Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Canada Outstanding Young Farmers 2011 Annemarie and Kevin Klippenstein from Cawston BC

This fall I went on a farm tour of BC with a group of international farm writers and fellow agrologists. A variety of farms were visited, including some operated by young farmers. One couple, Annemarie and Kevin Klippenstein, were recent winners of the BC Young Farmers award and they spoke with our group about how they got into farming, and how their operation has evolved in their ten years of farming. Just this month they received the Canadian Outstanding Young Farmers’ Award along with a dairy farming couple from Eastern Canada. Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers’ program is to recognize farmers 18 to 39 that exemplify excellence in their profession and promote the tremendous contribution of agriculture.
      The Klippensteins were raised on the coast and both worked in the hospitality industry, but after they married they started their plans to become organic farmers. Fraser Valley land was too expensive, so the Klippensteins looked for an area with affordable land. They bought a five acre farm in the Okanagan community of Cawston in 2001 and started Klipper's Organic Acres, direct marketing certified organic produce. One of their goals was to farm full time, so it was important to find a market for their organic produce that paid well. They found this market in six Vancouver-area farmers markets, and several Vancouver restaurants. By listening to their customers they evolved their farm operation to include what customers want, and they soon expanded from orchard fruits to include heirloom vegetables. By growing hothouse crops they expanded and extended their season, and by growing storage crops like garlic, squash, onions, carrots and beets they have increased off-season sales through Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) boxes. Preserves and dried fruits and vegetables have helped with the farm’s cash flow.
      The Klippensteins have not worked off the farm since 2002, believing in good honest work and the value in producing good organic food. Diversity is important in their business model, and has allowed them to expand into the winter season with the help of a cold storage facility that they installed. They are still harvesting carrots in February, even in Cawston. 
    Ever evolving and improving, they have added an additional goal of getting more people into farming.
To do this, the Klippensteins are involved in the Organic Farming Institute where Kevin is the Chair. It helps that Cawston has the reputation and title of “The Organic Capital of Canada”. The Klippensteins take five to ten students from March to October and teach them everything they know. They provide a five bedroom apprenticeship suite and a four bedroom mobile home to house their students, stating that it is important that they live on the farm. Finding good farm labour is an issue for most farms, and it is an advantage to have trained labour, especially for organic farms that are more labour intensive.
      Klipper’s Organic Acres has now grown to 40 acres of organic production. Along with organic methods such as cover crops to prevent soil erosion and build soil structure, and predator bugs to provide pest management, solar panels are used for heating water and for the drying facility. The only downside to their success has been that some local farmers markets won’t allow them in because they are viewed as “too big”. As a result, they focus on taking their products to the Vancouver market twice a week. That amounts to a lot of miles driven each year, and a lot of hours away from the farm and family. Annemarie insists on being there to talk to customers, instead of sending employees. This dedication and direct involvement in every aspect of their operation has been a key part of their success. Another key part has been their years in the restaurant industry, which has given them contacts and insights into their customers’ needs and wants. It would be ideal if they could market closer to home, and as the population grows in the Okanagan that may be more feasible – as long as the farmer’s markets let them in.
     The Klipperstein's future goals are to continue to improve organic practices, to continue to educate consumers and to continue to train the next generation of organic farmers.
     On the farm tour, the younger farmers that we met wanted to infuse something new and experiential to farming. Although they knew it was a business, they wanted more than a business. They wanted a good lifestyle and a healthy place to raise their families. Half of the younger farmers had no prior farm experience, yet they were able to succeed by finding mentors, learning through formal education and self-study, and through trial, error and working hard.

Monday, November 14, 2011

First BC Farm Animal Care Conference Brings Out the Best

The new BC Farm Animal Care Council (BCFACC) held its first conference in Abbotsford on November 10th, bringing a variety of speakers with different perspectives and roles in the food supply chain, all well known in their fields. BCFACC is an organization of producers working with producers to promote a high level of animal care through communication and sharing of knowledge. A wide variety of people attended, including farmers, farm organizations, humane organizations, industry specialists, academics, students and all levels of government.

The keynote speaker was Dr. Temple Grandin, a designer of livestock handling facilities and professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. Temple is world renowned for her equipment designs that are used in meat plants and her scientific work on reducing handling stress of animals. Her book, Animals in Translation, was a New York Times best seller. She has also written other popular press books, scientific textbooks and chapters and hundreds of industry publications. She has received numerous awards from humane and industry organizations. She has developed animal welfare guidelines for the meat industry and has consulted with McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and other companies.

