May 25, 2011

Women's hockey veteran tells her Olympic story

As published in The Erin Advocate

Some of Erin's young hockey players had a chance to meet one of Canada's best players last week during a fundraising event at Centre 2000, and to try on her latest gold medal.

Jayna Hefford of Team Canada was the guest speaker at a Rotary Club of Erin pasta dinner, which raised money for trails development in the town, and for the fight against cancer.

The kids asked about her favorite NHL player (Sidney Crosby), what other sports she had played (soccer, softball and basketball) and what the team eats after a game (lots of pasta).

The Kingston native plays for the Brampton Thunder and was the first player in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League to record 100 career points. At the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Hefford had five goals and seven assists in five games, on the way to her third gold medal. Since 1997, she has helped Canada win six golds and four silvers at the World Championships – including the silver last month in Switzerland.

"In Canada, there's an expectation that you will win gold," she said. "Nothing else matters – and that's a good feeling."

She said Team Canada hit a low point about ten months before the 2010 Olympics, after losing a World Championship final to their American arch-rivals. They decided they would "do whatever it takes to not be standing on the blue line listening to someone else's national anthem" at the Olympics in Canada.

That included a month of skating, shooting, swimming, running, cycling, yoga and kickboxing in Northern BC. "It was the most grueling training camp I'd ever been to, but it's great when you are part of a team. At the end, it's not about the training, but about finding a way to get through. We were a better team because of it."

They talked extensively about the pressures they faced as Canadian hockey players.

"We got to the conclusion that we have an opportunity here to write our own story, to write our own ending. We worked so hard to get here, there's nothing we'd do differently, and we just have to go out and play."

With a feisty new team spirit, Canada's women started winning consistently. They were unstoppable in Vancouver: 18-0 over Slovakia, 10-1 over Switzerland, 13-1 over Sweden, 5-0 over Finland and 2-0 over the US for the gold.

"I'm just so proud to play for our country. We worked as hard as we could, and wanted to be able to have a gold medal performance on any given day."

Hefford, now 34, has not decided whether to try for yet another Olympic medal. It will depend on whether she continues to enjoy the training, and the contribution she can make to the team. There are many young players hoping for a spot on the roster.

"As you get older, you have to play every game as though it is your last."

May 18, 2011

Biodiversity will help us adapt to climate change

As published in The Erin Advocate

I can hardly wait to pick my Royal Burgundy Bush Beans. Of course, I still have to plant them, water them, weed them and thin them. But at picking time, they will be very easy to find among the green leaves, since they grow as violet-purple pods. The package promises that they will "magically turn an emerald green after cooking".

This version of the phaseolus vulgaris (common bean) was highly recommended when I attended a planting workshop with farmer Carl Keast. It was part of the annual Seedy Saturday event, on April 30 at Everdale Farm near Hillsburgh.

There were seed and plant vendors, a seed trading table, fun stuff for kids, advice on growing berries in your back yard from Ann Brown (the Plant Lady), and a chance to hear Cathy Nesbitt explain how red wigglers can quickly turn food scraps and paper into rich fertilizer. Her ventures include worm composting kits, compost consulting, manure management and even worm birthday parties. Check it out at

Our fruit and vegetable garden will expand this year, but there's no way it is going to feed us consistently. And since there is still no farmer's market in Erin, I took the plunge and bought into the Everdale Harvest Share program. I like the flexibility of the plan, which allows you to buy from 16 to 20 weeks worth of produce.

You get a certain number of "points", based on the size of share you buy. A small share works out to $18.64 per week and an extra large to $55.92 per week. The produce is priced in points, instead of dollars, and you spend your points as you please each week, starting June 16. Produce is available for pick-up at the farm only on Thursdays, 3-8 pm and Saturdays, 8:30-11 am. For more details, go to

The seeds I bought were "organic certified", which means the production process has been inspected to ensure it is generally free of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, with no use of genetically modified organisms or biosolids (sewage sludge fertilizer).

They were also "heirloom" seeds, meaning that they have been preserved within a longstanding seed line, and are normally pollinated naturally by insects, birds and wind.

