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By Ruth Knight
On Friday, November 25th most of the directors from western Ontario traveled to eastern Ontario. In Kemptville we met with Rita Stoller and Hubert Earl, our directors for the east, for November's board meeting. It was really rewarding to meet face-to-face with the folks we speak to over a conference phone.
On Saturday we joined up with our new director from central Ontario and our eastern friends for the advanced ecological agriculture course. The course was well attended with 20 participants.
Bob Budd and Harold Saunders started the course off with an overview of Community Shared Agriculture. Bob and his wife have been operating their CSA for four years, while Harold and his family started their CSA this past summer.
Harold presented some thoughts to consider before farmers commit themselves to a CSA operation. These are: whether you're a "people person" - you will have to deal with many people on a fairly personal level; what control are you willing to give up - for instance, the sharers will decide what to grow; and what can sharers do to ease some of the labour needs - consider an organizer to contact members or a sharer to do administrative and computer work.
Once a decision is made, Harold offered some tips. Plan ahead at least one year by growing a cover crop such as alfalfa. This lessens the problem Harold ran into - battling weeds all summer.
Harold highlighted some other challenges he faced. Too many varieties of vegetables makes it confusing for the sharer to decide, and too difficult to split up the shares. While money is provided upfront, the "burden" of his responsibility to deliver the goods was a major challenge.
Harold had great success promoting their CSA and reached their desired number of sharers quite easily. An interview Harold did with CBC radio resulted in a lot of interest in the local newspapers as well. Harold also contacted local holistic health practitioners and doctors, as well as the local clubs and organizations his family members attend.
Tony McQuail spoke about orchards, and his experience with pasturing sheep in his orchard. (Boy it sure beats mowing that grass all summer long!) Tony's orchard management is based on the objective of utilizing solar energy as opposed to the petro-chemical approach. The combination of sheep and ecological orchard management helps to deal with some of the common problems of orcharding. (Details of his pasture management appear in his own article.) Tony recommends you avoid grazing goats in an orchard, and also cautions that not all breeds of sheep have desirable grazing behaviours. Some highland sheep do more browsing, where as a breed like Suffolk will graze mostly on grass. Careful timing of rotation helps avoid some unwanted browsing, and more importantly it keeps the grass at a good even height.
Tony gave some hints on planting out new trees and recommended ways to add further protection from rodents. Do so by placing a collar of flexible field tile or hardware cloth around tree and then put 2 to 4 inches of drainage gravel around the base of the tree. This prevents the rodents from digging and adds weight to dwarf tree roots. Compost for fertility should be placed around the drip line of the tree in fall or early spring. If placing the compost in fall, avoid fluffy compost (i.e. straw) which makes excellent nesting sites for mice.
When pruning, careful selection is critical. Tony emphasized the importance of branches having right-angled crotches; these are much stronger than narrowly-angled ones. At planting time, prune back the top of new trees, to balance out any loss the roots have incurred. Another important factor in orchard management is to choose scab and disease resistant varieties.
Lunch time proved to be a good opportunity to visit and meet new friends. It was such a good time, that Ted had a difficult job rounding us all up again for the second part of the course. Ted gave a status report on organic milk.
Six certified producers are shipping milk to Pine River Co-operative where it is being processed into cheese. (At the moment the processor isn't able to handle all of the milk they produce, let alone that of the six other certified producers in the area.) A great deal of time has been spent getting this going, and Ted had lots of experiences to share. As the market opens up it appears that Pine River has made a wise decision in co-operating with the organic producers.
Ted made some additional comments with respect to organic certification. Although some of the areas of livestock management are given grey treatment in the organic standards, he advised that organic producers should bear three things in mind, or they perhaps risk become targets for criticism from conventional farmers. The three minimum standards for livestock on organic farms should be: hoof trimming; access to the outdoors and daily exercise; and loose housing, especially for dry cows and for young calves after one month of age. (This last point is related to the ability of the livestock to exhibit their social behaviour.)
"The key to pasture management is understanding the growth cycle of grass and matching it with livestock diet needs." As Hubert Earl pointed out, this way of thinking is quite opposite to the approach most of us are accustomed to. The reasons for intensive pasture management are economic, lifestyle and biological. Animals are doing the moving instead of machinery, and that saves on maintenance and repairs. With less requirement for grain, feed costs are reduced. Labour costs are also reduced. Once the paddocks are set up, it takes only 15 to 20 minutes per day for fencing. At the same time, livestock herd health is improved with less culling and improved conception rates. In the area of lifestyle, intensive pasture management allows dairy farmers to shut down for part of the year. It places ruminants in sync with nature as grazers, and this will take some of the activists off our backs. The soil structure will improve and pesticides and fertilizers can be eliminated. The first step to pasture management is to think in terms of profit per acre or farm, think as a grass farmer.
Hubert also had some comments regarding breeds suited for this type of management. Holsteins don't keep their condition, they always look for shade. Hubert recommends cross breeding or dual purpose breeds like Dutch Belted, Canadian, Shorthorn, and Brown Swiss. The most efficient animal is 1000 pounds one. The grass should be 8 inches high when the cattle are put in. Anything 12 inches or higher should be made into hay. In this way you get good hay, and the pasture will bounce back quicker than if it had been trampled. In September half of the pasture land should be set aside for stockpiling. Then at freeze up, take half of the stockpiled grass and pasture it. Leave the other half, the one with the best drainage, for the following spring. There is no simple recipe for designing the paddocks but one hint Hubert gave was not to make them so narrow that it forces the animals to eat behind one anther.
All in all it was an enjoyable day and an interesting weekend. Too bad we didn't have more time to take in some farm visits as well. Well, maybe next time folks.
Copyright © 1995 Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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