All of these achievements are made more remarkable because Temple was an autistic child. At age two she could not talk and had all the signs of autism. Her mother defied the doctors who wanted her institutionalized, and instead Temple was given speech therapy and intensive teaching. She was mentored by her high school science teacher and her aunt who was a rancher, motivating her to pursue a career as a scientist and livestock equipment designer. HBO produced a movie about Temple's early life and career, and the film won seven Emmy awards, a Golden Globe and a Peabody award.

Temple covered the basics of her work in her presentation, emphasizing how important no-stress handling is and how to accomplish it. She also outlined what is needed to keep animals calm, and how to set up a system that is easy to monitor and audit. She pointed out that people are far removed from food production, and because of the images they see in movies, books and the internet, they view farm animals as pets. She recommended "streaming everything out to the internet" and show what we do. Her advice had already been taken by BCFACC; the entire conference was being videotaped.

Susan Church, who managed Alberta Farm Animal Care Association until her retirement in 2009, spoke on the value and merit of farm animal care councils, mainly for improved animal well-being and better returns for farm businesses. Jackie Wepruk of National Farm Animal Care Council spoke on the ongoing revisions of the Codes of Practice, a science-based consensus process that includes many stakeholders. Ron Maynard, a dairy farmer and Vice President of Dairy Farmers of Canada, spoke on the dairy farmers experience with their new Codes of Practice.

Other industry perspectives were also given. Certified Livestock Transportation was discussed by Kevan Garecki, Bonnie Windsor of Johnston's Packers gave the pork processor's view on animal welfare and its importance to meat quality and animal handling in the plant, and Ken Clark of Overwaitea Food Group talked about the retail end and how they educate consumers on the welfare practices of their suppliers.

Dr. David Fraser, NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Animal Welfare from UBC shared his thoughts on adapting to a changing world. Beyond the nuts and bolts of good animal welfare, which includes husbandry, nutrition, disease prevention and treatment, and low stress handling, he said that animal welfare is now a global political issue as well. He sees the extreme animal welfare view of Europe as a reflection of the European conflict with the industrial revolution. The debate in Europe over industrialization has set the stage for what are seeing today. Opponents say that cities and factories were not beneficial to humans, and the agrarian model of days past, with freedom of the individual and the emotional romanticism that results are important. The other world view that sees cities and factories that relieve people of laborious jobs and increase productivity and wealth as good, is viewed also as progress and improvement, and is "rational". The mid 1900`s were concerned with production, as food security and the shortage of labour were real issues.
As modern advancements allowed for a greater intensification of farming, the term ``factory farming`` cropped up, not by farmers but by their critics.

Society’s pet-centric trends and lack of farm knowledge, and the fact that farmers are not among the majority of voters or consumers, has created more pressure on farmers who raise livestock. The BC Farm Animal Care Council is there to work with producers and give them the resources they need, and to ensure the public has the information they want. The BC Farm Animal Care Line is 877-828-5486.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