They are less common in the seed market, which is controlled by a handful of companies that have phased out many types of seeds. A much narrower range of crops has been developed through closed pollination, breeding the ability to withstand specific weather conditions, pesticides, mechanical picking and cross-country shipping.

One of the most interesting events on Seedy Saturday was a discussion on biodiversity, hosted by Faris Ahmed, Director of Policy and Campaigns at USC Canada. The non-profit group promotes family farms, rural communities and healthy ecosystems in developing nations, and advocates reform of food policies in Canada. Learn more at

Last year was the United Nations Year of Biodiversity, with a focus on the accelerating loss of variety in plant and animal life due to human activity.

"It's not about biology, it's about life itself now," said Ahmed. "It is so important for health, our planet and for social justice. Biodiversity is the best measure of a healthy place. It is like an insurance policy...a system being resistant to shocks."

Biodiversity issues range from the need for a wide variety in the human diet for good nutrition, to the rights of farmers throughout the world to maintain fertile land and grow what is needed to sustain their local communities. Variety within crop types increases resilience to pests, disease and the warming climate, but USC Canada reports that 75 per cent of the world's crop varieties and thousands of livestock breeds have been lost in the last century.

Large-scale farming for international trade demands less biodiversity, and it is not working well for farmers in Canada or abroad. Canada lost 17,550 farms between 2001 and 2006 and the average farm income in Canada is now negative $20,000 per year, according to the website Food exports have increased by 400 per cent in the last 20 years, and farm subsidies are an entrenched global reality, costing Canadian taxpayers billions each year, and putting poorer nations at a disadvantage.

Climate change is expected to have a huge impact on drylands, mountain regions and seacoasts, and on the small-scale farmers who feed the majority of people in the world. If we cannot give priority to biodiversity over short term gain, the risks for our species, and others, appear to be severe.

May 11, 2011

Looking for ways to grow greener, smarter kids

As published in The Erin Advocate

Erin celebrated its passion for the environment last week as hundreds of people gathered at the high school, discussing ways to raise kids dedicated to sustaining the planet.

Growing Green, Smart Kids was organized by the Erin Parent Connection group, with representatives from area schools: Erin, Brisbane, Ross MacKay, St. John Brebeuf and EDHS, with the help of a Ministry of Education grant.

The guest speaker was environmental author and educator David Noble of Guelph, a student of Al Gore who has travelled the globe collecting stories about people making a difference on climate change. He has been an observer of the international climate negotiations and is an entrepreneur (

The evening was like an environmental fair, with 21 display booths from companies, non-profit groups and public agencies, a panel discussion moderated by Liz Armstrong of the Climate Change Action Group of Erin (CCAGE) and an "Eco-Challenge" for people to take specific follow-up actions and talk about them on the new Real-Action-Erin Facebook page.

Noble was welcomed by Erin District High School Principal Julie Prendergast, saying she felt "humbled by the commitment of our students" to the environment. Mayor Lou Maieron urged kids and parents to think about living within the earth's capacity.

"How can we continue to live in this society as top end predators and keep taking out resources greater than the planet can support?" he asked. "We can't. If we continue going the way we are, the planet's going to crash."

Noble said there is an urgent need for environmental leadership around the world – not just crisis management. He recently visited Greenland, and as an example of the global warming crisis, saw a glacier melting away at the rate of 34 metres per day. He noted the risk of other disasters, like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the nuclear contamination in Japan.

"Young people need support, and they need partners across the community," he said. "We're going to have to do a whole lot better at preventing those crises from happening in the first place. The implication is that we're all going to have to push harder than we're pushing; we're all going to have to push different ways, we're all going to have to push together and work really hard to make the big changes that we need to make."

He pointed out that both the White House and the Vatican have set an example by installing solar panels. He quoted Pope Benedict, who has called for courageous environmental choices: "We need a decisive 'yes' to care for creation and a strong commitment to reverse those trends that risk making the situation of decay irreversible."

Scientists are increasingly intervening in the process of politics and decision-making, in addition to their research, a development that Noble finds encouraging.

