reading more about GMOs, or want to be clearer on the terminology, here are some great links to get you started – and to share with friends! The misconception is that organic advocates are uninformed. Let’s change that.

The World Health Organization (WHO) – Frequently Asked Questions on Genetically Modified Foods

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) – Descriptions and Definitions

Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) – GMO Basics

Organic Consumers Association – Genetic Engineering: What you need to know

Organic inspection is done!!!

We are over the moon with feelings of accomplishment and glad that inspection was early in the season. Now we can focus on haying and all the plowdown we have yet to do. I’m looking forward to some more long days in the tractor, far away from paperwork.

We didn’t spend quite as many hours on organic books this year, and I think that means we are getting the hang of things on that front. In fact (commence some pompous bragging), the inspector said our farm records were the best he’s ever seen! I was soooo glad to hear this, since it is one of the tasks that I stress most about, and I spent a good 20 hours or so working on paperwork before he came.

For readers who are new to organic methods, I thought I’d summarize what is involved in the yearly organic inspection so that we can maintain certification.

We usually get a call from an organic inspector from AOPA (the Alberta Organic Producers Association) anywhere from two weeks to a month or so before the inspection date. In that period, we knock off an incredible to-do list, making sure everything is just right.

One job before inspection happens is double checking that all our “Do Not Spray” signs are up on our buffers. This is so neighbours are aware of drift when spraying, and so the county doesn’t accidentally spray ditches next to our fields. We have an agreement with Birch Hills County that they don’t spray near our fields, but signs are just an extra precaution. We are lucky to live where we do, since most of our fields are surrounded by trees, this task isn’t as big as it might be for organic farmers in less-treed areas.

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A sign on a buffer between the road and one of our fields.

Another task is to make sure we can access all the fields so we can show the inspector the crops. This year we found this a bit of a challenge, since we are still cleaning up fallen trees from a snowstorm in May, and have to fix the river crossing since we got a ton of rain in June and the river was very high. As it was, we didn’t get to everything this year and we ended up taking the inspector to see the last field on quads across the river and over some trees. I was a bit nervous about this, but I don’t think he minded – I looked back a few times to see him grinning as he drove over trees with the quad. I guess a scenic quad ride is nothing to complain about.

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Broken trees after the snowstorm in May, 2016

The biggest job to do before inspection is updating the Organic System Plan (OSP). We send in an annual update at the end of February every year, with our proposed seeding plan, rotation, and our total inventory and sales from the time of the last inspection. Just before the inspector comes, we go over this form in depth and make notes on any changes from our original seeding plan. This year for example, we had originally planned to plant winter wheat on our lease across the river, however with the dry spring that we had were were able to get on that field much earlier than usual so we decided to plant flax instead. Flax has a longer growing season than wheat and we usually never are able to plant flax on that particular field because we can’t cross the river early enough. It’s good we got to it, because it will add more variety to the crop rotation.
One of the last things we do before inspection date is make sure that the house and yard are well-kept and beautiful. This isn’t a necessity for inspection, but moreso a necessity for our sanity, I think. When inspection is over and we’re finally done worrying about it, then we can take a guilt-free evening off to celebrate without seeing a huge to-do list of yard and house maintenance.

When the inspector arrives, we usually go over the paperwork first. He or she checks for changes to the original seeding plan, and will ask to see a seed source list for where the seed for each crop planted this year is coming from. We usually use our own seed, so this is often covered with our bin and field records. However if we purchase any grain for seed then we also need to have some extra forms ready – like organic certificates, and proof that it’s untreated, non-GMO seed. This year we are purchasing some winter wheat, so I had to fill out a “Non-GMO Affidavit” form for the first time. It’s fairly straightforward, but definitely not something that I would ever want to overlook for inspection. Proof that our seed reaches organic standards is extremely important.

The inspector will also want to see bin records (what is in each bin and where it came from), field activity (what we did on each field and when), and clean equipment logs (anytime a piece of equipment was washed or blown off), etc..

He or she will also do a sales audit trail for a randomly chosen certified organic sale since the time of the last inspection. This starts with making sure that the grain was hauled with a clean truck. Most trucking companies haul both organic and conventional seed, so we have to inspect any truck that comes before loading it, to make sure it has been properly washed and there’s no chance of contamination. The next things to check is what bins the truck was loaded from, and then what fields the grain in those bins came from. The inspector has to make sure that every certified organic sale is traceable from field to buyer, so any time we move grain, dry grain, clean grain, or harvest multiple fields into the same bin, it all must be recorded.

When the paperwork is all done, we get to do the fun stuff – taking the inspector for a tour of the yard and fields. We usually start with the grain bins, to check that the bin inventory matches up properly, and then go for a drive. During the tour, the inspector will take notes making sure that each field is seeded to what our records say, and also will check buffer zones to make sure they are wide enough to protect our organic crops from any spray drift from the conventional fields nearby.

This year’s tour was very enjoyable since our inspector was so enthusiastic, he even said our crops are the best he’s seen this year so far! We are pretty pleased with them too, the rain was timed perfectly with our seeding this year and some of our rotation decisions are working out great! Everything is a beautiful deep green, which means there’s lots of nitrogen in the soil. Things are also maturing early, which means a nice early harvest!

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2016 wheat