SPCA seizure of pigs clear as mud

SPCA photo and caption: Sow and her babies recover at boarding farm after being seized from substandard conditions in an SPCA cruelty investigation.
     Most people are familiar with the positive work that the SPCA does, mainly in finding homes for cats and dogs that are abandoned, and educating people about the importance of spaying or neutering our pets. Most people don’t know that the SPCA has a great deal of authority in seizing pets and farm animals from people that the SPCA believes are negligent in providing care. In this way the SPCA play a critical role in ensuring that farm animals are cared for  to a set standard, according to the BC Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.  The SPCA, although well meaning, have been viewed by some as lacking in expertise, overzealous, or even not providing the best solution for a situation, when it comes to farm animals.
     On October 5th and 6th, nearly 100 rare breed Berkshire pigs were seized from a Cowichan Valley farm by the SPCA, triggering a reaction from the community that raises questions about the way the SPCA operates and the power that the organization has. I think the SPCA thought it would be a textbook case of going in to take abused animals out of a poor situation, but it proved to be more complicated than that. The event coincided with a fall campaign by the organization to raise awareness about farm animals and the SPCA certified program, which provides a third party audit to farms that want to use the SPCA certified label on their farm products. The seizure was publicized in newspapers and on television, and quickly posted onto the SPCA website with a plea for money at the end of the posting.
     The event also coincided with the fall meetings and AGMs that farmers have. The seizure of the pigs was an emotional topic of discussion at the BC Sheep Federation AGM held in Duncan; many participants knew the farmer who owned the Berkshires, a rare breed that were raised to sell as weaners to other farmers. There were people there who bought pigs from Bill and found them to be in good health. They spoke of how much Bill loved his pigs. Was it necessary to take away all of his pigs in such a manner, which would probably result in boarding costs that eventually exceed the value of the pigs? There were many people who would have helped Bill out by taking some of the excess pigs, if they had known. A group of volunteers quickly organized and contacted the SPCA and Bill with offers to find homes for the pigs and help any way they could. Many letters from farmers and non-farmers were written to local papers, supporting Bill. A resolution was passed at the BCSF AGM to write a letter to the Minister of Agriculture about this situation and others regarding the SPCA seizing livestock.
      I think that many livestock producers worried that it could be them next - for keeping that old ewe who always gave you good lambs but should have been culled, the bottle fed calf that became one of your oldest (and now thinnest) cows, or the elderly neighbour who needs some facilities spruced up to be safe and dry for their animals.
      The majority of the populace are generations removed from the farm, and their main contact with animals are with their own pets or the farm animals in a petting zoo.  This complicates the issue when the SPCA finds itself dependent on fundraising to meet their mandate, and their pleas for funds appeal to the emotional love most people have for their pets. 
     Regarding the Berkshire pigs, it was not a simple case of an overzealous SPCA conducting their mandate, although there have been indications that the SPCA did exert a lot of muscle by using the RCMP. It was fortunate that the SPCA brought in the BC Farm Animal Care Council, a new producer organization that's role is to work with producers regarding animal welfare. The SPCA was getting a veterinarian to attend, and the BCFACC suggested a retired and well respected pig producer come along as well, someone who was instrumental in buying Bill some time with another two weeks to improve the housing. The pigs were overall in better condition that the authorities expected because they are hardy Berkshires, but there was concern over the mud and housing, especially since the situation was expected to become much worse once the fall rains arrived.   Bill was known to be overwhelmed with the work involved in feeding and caring for his growing breeding herd, and he struggled with the challenges of keeping several boars for the rare breed. Hindsight is 20/20 as they say, and Bill slipped between the cracks as a small farmer who is on his own with little support. Notwithstanding that, he worked hard to improve the housing in the two weeks, which was recognized by the industry experts but the SPCA decided to seize the pigs anyways.  And pigs being pigs, well, it's pretty difficult to keep them dry when housed outside since they are experts at making places muddier than usual through their rooting behaviour.
     The veterinarian and former pig producer were asked to leave by the SPCA prior to the seizure, so they did not witness the loading or new location for the pigs. There were reports that the boars were put together and ended up fighting and injuring each other, resulting in some being put down. The housing was an open barn, not a pig barn with separate pens, so the more vulnerable pigs were at risk - while under the SPCA's care. No doubt the SPCA is frustrated and embarrassed that their own actions caused distress to the very animals they were trying to protect. Perhaps they can appreciate that pigs and other farm animals are not cats and dogs, and that in areas that they aren’t experts they should work with the farm community.
     The SPCA and the public should also realize that farmers want to care for their animals, and most meet or exceed the standards outlined in the Codes of Practice according to the National Farm Animal Care Council. These Codes are currently being reviewed and rewritten in order to provide updated guidelines for livestock producers.
     So what can be learned from this incident? With the lack of government extension support for farmers there is a reliance on producer organizations, mostly volunteer. It is not only a good source of information on farming methods and resources, it is also a good source of camaraderie and support. There are many farmers who have found themselves in situations where they needed help, and neighbours who saw the need were there for them. One suggestion to come out of this was to have the BCFACC set up a peer network so that if there are SPCA complaints regarding livestock, there are producer associations and farmers institutes available to advise SPCA and help the farmers who are trying to comply but lack the resources and support to do so. The rapid and organized response to Bill's situation by various farm groups and individuals in the Cowichan Valley and beyond indicate that this approach may greatly improve and enhance the efforts of the SPCA to achieve their mandate in a more sensible way.
    Good farmers do not condone bad farming, so the formation of the BC Farm Animal Care Council is a positive move by livestock producers to work with producers "to address everyday challenges and to continue to provide a high level of care to their animals.  The BCFACC was formed to foster communication between producers, promote a high level of animal care, work to proactively address challenges in animal agriculture and communicate with the public on the sound, science-based and humane animal care practices farmers and ranchers implement in BC".