He quoted Canadian Nobel Prize winning scientist John Polanyi: "Some seven billion of us share this crowded planet. The question is whether we can achieve a sufficient sense of community to continue doing so. This sense of community will depend on the belief that a fair apportionment of the global commons is possible. Only then can we hope to resolve our problems by law, rather than war. Is our species capable of the necessary generosity of spirit? Answered aright that question could lead to a global civilization that is sustainable, and worthy of being sustained."

The evening finished with a panel discussion, including Upper Grand School Trustee Kathryn Cooper, Wellington Water Watchers Executive Director Arlene Slocombe, Brisbane teacher Chris Green, Everdale organic farmer Olivia Ronkainen and Phil Winters, founder of EGen Power of Caledon, which promotes solar power systems and home energy efficiency.

"We need to stand up, commit, and decide to do something," said Cooper. She noted the construction of an Environmental Leaning Centre in Orangeville and development of more Eco Schools.

"I love this place," said Green. "This is the place I want to protect. We need to bring in different perspectives, not just one story. How rich is our understanding?"

The main advice to parents from this group was to get kids out into the natural environment as much as possible, so they can develop their own passion for it. "Kids will have a vested interest in preserving it," said Slocombe. "Plant something – anything," said Ronkainen. "And teach kids how to prepare food."

Winters urged people to buy local, vote for policies that benefit the environment and "listen to the children – that's the future".

May 04, 2011

Reclaimed land provides enjoyable hiking route

As published in The Erin Advocate

Whether you are ambitious to try out every hiking trail that Erin has to offer, or just want an interesting place to walk your dog, check out a property on the Second Line owned by the Grand River Conservation Authority.

It is a managed forest called the Johnson Tract, with a small network of trails next to a creek, in the headwaters of the Speed River.

It might be best to postpone your visit until a bit later in the spring, when the road conditions are better. I had the misfortune of traveling on the Second Line in mid-April, during what the Town calls the Spring Breakup of Roads. The base soil beneath older gravel roads has a high moisture content, and when it is only partly thawed, the surface can turn to soupy mud ruts.

The nearby wetlands are one of the most attractive features of this hike, and the trail itself remains relatively dry. There is only parking for a couple of cars at the start, which is on the east side of the road, north of 27 Sideroad and south of the Garafraxa Town Line.

Looking at the bigger picture, water in the western half of Erin drains to Lake Erie through the Grand River watershed. The Grand starts up near Dundalk, and flows through Lake Belwood, Fergus, Elora, Kitchener, Cambridge, Brantford, Caledonia and Dunnville.

The Speed starts in northwest Erin, flows south through Guelph Lake and on to Cambridge to join the Grand. The Eramosa River starts in southwest Erin and flows through Rockwood to join the Speed in Guelph.

The Johnson Tract is by no means a pristine wilderness. It appears to have once been at least partially a farm, with cedar rail fencing. Now it is entirely covered in trees, though some areas have been thinned out with selective logging. There is a sign at the entrance with an aerial photo and map, but no other informative signs further in.

The initial trail goes through a tall grove of cedars. As it splits into three possible routes, it becomes a reforested environment, with spaced rows of spruce planted quite some time ago – many are over 100 feet tall.

The ground is covered in needles, mossy areas, small ponds, fallen trees and piles of rock from land-clearing. One area had an undergrowth of ferns. The south trail goes through a maple bush, and between some boggy wetland areas. I spotted a couple of deer, but of course they had spotted me first, so I only saw their tails.

I saw quite a few ducks, so when I heard what sounded like a bunch of them quacking up a racket in the reeds, I snuck up to get a good photo. It didn't happen though, since they were actually frogs. Not sure how they learned to make duck calls.

There's a modern farm on the east boundary, and a creek, flowing south from Orton, on the north boundary. With no dams to impede its flow, it takes a meandering path through grasslands and under the trees it has caused to tumble.

New life seems to be sprouting everywhere as last year's dead grass and leaves give way to spring growth, saplings emerge out of the fallen cedars and water seems to bubble up from the earth. If you are weary of the urban environment, it's a good place to be.