Field 5 Farm Tour.. malt, whiskey, beer, flax…

Saturday was a beautiful day for a farm party and tour of the facilities at Field 5 Farm, where Farm Folk City Folk was also showing off a new mobile seed cleaner. Farm and city folk gathered to sample some local whiskey and beer made from Field 5 malts, enjoy some music and learn a bit more about local grains and watch some seed cleaning demos.

Mike Doehnel, last seen at a Kneading Conference some years ago in Mount Vernon, is now farming with Field 5 and gave some info about what’s being grown and the challenges of harvesting small scale for different purposes. Two different flax plots growing, one for a cover crop and the other for the very flax farmer I’d seen (during last month’s North Saanich Flavour Trail at Sandown), whose interest is in producing local linen. Photo above shows black oats, and here Mike talks about khorasan wheat, an ancient grain.

Lisa Willot (FFCF‘s Vancouver Island Seed Security Program Coordinator)checks on the equipment in the mobile seed cleaner, which she’ll be taking on the road soon. It will allow small scale producers to save more local seed. Which improves local food security by allowing farmers to plant more locally produced crops adapted to changing climactic conditions.

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White Rock reading for National Organic Week

I was delighted to have a chance to read with local (Surrey BC) poet and civic treasure Heidi Greco, a fellow foodie and activist in all good causes. We decided to celebrate National Organic Week with a poetry conversation at White Rock Public Library on September 17.

Our poetry extended into a bit of baking, and we provided cookies as a reward to our delightful audience.

We made it a poetry conversation, alternating poems and thoughts on trees, food and matters ecological. Was busy reading and talking so not much time for photos, but here we were beforehand!

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Where does all the garbage go?

I learned the important connection between food and sewage years ago when I came across the excellent documentary Crapshoot: The Gamble with Our Wastes. The film of course talked also about garbage disposal and the endless growth of landfill waste which humans create so easily and dispose of so badly.

So I was pleased to finally be able to catch a Hartland Landfill tour, which I’d heard was well worth taking. So much has already been written and said about the growth of food waste in well-fed nations I won’t belabour the point here; but just to say it seems we are not willing or able to manage the food we buy, grow or manufacture, and despite composting pick-up systems now in place, too much of it still finds its way to places like Hartland, where it generates greenhouse gases.

So one of the features that most intrigued me was the methane capture system – basically a series of pipes laid into and across the ever growing garbage mountain, feeding into an electricity plant – which powers (so far) about 1600 homes in the area, with plans for expansion. However, as long as food waste – the primary source of this methane – can be diverted into composting programs, the growth will slow.

Our tour bus spent time sitting at the top of the current garbage mountain, so we could watch birds scavenging and scattering. Our guide told us that birds of prey (from the Cowichan Raptor Centre) come to keep order later in the year, and this program of Natural Predation is by far the most effective preventive measure they have found. The birds who feed on our garbage end up the worse for it because of consuming microplastics and toxins.

I was also encouraged to see inspectors checking each load that was deposited by garbage trucks. Because space is limited by planetary constraints, our municipalities have strict guidelines about garbage vs recyclables and compostables; the guidelines are enforced through fining the trucks that pick up our bins. A 2016 study of Hartland found that organics, paper and plastics made up half of what is thrown away by locals; hence our blue and green bin pick-up programs.

Even so, unless consumers and businesses change their ways by reducing their annual waste load of 400kg/person to 125kg, Hartland expects to run out of space by 2045. At this point the waste will be destined to take over some of the local hiking and bike trails on a neighbouring mountain.

Adjoining the current mountain is a new valley being excavated ready to fill; in the background are sea, sky and mountains. And here’s what the power station looks like. There’s a nearby leachate pond as well, which is toxic fluid runoff, contaminated by

The landfill site is also a busy recycling centre, trying to reclaim as much as possible from consumer waste – people can bring in plastics, metal, clothing, paint etc to a public drop-off area, and the centre distributes and sorts it for whatever further life it might have. There’s composting available for larger scale drops, for a fee.

Here’s a closing thought: one of the items that has been deemed not recyclable is a damaged blue box!

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Aeroponics in Victoria

Tomato and basil plants growing aeroponically

Basil and tiny tomato plants

For the first time in a long while I went on a farm tour of sorts last Thursday. This one was a tour of an aeroponics project run by Harvest and Share Food Relief Society. It’s housed on the grounds of Victoria’s Government House, next to its vegetable garden and Victory Over COVID Garden.

While I am not generally a big fan of artificial growing media (more on that shortly) this one was set up with the worthwhile goal to provide fresh greens to local food banks and community kitchens during the summer growing season. Currently they’re growing basil, baby romaine and tiny grape tomatoes.

The setup involves aluminum pyramids with planting holes spaced 6 inches apart; each of the 25 planters can hold 136 plants. The plants are started in peat plugs, set into small plastic baskets that fit the planting holes. Foam (styrofoam) is often used in such systems, but can’t be cleaned or easily recycled. The system is lightweight and planters can be tipped up or moved to allow maintenance of the spray nutrient system that feeds them.

