Fresh, Local Food Solutions in Canada's Hot Zone

Climate-proofing sustainable local food production in the Okanagan valley with Food Forestry and Permaculture

by Dianne Bersea

Food forestry integrates a series of zones that encourage interaction among the plantings to reflect a natural ecosystem. Straight rows in the hot sun are not on! | Illustration by ©Dianne Bersea

The Okanagan is a desert landscape in a valley full of lakes. This year, that strange juxtaposition has become even more intense with low snow accumulations, high temperatures, and little rain. Hardy grasses have faded from green to brown. Spectacular Arrowleaf Balsamroot withered three weeks early. Lake levels are dropping. Wildfires are raging.

Climate change feels very real.

That’s why I’m cheered by the concept of permaculture and food forestry – food production with climate change in mind.

A serendipitous encounter with Osoyoos-based food forester Richard Walker, a friend from years past, launched my awareness of food forestry. Lanky and perpetually tanned with thirty years of food forestry behind him, Richard is committed to changing the world with thoughtful plantings. A visit with Richard always includes his food forest garden. This is his third food forest, and it retains all the critical constituents despite its reduced size.

I find myself ducking under overhanging branches as I meet totally new-to-me medicinal herbs and unfamiliar berries (mmmm mulberry), with an invitation to help myself to juicy Granny Smith apples (good driers), all within a condensed space of a few yards.

As Richard holds back a prickly berry cane he tells me, “Food forestry is all about mimicry, copying the cooperative communities of well-coordinated natural systems.” That’s what I see before me – a bewildering array of complex garden activity from ground level to overshadowing trees. Complexity is part of the recipe. “This garden saves on water, stores water, and mitigates rising temperatures. Especially important, it provides full-flavoured, nutrient-dense foods.” In other words, a sustainable garden – a bulwark in an unsustainable world.

According to Richard, and expounded on in his book Food Forestry North of the 49th, this system offers a relatively “fail-safe” approach. Working with plants, shrubs, and trees of varying heights, needs, and productive output, vegetation is selected to fill a particular niche in the garden ecosystem. Key to success is a clear-eyed assessment of the grower’s needs, along with thoughtful matching of vegetative choices and local climate conditions.

The essential element in this agricultural equation? Richard is unequivocal, “Diversity.” Here many of the scourges that plague our gardens are naturally dealt with. In fact, it’s given me a whole new take on so-called “invasive” plants. Richard notes that many of our introduced species survive and thrive in our disturbed soils, higher temps, and reduced rainfall. In other words, they’re ideal candidates for survival in an unstable climate.

Richard asks me to consider Sea Buckthorn, a so-called invasive plant originally from Europe. Hardy, with extensive nitrogen-fixing roots, it grows well in marginal soils and has multiple medicinal uses, high concentrations of valuable vitamins, and exceptional antioxidant levels.

Sea Buckthorn illustration

Sea Buckthorn | Illustration by ©Dianne Bersea

In our South Okanagan climate zone, Richard believes we would have greater success and offer better nutritional options with more walnuts, persimmons, filberts, and choke cherries, more native Saskatoons and Oregon grape – all hardy and full of healthy bioflavonoids.

How about the arduous task of soil building? It can be accomplished with the natural inclinations of certain plants to drive their roots through rock-hard compacted earth. Natural leaf-drop and the practice of extra “chopping and dropping” of forest leaf litter and other so-called garden “waste” also contribute to a nutrient-rich, water-holding humus. Messy is better!

Add hundreds of pollinators who appreciate the array of attractive blooms and you have a reduced need for pesticides and fungicides.

“The food forest is alive. Once all the elements are in motion, it will maintain itself with minimal care. That means the ‘forest’ will change as it matures.”

Richard grins with pride. “It’s a self-regulating system that will function quite well on its own for weeks at a time.” My kind of garden!

Even better, “Plant salad greens within a few feet of your kitchen door.” And why not try Richard’s salad recipe: minimum of thirty ingredients, with dozens of unusual choices such as Wood or French sorrel, nettle, yarrow, and hosta (yes, hosta), preferably picked moments before the salad is tossed.

As Richard puts it, “The food forest is alive. Once all the elements are in motion, it will maintain itself with minimal care. That means the ‘forest’ will change as it matures. It can grow at its own pace, re-seeding or dying back if over-topped by a more vigorous associate.” Acceptance is the mantra of food forestry.

 

Permaculture illustration

A plan view of Rick Hatch’s quarter-hectare permaculture operation that includes a marvelous density of fruit and nut trees, berries, pollinators, greenhouses and poultry accommodations. | Illustration by ©Dianne Bersea

Another climate-conscious approach comes via Rich Hatch. I first met Rick at our famous Penticton Farmers’ Market where he has a regular display of bright red cherries (in season) and nutritious micro-greens. When I learned Rick is a strong proponent of permaculture, I wanted to know more.

In Rick’s words, permaculture is “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems that have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems … a harmonious integration of landscape and people.” Objective: to provide a healthy, climate-responsive resource for all our needs.

A recent visit to Rick’s intensively productive quarter-hectare urban farm demonstrates the essence of his words. On a barely-discernable pathway I found my way to his current project – a massive greenhouse, obscured by cherry trees and a yard full of tumbling vegetative mysteries.

At the greenhouse, I gingerly negotiated a ramp to the interior excavated ground level. I felt overwhelmed by the heat and size – 6x13m! Light seemed to cascade from everywhere. