A bump in the road
Hey guys, we’ve got a bit of unfortunate news to share. We’ve hit a bump in the road this week- big enough to derail this train for a little while- and want to fill you in on what’s happening here.
Earlier this week we were about to plant out yet another batch of transplants and we felt like something was wrong. We needed to stop. Right now. So, we called the Kootenay and Boundary Farm Advisors (basically our local version of an Extension Agency) and after consulting with experts we determined that we have herbicide contamination in our compost. Ugh. Insert crying farmer emoji here, followed by cursing farmer emoji (which, really, wouldn’t that be useful anyway?). We make our own potting mix and use our own compost. We have always used horse manure, and in this case we also added straw. We thought we were doing all the right things- we’ve been using the same manure source for years and they claim to not use herbicides on the fields where the feed is grown. The straw farmer signed an affidavit stating that they don’t spray their crops. We regularly turn the pile, keep time and temp logs, we age it for 6 months. How did this happen?!! We were certified organic and followed all the regs to a T. Well, we’ve been doing some serious research (w/ the help of experts) about herbicides and the fact is that some of these chemicals can persist in the soil for YEARS and carry over into crops like hay or straw or grain. It can also persist in the manure of animals fed on these crops. And some plants that are particularly susceptible (like most flowers) can be affected by concentrations as low as 25 parts per BILLION.
Hindsight is 20/20. Looking back, we wish we’d done something sooner. Some crops looked totally fine. We thought the plants would perk up when we put them in the soil. Many plants went into the ground when they were fairly small and hadn’t really displayed the strange symptoms yet, or if they did, the signs were very subtle. We thought maybe our potting mix was lacking nutrients (did I forget to add something?), maybe some plants were a little root bound, it was super cold early on… Then, as we increased the percentage of compost in the mix and planted more sensitive crops, and the temperatures rose (which we have since learned can accelerate the problem) , the symptoms worsened. Distorted plants, curled and cupped leaves, bolting. Something was very wrong.
Many of us often questions ourselves and I know that we both were questioning a lot of things. Did we even have a clue about farming? Had we forgotten everything we’d learned? We question why we didn’t act sooner. Really, though it was a bit of a creeper. It took months for all the pieces to come together and culminate in the mid-field melt down that made me stop everything and pick up the phone.
So now, here we are, looking at months of hard work, and thousands of plants in the fields and greenhouse that are most likely a total loss. We are looking at many, many successions of plants that we were counting on to carry us through the season- mostly gone. Sigh.
Now what? There’s a big part of both of us that wants to get to the bottom of this and find out exactly what happened. Who is using this herbicide and not following the labels? All these products state that after spraying these chemicals on your fields you can’t spread the straw or hay- or even the manure from an animal that has been fed the hay or grain- on any type of garden. Somewhere, someone, messed up. That includes us. To pinpoint the exact source would be very difficult and very expensive. We know we that we only used two feed-stocks for the compost. On the surface it seems like that would be a simple trail to follow, but the reality is that to trace it back further and find the exact source would be nearly impossible. Was it the straw? Was it the hay the horses were fed? There could have been herbicide drift onto either field. Maybe someone fed their horse contaminated grain?
We have a lot of questions and very few answers. Why do the organic standards permit using manure that isn’t certified organic, or hay/ straw as long as you have an affidavit stating that it wasn’t sprayed within 60 days of harvest? Clearly we now know that these rules aren’t sufficient to avoid contamination. We look to these standards for a certain level of protection against these very issues. (Lots of people might say that this is naive- they see the organic standards as being too low. And, well, in some ways I have to agree, but that’s a whole other conversation.) But, when it comes down to it, we have to take the blame. The truth is we should’ve done more homework on this long ago. We didn’t realize how persistent some of these herbicides can be, especially if they aren’t used exactly as the label dictates. We didn’t know that these chemicals could still have such detrimental effects on our crops after being composted at high temperatures and aged for over 18 months. We didn't know that these herbicides could persist so long through manure or on straw that was never even sprayed with the chemical. We didn’t know that an amount equivalent to one teaspoon of water in an olympic sized swimming pool could cause our plants to suffer so badly. We knew this stuff was bad- that's why we grow organically, that's why we support organic farming and farmers- we just didn't know how bad it could be. So, after sitting on it a while, we really just need to figure out how to move forward and make the best of the season.The best thing we can do is educate others and help prevent this from happening to anyone else.
The bottom line is that this is farming. There are already so many factors that are out of our control: weather, hungry critters, pests, etc. And when you bring in inputs from outside the farm there are risks. It’s been over a year since we brought manure onto the farm, because we had already decided that we really wanted to focus on growing more cover crops and green manures and avoid using animal manure and mulches from off the farm. And, well, I guess this is why.
We urge every farmer and every gardener to exercise extreme caution when acquiring amendments for their soil. Ask questions- lots of them. Buy certified organic amendments. Don’t trust that just because someone says they “don’t spray their crops” that it means same thing as saying they don’t use herbicides at all.
We also encourage everyone to stop and think about what businesses they support, the food they buy and how it’s all connected. I don’t want to go too deep here or get too political, but I really hope that people will think about the effects of their decisions. The effects of the way their dollar is spent. Who is really benefitting from that in the long run and who or what is being unintentionally affected or harmed by that. This has redoubled our resolve to continue to buy organic products (could the regs be better? Yes. But, if you’re at the grocery store, not buying directly from your local farmer, it IS the better option.) and to continue to examine our lives and see where we can make changes to support the causes we believe in and to avoid supporting those we don’t.
For us, right now, we just need to move on. This doesn’t mean that we don’t care- because we really do- it just means that we only have so much energy and we want to focus that energy in a positive direction that will help us get through this and move on.
What does this mean for you, our customers? Well, in short, we really don’t know! We’re entering into unknown territory. Some plants are toast. Kaput. Some look like they may make it, but many won’t. Some seemed ok, but are now just shooting up flower stalks on short little stems. We’re having to make some tough decisions. We are going to do our best - and it looks like we will have enough flowers that will survive or weren’t planted in this potting mix- to continue to keep the farm stand open on Saturdays. If you are a subscription customer, you’ll be hearing from us soon- if you’re willing to come along for the ride, we promise to get you your bouquets over the course of the summer. As far as the farmers market is concerned, it’s not looking promising. Basically it looks like there is a very strong chance that we’ll have a pretty major gap in our season here. Please follow along and we’ll keep you posted.
Now let’s focus on the positive, shall we?!! Fortunately (and maybe the biggest relief of all) we didn’t spread this compost all over our fields. It’s fairly contained to the potting mix. Second, and almost as much of a relief as the first, 98% of our almost 3,000 dahlias were planted directly into the ground, not in pots. That means we’re still on track for an amazing crop of beautiful dahlias blooms including so many new, exciting varieties. Third, we direct seeded some crops and we planted lots of lilies and glads directly in the ground that should do great. We have lots of direct seeded grains and grasses that we planted for fall wreaths and decoration. Phew... Not all is lost. It usually isn't- sometimes you just have to look a little harder for the bright side.
Which brings me to my next point: We still have so much to be grateful for. We are so glad that our farming community now has the Kootenay and Boundary Farm Advisors. If it weren’t for them, we probably would have let this go on even longer because we wouldn’t have known who to turn to. We are also so grateful for our family, friends and customers who have reached out to offer support and help- even if it’s just a shoulder to cry on, it means a lot.
So, please, if you don’t see us at market, don’t forget about us- we will be back! And we’ll be doing our best to end this season with a bang! So stay tuned…