Simplifying Organic Certification

An innovative, province-wide online tool is now available for producers seeking organic certification! Thanks to a project led by the Certified Organic Associations of BC (COABC), the once onerous application process has been radically streamlined to save operators time, paperwork and money.

According to Jen Gamble, executive director of the COABC, the online system fills two sizable gaps for the province’s organic sector.

“Previously there were no certification bodies in BC that offered a live online application process,” explains Gamble, adding that the information captured will also populate a database to supply better statistics, another first in BC.

While data on the organic sector is in high demand, it is difficult to access and has never been consistent or reliable.

“Now with accurate numbers we are better positioned to identify gaps and predict potential areas for growth,” anticipates Gamble. “We are already seeing the capability of the system to provide concrete information in the long term.”

And with BC’s mandatory organic regulation taking effect, the project proved especially timely for the many producers and processors now required to verify their products have accredited organic certification.

For the COABC, ensuring that the increasing numbers of transitional organic operators can access a supportive and user-friendly platform was a top priority, especially given the unfamiliarity and discomfort many farmers feel with online navigation.

To address the technology challenge and ease the transition, the COABC developed user guides and supplementary how-to videos to assist new entrants and have also trained their own staff to offer tech support via phone and email. And to ensure users without access to internet or computers are not excluded, certifying bodies will continue to offer a non-digital alternative until applicants are familiar with the new tool. (For those who simply need to renew their certification, Gamble promises the initial data recorded will re-populate in subsequent years to considerably expedite the renewal process.)

So far feedback from stakeholders across the sector has been largely positive, and the COABC continues to offer training sessions when necessary to ensure a smooth transition for those coming onboard.

In addition to simplifying the application process and enhancing data collection, Gamble is delighted to see numerous other benefits unfolding because of the project, including increased collaboration and communication within the sector and a clearer understanding of the role and benefits the COABC brings to the sector.  

“As we shift into a high-tech future, tools like this are vital to the success and sustainability of the organic sector, and we are confident the system will see widespread adoption and sustained use,” she predicts.

Funding: $117,568 provided through the former federal-provincial Safety Net Fund. (A0818)

New Ag Plan Offers Reason To Hope

When the Hope Food Collective undertook a Community Food Security Assessment in 2016, there was a clear and consistent message from residents seeking more local options with more control over the source and quality of their food.

Unfortunately, with its surplus of under-utilized agricultural land and lack of supportive policies, the District of Hope had a long way to go to meet these expectations. So, with the help of IAF’s Agricultural Area Planning Program, the District formed an Agricultural Advisory Committee and began the process to strengthen and promote its local food system.

And with recent endorsement by City Council, the new Hope Food and Agriculture Plan now offers a ten-to 15-year blueprint for guiding the long-term development of agri-food systems in Hope!

According to project manager Brittany Ekelund, the plan reflects extensive consultation and presents a shared vision to support both new and existing agri-businesses and enhance food security for everyone.

“The plan is a long-range strategy for increasing the use of agricultural land for farming as well as establishing and scaling-up the local food and agriculture value chain,” says Ekelund. “The plan takes a food system approach and considers all aspects of the value chain from production, processing and direct-sales to celebration and food recovery.”

Priorities captured in the ambitious new plan include maintaining Agricultural Land Reserve boundaries and discouraging subdivision, expanding processing infrastructure, establishing a regional food hub, encouraging ecologically responsible agriculture practices and creating a branding strategy for Hope food and agriculture.

The regional branding initiative is already underway, offering logos and other marketing materials to government, business and education sectors. With access to new tools, Hope producers and processors can more easily tap into larger regional markets, fulfilling another key priority identified during consultations.

“During the 2016 assessment, local producers expressed a need for a consistent, viable market for their products, so we really wanted our plan to offer specific avenues for improving marketing opportunities,” explains Ekelund, adding that they are also focused on creating a more supportive and inclusive farmers’ market.

For Ekelund, increasing collaboration, communication and educational opportunities is the most important path forward in building a strong and sustainable industry, especially when it comes to recruiting new talent to the local ag sector.

“Hope offers an appealing option for innovative, young or new agriculturalists interested in small-scale agriculture,” she says. They can take advantage of our current low cost of agricultural land relative to the Lower Mainland, location for easy distribution and excellent water quality and soil health.”

And for added incentive, the District hopes to host a workshop series for farmers, processors and artisans to learn practical business skills and is also exploring ways to help producers navigate government regulations and permitting requirements to responsibly grow their operations.

