February 02, 2011

Staying in touch with the soil from which we came

As published in The Erin Advocate

I did not realize just how passionate some farmers are about the value of soil until I attended the Fast Forward Film Festival, featuring Dirt! The Movie.

The film is well-crafted, as an education about nutrients and the multitude of organisms in soil. About how farmland has been damaged by development, over-use of chemicals and the planting of single crops over large areas. It is a call for political action in defence of the land.

More fascinating was that 125 people came out to watch a movie about dirt on a frigid January evening, listen to local farmers and share ideas in an open forum.

The festival is a joint project of the Climate Change Action Group of Erin (CCAGE) and Credit Valley Conservation, with the opening night sponsored by Treehaven Natural Foods.

"We're all dirt," said Cathy Hansen of Bernway Farm in Ospringe, who helped organize the event. She is an organic farmer and local food educator. "Every last one of us relies on dirt for the sustenance of all of our cells, and for the future of our families and our children to come. Dirt is an essential living part of our planet – the only planet in the solar system with a living, breathing skin.

"You might think, how do soil and climate change go together? Soil can sequester carbon, take carbon out of our atmosphere if it's managed in the right way, but it can also give up a lot of carbon if we're not careful in how we manage our soils and our forests."

There was a panel of organic farmers, including teacher Amy Ouchterlony of Whole Village, a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Program in Caledon, dedicated to sustainable living (www.wholevillage.org). She said it is important not only to talk about sustainable agriculture, but to actually do it.

"We've had students come out and get community service hours on the farm, weeding, harvesting potatoes – you really need to feel that, " she said. "We need students to realize that farming is a career. It's a career path that we don't tell kids about...We're so lucky in this area, within half an hour of this spot there are more of the kind of farms this movie was talking about than any other places I can think of."

There were calls for reform of the provincial curriculum to include more about agriculture. Several elementary school students came to the microphone to participate the discussion. Holly Lauryssen and Paige Bromby of St. John Brebeuf told proudly about their school garden and the composting of lunch scraps.

"The basic knowledge is not taught in schools," said Erin farmer John Slack, President of Agricultural Mineral Prospectors Inc. "It is really up to us as a community to put these things in action. I don't have much faith in our political system, regardless of how hard we yell."

Slack had a lot to say about the unique features of the Erin landscape and the importance of preserving them. There's not room in this column, but I will share more of his comments in the near future.

Abhi Wahi is the manager of Whole Circle Farm on County Road 50 in Erin, near Rockwood (www.wholecirclefarm.ca). He spoke about building the next generation of farmers:

"Whole Circle has been taking on interns and apprentices for quite a while now. Age is not a limit, anyone can join. We train people to become farmers, to work with the soil, to build the soil using biodynamic practices, to encourage life in the soil, to grow food that is nutrient rich, food that's full of life. Not everyone who goes through our program ends up becoming a farmer, but in some way or another it does really affect their lives. They do go forward, encourage others or work within the field. We love visitors and volunteers to come by."

Cathy Hansen had an interesting idea for expanding the concept of community gardens.

"In a town like Erin where everybody is on a septic tank, not everybody can grow a garden in their backyard because of the issues around growing food in proximity to your septic field. We do have acreages in the community that would be walkable for people that would allow people to grow garden plots, like they do in the city.

"I am going to advocate that the Town of Erin start to look into the opportunity that we might have to develop, rather than a new industrial park, an agricultural park. A place that runs on a similar concept to an industrial park, except it's set up to grow food – small plot farming with infrastructures to support those farms.

"Farming is changing. Farms are no longer passing through families. We have new people coming into farming – the young, ambitious landless farmer. I would love to see Erin be put on the map for creating such a thing as an agricultural park, with infrastructure, with a small abattoir, with a functioning feed mill, with small plots available, with communal equipment."