Aeroponics pyramid planter growing lettuce

Baby romaine lettuce

Aeroponics planters, man showing plant pot

Planters & pots

Aeroponics pyramid planter

Plants seen from below

The plant roots extend into the growing space where they are misted with a liquid nutrient running through a pipe system beneath the planters, set on timers and propelled with a pump system. The excess liquid runs back into a collection bin where it is filtered and recycled. The nutrient liquid is changed at regular intervals, and the misting system needs checking and cleaning as it can get clogged.

Like many food growing innovations, some of the preliminary research into this method of food production came from the cannabis industry (Michael Pollen remarks on cannabis-grower-inspired horticultural innovation in Botany of Desire)

Aeroponics planter showing plant roots

Plant roots within the pyramid

Aeroponics pyramid planter watering system

Misting head and pipes

Aeroponics system inflow nutrient bin

Nutrient recycling bin

The original design of this system was set up for growing basil; plants with larger leafy systems need to be spaced more widely. For example, the planters do work well with potatoes, which will extend inside the pyramid with the leafy matter above, but the plants need to be spaced more widely and/or positioned where their bushy leaves don’t intrude on what else is growing in the same planter. Other plants have been tried, including broccoli and squash, but speed and quantity are the goals in the current setup.

Hopes for the future are to extend the growing season by building a greenhouse (the system is located on the cement pad once used for the greenhouse that served the Government House kitchen).

There are compromises in every agricultural method. Aeroponics is admired for its clean, water-conserving and productive features and small footprint. The nutrients in the foods grown are believed to be similar to those in soil-based methods, although of course it depends which nutrient mix, which growing conditions, and which soil you are talking about.

However, held to a sustainability lens, this particular system does depend on peat plugs, plastic pots, plastic piping and electricity to run; and relies on an imported liquid nutrient mix. So it will never be free of external inputs as a soil-based farm can be. Done on a large scale, it can take farmland out of production and damage the health of the soil beneath its operations as readily as any other human activity. Moved indoors / into a greenhouse, additional requirements include heating and dehumidification systems = more electricity.

Growing without soil means that humans must attempt to mimic nature in providing the nutrients for plant growth; our species has determined there are 17 (or maybe 18) essential plant nutrients, but in the soil of course there are far more micronutrients, as well as microbial helpers working synergistically to nourish plants and build soil, adapted to different soil and climactic conditions. To my mind, there are as well question marks around the source (sustainability) of the ingredients in the nutrient mix, as well as the risk of diseases that can be swiftly circulated through a closed system.

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Poetry walking in Saskatchewan

A week spent with environmental literati from around the country and beyond was stimulating, delicious and rather warm at times. The first ALECC conference since pandemic times was, as they say, an intimate affair – not everyone who could have attended was yet willing or able to rub shoulders – but protective measures such as masked indoor events felt safe and comradely.

Tuesday, the evening before the conference began, Mari-Lou Rowley, Katherine Lawrence and I read from our new collections to a live (masked) audience who joyously filled the reading space at McNally Robinson, with another 35 or so attending online through the magic of live streaming.

On Wednesday, Mari-Lou and I attended ALECC’s opening reception (the food was excellent and plentiful) and caught up with some familiar names and faces. Ariel Gordon, Tanis MacDonald and Kit Dobson read from their new books with Wolsak and Wynn, and the “Confluence” exhibit by Susan Shantz was on throughout the conference in the next door gallery (her talk on Friday night, “Confluences of Water, Art and Science,” with collaborator Graham Strickert, was excellent)



Thursday I was teaching online all morning and turned up in time for the first of two Poetry Walks, with Ariel and Tanis. It was much fun – we walked along a walking / running trail, stopping at intervals to read poems to our followers. Ariel borrowed one of ALECC’s helpful balloons to guide us.


Rhona, reading from Larder


Ah that green balloon


Tanis and Ariel under the cottonwood trees


We pause to sniff some wild aromatics

The setting for our Thursday night barbecue dinner was stunning; a hidden grove on the campus of our host organization, the University of Saskatchewan. The prairie dogs (Richardson’s Ground Squirrels) appeared not to have found this space, busy as they were gorging on the drifts of elm seed that covered much of the city… another sign of trouble, since trees shed seed when feeling stressed and needing to secure their genetic futures.

A river of elm seed on a Saskatoon street

Richardson’s Ground Squirrel – making the grounds  somewhat hazardous to human walkers

Friday was a long and rather warm day, temperatures starting to climb into the high 20s. Technical difficulties interrupted a video session, but it was all low tech for readings in the  “Ceremony, Desire, Requiem: The Poetics of Water and Land” panel. Sheri Benning kicked off with a reading from Field Requiem (starting with the beautiful “Winter Sleep” which was featured in film form on the Paris Review website last winter). Self-described “Indiginerd” Tenille K. Campbell followed with a passionate romp through poems from Nedí Nezu, and some straight talk on some realities of indigeneity in northern SK.

Saturday was a hot one, with temperatures forecast to reach 36c, so I was delighted to find we had a good following for our final poetry walk. Ariel, Tanis and I were joined by Lisa Bird-Wilson who read work about residential schools, while we read mostly environmental poems including a couple by Victoria poet Yvonne Blomer, who had planned the event but was unable to attend.

Lisa Bird-Wilson

Ariel reads, in the Sculpture Park

Tanis reads – finally some blessed shade

At least the pelicans could chill in the South Saskatchewan River

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