“We’re trying to build a network of farmers that can work together to support each other, pool resources, develop products and expand market share for the benefit of the entire community,” Ekelund emphasizes.

Funding: $13,000 provided through the former federal-provincial Safety Net Fund. (B0016.47)

Blueberry Growers Defend Biodiversity

Indigenous to the Fraser Valley, Western Barn Owls can be a berry grower’s best friend, patrolling farm fields at night for voles and other unwelcome visitors. By weight, these owls consume more rodents than most other predators, making them one of the most economically valuable wildlife animals for agriculture.

In recent years however, these predatory powerhouses have faced mounting pressures such as habitat loss and secondary poisoning from consuming pests with rodenticide in their systems.

In an effort to lift the owls from the threatened species list, the Fraser Basin Council Society (FBCS) teamed with local Abbotsford growers to explore an integrated pest management approach (IPM) that would reduce rodenticide use and provide habitat and nesting sites to host western barn owls.

According to project manager Christina Toth, part of the problem for farmers was a lack of clarity on rodenticide application levels.

“By educating producers on the correct and appropriate application to protect their crops, they can not only save time, money and labour, but help protect biodiversity in the Fraser Valley,” Toth explains, adding that the benefits extend beyond owls to other predatory raptors and mammals potentially affected by rodenticide use.

Fact sheets in both English and Punjabi are now available to growers, offering best practices for rodenticide use, as well as tips on how to assess vole presence and damage to crops and how to develop more effective, economical and environmentally sustainable IPM plans.

So far 11 blueberry farms have implemented best management practices for rodenticide use and installed barn owl nest boxes to help control voles.

Toth sees the project as a ground-breaking initiative, both in terms of farm management and environmental stewardship.

“We’ve had amazing response from both conventional and organic growers eager for information that will help them enhance the relationship between agriculture and the environment,” she says.

Given that BC is one of the largest highbush blueberry-growing regions in the world, the project was especially timely.

Parm Bains, who grows both conventional and organic blueberries at Westberry Farms in Abbotsford, is relieved a new approach for pest control is available after having long struggled with the vole problem.

“In the last ten years especially,” he describes, “we’ve seen the problem getting worse and worse—in conventional fields, we’re having to use rodenticides far more frequently, which of course carries both environmental and economic impacts.”

With new barn owl nest boxes installed in his fields, Westberry Farms is now part of the growing industry shift that prioritizes sustainability.

And while the focus centered mostly on blueberry growers, the resources developed through the project are applicable to other agricultural sectors, including vegetable and tree fruit growers, viticulture, nurseries and the newly expanding small grains and hops sectors.

Fact sheets and information on nest boxes are available to growers through the BC Blueberry Council website and its new smartphone app.

Funding: $20,000 through the former federal-provincial Safety Net Fund. (A0814AE)

Meals on Wheels Campaign Drives Growth for Lower Mainland Farms

Launched in 2007 by COO and Chef Marcus VonAlbrecht, MAVA Foods maintains a simple but powerful mission—to make food that is good for people and the planet, utilizing all natural, seasonal ingredients from local producers like 63 Acres Farms, Delta Fisheries and the Blue Goose Cattle Company.

One way it fulfills this purpose is by preparing food for Meals on Wheels in the Lower Mainland, a program that provides homebound individuals with nutritious, delicious hot meals at their doorsteps.

While it has already offered a lifeline for hundreds of local residents, Marcus felt they could do more.

“It’s been proven that when you buy from a locally-owned business, significantly more of your money is used to make purchases from other local businesses,” he explains. “We knew that by boosting sales of MAVA Foods’ meals we could benefit ten different companies in the Greater Vancouver Area, including local farms.”

Determined to increase sales by 200 meals a week (or $3,200 every month), MAVA launched a local marketing initiative, targeting senior citizens with an advertorial campaign in local publications like the Vancouver Sun and Province.

“We also wanted to provide at least 200 candidates with printed material explaining that by choosing us, they are choosing local farms and producers which strengthens both their economy and their bodies,” added Marcus. “This way not only seniors would benefit but local companies would increase their sales, enabling them to create more jobs and keep the money within our communities.”

In less than a year they had surpassed their goal, achieving a monthly sales average of $4,600, which has led to three new jobs at the MAVA facility, more purchase orders from BC producers and more investment opportunities for both themselves and their partners.