Do you have questions or concerns about farm animal care? Call the BC Farm Animal Care Line:1-877-828-5486

Gulf Island Apples - famous before the Okanagan

The Gulf Islands are dotted with old apple orchards, marking homestead sites where the homes are often long gone. But the trees are there, and many of them have huge apples known as the King apples. The Gulf Island farms were the major growers of apples at one time, shipping apples to Vancouver and Victoria via boat. This was before the Okanagan took the title. According to “A Gulf Islands Patchwork”, published by the Gulf Islands Branch of the BC Historical Association, Mayne Island was the first place in BC to grow apples. As the story goes, a Captain Simpson from England was to do survey work on the Pacific Coast. At a party in England before his voyage, a lady slipped some apple pips into his waistcoat pocket and told him to plant them once he arrived at his destination. Captain Simpson remembered the request once he arrived on Mayne Island and was invited to a formal dinner. He put on the same waistcoat, put his hand into his pocket, and found the pips. He planted them on the spot, where they produced apple trees.
Today many of the orchards in the Gulf Islands are enjoyed by deer and sheep, and are in need of some pruning and care. There are always people who will offer to pick your apples for their own use, but scarce few who will do it in exchange for help with the pruning on those cold days in February. It takes time and work to maintain an orchard, especially the older orchards.

Wilf Mennell telling the story of the Ambrosia apple to a group of international farm writers visiting BC

     Prices to producers have dropped below the cost of production in many cases in Canada. At one time, Canadian apples were exported and in high demand for their quality. Now, there is a worldwide glut of apples as China is now the main producer and exporter of apples. The US, with some export markets dried up now push their exports into Canada. Washington produces 60 percent of the apples in the US, and BC produces 30 percent of Canadian apples. In recent years there have been efforts to increase the value of Canadian apples through replant programs that take out the older trees and replace them with higher density plantings that will produce higher quality fruit and are easier to harvest.
     To aid in the development of new varieties that can give producers a market edge and also fairly compensate them for their work, the government enacted the Plant Breeders Rights Act in 1987 and one of the first apples to receive this protection was the Ambrosia apple. The Ambrosia originated from a single chance seedling in the twelve acre organic orchard of Wilf and Sally Mennell in Cawston, organic capital of BC. Unlike the intensive breeding and screening of potential candidates in a normal plant breeding program, the Ambrosia apple was a product of neglect and sloppiness, with a dash of observation and lots of determination and luck (not unlike many scientific discoveries). The seedling had grown amongst a replanted orchard of Jonagolds where some varieties of Delicious apples and plums had been previously, but was not noticed until some of the pickers started selectively choosing the apples from one tree in the Mennell’s orchard for their own consumption. They must have been really good and unique for apple pickers to strip the tree clean every time it was full of fruit. The Mennell’s found out about the pickers’ favourite apple, and sampled some themselves in 1989. The hard work for the Mennell’s was in working with the newly formed Plant Improvement Corporation of the Okanagan in 1993 to evaluate the new apple, plant test orchards, and file under the new Plant Breeders Rights in Canada, and a US patent as well. Royalties are paid on each Ambrosia tree sold, which has been a very popular apple worldwide.
     The increased interest in unique and special apples of high quality has created a resurgence in the growing of apples for niche markets. One such passionate grower is on Salt Spring Island. Harry Burton not only grows many types of apples organically, he also celebrates them each fall with the community in a special Apple Festival. The Apple Festival contributes to not only farm incomes, but the economy of the island as a whole. The Apple Festival this year had a seminar by long-time Seattle apple expert Dr. Bob Norton, a tour of sixteen farms and many, many participants who came to learn about, taste, and celebrate the apple. The ripening of this year’s crop was delayed  all over the province due to the weather, and Harry has a wide variety of apples ready now and available for sale by the box, all organic. Not only would that be a fine way to stock up for the winter, but they would make unique gifts as well.