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Seed saving plan will reduce dependence on big seed companies [David Schmidt)

ABBOTSFORD – One of the biggest problems facing small, local farmers is not weather nor weeds, it is access to seeds.

Seed security and seed saving, particularly of heritage varieties suited to local conditions, has been a recurring topic at recent Certified Organic Associations of BC conferences, and has become a major focus at Farm Folk/City Folk.

For the past few years, FF/CF has been working with the University of BC Centre for Sustainable Food Systems and farmers in the Fraser Valley and on Vancouver Island on a seed trials and seed-saving project. While most of the farmers are small organic growers, the group also includes two large conventional vegetable growers: Wisbey Veggies in Abbotsford and Lazo Tyee Farm in Comox.

“It’s been interesting working with both organic and conventional growers,” says FF/CF seed security project manager Chris Thoreau. He notes that while they may use different approaches, “they all face some of the same challenges.”

Those include loss of preferred varieties and, particularly for organic growers, disease resistance.

Dan Oostenbrink of Local Harvest Farm/Market is one of the farmers in the project. Although not certified organic, he follows organic principles on his 30-acre intensive vegetable farm in Chilliwack. He began his project a year ago with some Golden Tomahawk beet seed he was able to obtain.

“The idea is to develop locally adaptive seed,” Oostenbrink says. “We’re working towards the ability to become autonomous so we’re not dependent on the big seed companies.”

Saving seed is not simple. Oostenbrink planted his seeds in July, 2015, and harvested the beets last fall. Each was assessed for its characteristics.

“We looked for large disease-free beets with bright orange colour, good strong tops and few root hairs,” he explains.

About 1,500 beets met the criteria. They were stored overwinter, then planted this spring. Since beets are biannuals, they only produce seed in the second year. Aug. 11th, FF/CF held a “pop-up” field day. Half a dozen people showed up to help Oostenbrink, Thoreau and UBC post-doctoral research fellow Alex Lyon harvest the seed. After it is collected, the seed will be dried and threshed “to see what we get.”

Some will be used to grow a fall beet crop, some sold to other local farmers and some used in Lyon’s research.

“The aim of the project is to support local seed production,” Lyon says, adding she hopes her research will help growers determine the best varieties for local conditions.

“Dan is kind of a case study for us as to what it’s like to grow a seed crop at this scale,” she says, noting another project goal is to “scale up” seed production in BC.

Oostenbrink started the project “just because,” but linked up with FF/CF and UBC to access the volunteer labour, funding and connections they could provide.

While Thoreau and Lyons are focused on the project, it is just a sideline for Oostenbrink. He has bigger problems to deal with, having spent over a year fighting first with the City of Chilliwack and more recently with the Agricultural Land Commission.

LHF/M was a featured stop on the 2014 Chilliwack Agricultural Tour, as the Chilliwack Agricultural Commission showcased it as a model of intensive vegetable production and locally-focused marketing.

The market was housed in a barn bat the front of the farm. Helped by its strategic location across from Chilliwack’s Heritage Park and next to a busy Highway 1 interchange, the market was an immediate success and related ventures asked to join them. In April, 2014, Anita’s Organics, a local organic flour mill, moved their sales centre into the building. That was followed by Magpie’s Bakery in June, 2014, and the Kurly Kale Eatery in early 2015.

“When we started, we didn’t anticipate going into all these added ventures,” Oosterbrink says, “we attracted a lot of attention and became a victim of our own success.”

Last year, the City told them they did not have the right building or zoning permits for what they were doing, giving them until fall, 2016, to meet the requirements or shut down.

“So I designed a new all-encompassing 20,000 square foot market building which met the City’s approval,” he says.

The building was designed to provide farm storage, and include a produce market, butchery, bakery, bistro, honey bottling station, room for weddings and other special events and even an “agricultural learning centre” where farmers and potential farmers could attend seminars and workshops on such topics as seed-saving.

“The ALC turned it down, saying my plan exceeded ALR uses,” Oostenbrink says, adding “I’m convinced we won’t survive without additional spinoff businesses.”

He has since submitted a letter of reconsideration to the ALC, pointing out that denying a new market building would spell the end of a successful farm enterprise. He included a scaled-down building plan, taking out the learning centre, community kitchen and wedding space, and promised everything in the market would be a BC agricultural product, with at least 75% coming from his own farm.

Oostenbrink admits “the size and scope of what we’re doing on this farm is larger than what anyone else is doing, saying the ALC is concerned about setting a precedent. “I feel if it sets a precedent, that’s great.”

He wonders how three commissioners can decide his fate “in the name of protection of farmland” when “city council wants to see it happen and the community wants to see it happen.

This isn’t a cute romantic notion of agriculture. It’s high intensive production and (demonstrates) what a sustainable local food system would look like.”

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Vol.102 Issue 9