“Our suppliers frequently visit us at MAVA Foods headquarters to discuss production matters and improvements, and many of them have reported increased hiring due to growing sales volumes,” says Marcus.

With new suppliers like Hazelmere Organic Farm, Gelderman Farms and Bremner Foods joining their network, MAVA is now able to source 85 percent of their ingredients from BC producers and is hoping to eventually become 100 percent locally-sourced.

For Marcus, buying local is fundamental to MAVA’s business success and will continue to remain one of their bottom lines.

“The support of local marketing funding is essential to expanding the outcomes of this value chain and benefiting the entire BC community,” he believes. “It’s a win-win situation to all stakeholders involved.”

Funding: $4,410 provided by the Government of British Columbia. (BL286)

Food Hubs Help Meet Local Demand

In a survey of Cowichan Valley small and medium food businesses, farmers reported that they have trouble selling all their products, yet restaurants and stores reported there wasn’t enough local supply.

This discrepancy occurs because small- scale farmers and food processors can’t compete with larger-scale operations in terms of volume, consistency and pricing. They also can’t afford the proper equipment and systems to cool, store and market their products.

To better aggregate their products and resources, a growing number of farmers in the US and Canada are collaborating to form “Food Hubs.” After four well-attended meetings in the Cowichan Valley, farmers, retailers, restaurants and other local food leaders, concluded that they needed a thorough feasibility study to establish viability before they formed a Food Hub of their own.

With funding through Investment Agriculture’s Small Project Program, the British Columbia Cooperative Association (BCCA) prepared a Food Hub Feasibility Study for the area.

The researchers analyzed existing food hub models in North America, identified potential partners, evaluated market demand and developed potential scenarios. They concluded that a food hub co-operative is definitely a viable enterprise in the Cowichan Valley.

In 2014, the Cowichan Valley Co-operative Marketplace, in partnership with Cowichan Green Community started the “Cow-op” Online Market (www.cow-op.ca), a year-round internet marketplace for locally grown and harvested produce, meat, eggs, seafood, cheese, honey and more.

“The food hub in the Cowichan Valley will bring an increased income for farmers and a more stable local food supply for buyers,” states Carol Murray, Executive Director of the BCCA. “In addition, we expect an increased understanding of local agriculture, and an overall improvement in food security.”

FUNDING: $10,000 through the former federal-provincial safety nets framework. (SP218)

Beyond the Market Gives a Hand Up to New Northern Farmers

Since 2010, Community Futures along the BC Highway 16 corridor has been working to support agricultural growth by building community and providing professional development for farmers in the region through the Beyond the Market program.

Their most recent project, the New Farm Development Initiative focused on creating resources and providing support to address one of their biggest challenges.

“One of the main differences between agriculture in the North and South is that land access is not the main challenge, it’s access to information, markets, transportation and that all ties in with general business support services,” says Jillian Merrick, Beyond the Market program coordinator based out of Community Futures Fraser-Fort George. “What the North lacks is not farm land, it’s farmers.”

The New Farm Development Initiative provided support to new farm entrants from business concept to implementation. Staff and volunteers provided assistance in guiding new farm entrants through business planning, market research and financial planning for farm operations, as well as providing technical skills through mentorship and hands-on workshops and seminars.

“We saw a need for tailored coaching and training services akin to old extension services for farm entrepreneurs,” says Merrick. “Through the program we provided ground level service to farmers in the start-up or concept development phase, and created a framework for services that would benefit this region the most.”

Addressing the diversity of the region, and consequently the farmers’ needs required a custom approach. The BC Highway 16 region stretches from Valemount in the Rocky Mountains, through the northern interior plateau, to the temperate coastal climate of Terrace. Put in production terms, that’s 50 to 150 frost-free days per year.

“Everyone has a different learning style and availability. Training events are great for people to meet each other and share experiences, but there was a definite need for one-on-one coaching,” Merrick explains. “Coaching services really help with the business planning process, and save a lot of time because the information is directly relevant to the farmer.”

Tessa Young and her husband moved from the Fraser Valley to buy 40-acres near Prince George and pursue their dream of farming, they were in uncharted territory.

“We moved from Maple Ridge without knowing a single person and having never been here before,” says Young. “We connected with Jillian right away, and she coached me in making a business plan and meeting others in the farming community.”

“Getting connected wasn’t just about finding mentors, but finding other people in the same boat with the same interests to encourage each other along,” she adds. “Working with people that already had experience in this area was invaluable to us in finding a direction that was possible for our business.”

In addition to courses and coaching, the New Farm Development initiative produced the “A-Z Guide for New Northern Farmers.” This unique guide was developed out of a series of outreach events in six different communities along the BC Highway 16 corridor. It compiles answers to dozens of farm-related questions from past, present and future farmers in the area.

The “A-Z Guide for New Northern Farmers” and other resources compiled as part of the New Farm Initiative are available at www.beyondthemarket.ca/new-farmers.

Funding: $33,021 through the former federal-provincial Safety Nets framework. (A0711)

Abbotsford Agriculture Strategy

Agriculture generates one out of every five jobs in Abbotsford and has a direct economic impact of $1.8 billion annually. With that many eggs in one basket, the City of Abbotsford wanted to develop an agriculture strategy to drive the future growth of this vital industry.

“Abbotsford has a truly fundamental connection with agriculture, both as a viable economic enterprise and as a defining element of our culture and way of life,” says Mayor Bruce Banman.

Through IAF funding, a strategy development project was launched in 2009 under the guidance of Abbotsford’s Agriculture Advisory Committee and the BC Ministry of Agriculture.

The first phase involved background research, mapping and the development of a land use inventory. This then formed part of an extensive profile of agriculture within the community.

Digging up input from the agriculture sector and the broader community was next. Public consultations involved interviews with community groups and industry stakeholders, seven workshops with agriculture and processing sectors and four neighbourhood meetings.

Over the following months, all of the recommendations were distilled into an issues and opportunities paper and additional feedback was sought on priorities, culminating in a draft strategy.

Each of the specifics of the strategy went through an extensive review before the strategy was presented to council and approved in May 2011.

“Abbotsford’s Agriculture Strategy will help ensure that agriculture continues to prosper and grow by increasing productive farmland for food production, protecting the agricultural land base and attracting agricultural innovation and public support for this valued resource,” adds Mayor Banman.

With a robust new strategy in place, attention has now turned to taking action on the highest priorities.

The city is already working on an agri-industrial study that will look at policy options for enhancing value-added opportunities. A rural area plan will start next year. Other groups, such as the University of the Fraser Valley, are leading on some of the other priorities identified.

“Now we have to sink our teeth into some of the key issues Abbotsford faces and use this strategy as a guide,” explains Marcus Janzen, a greenhouse grower who chairs the Advisory Committee. “That’s a good thing for Abbotsford, the citizens of Abbotsford and especially its farmers.”

Funding: $30,479 provided through former federal adaptation programming. (A0577)

Okanagan Similkameen Reduces Ag Waste

Some projects are so successful, the benefits keep coming and new projects are born. That’s what’s happening in the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen (RDOS).

Historically, burning was a common orchard removal practice in RDOS. Sadly, wood smoke is one of the most dangerous health hazards in BC.

“Regional districts have the capability and expertise in many areas that can significantly support the farming sector,” remarks Brian Baehr, manager of agriculture environment initiatives at ARDCORP. “The RDOS is a leader in responding to the service needs of agriculture at a local government level.”

In 2006, the RDOS took measures to reduce farm burning by developing an on-farm chipping program and waiving the tipping fees at the landfill for properly prepared agricultural waste.

In implementing these programs, two opportunities emerged to benefit both agriculture and the environment: 1) using wood chips as mulch to improve the soil and 2) improving recycling options for farmers.

In 2007, with funding from IAF through the Agriculture Environment Stewardship Initiative, comprehensive guides highlighting best management practice for wood waste disposal and recycling of agricultural plastics made a significant impact on agricultural practices in the region.

“With the funding from IAF, we were able to reduce both smoke pollution and waste going to the landfill substantially in a remarkably short period of time,” observes Allan Patton, a farmer and RDOS director for electoral area “C” (rural Oliver).

In 2010, with funding from the Agriculture Environment and Wildlife Fund, RDOS further updated the guides, complementing them with extension and educational materials to expand the program even more.

Ten minute film clips covering all of the material were developed and made available in both English and Punjabi.  Presentations were made at grower meetings and guides were widely distributed at local agribusinesses and government offices.

“When additional opportunities were identified, growers were more than willing to participate,” notes Janice Johnson, owner of A Foot Step Closer, consultant on these projects and former air quality coordinator with RDOS. “These projects not only strengthen agriculture, but they also improve air quality, soil health and water for our entire region. “

For more information visit: www.rdos.bc.ca

Funding: $30,000 provided through the Agri-Food Futures Fund. (AEWF 10-005, 006, 013)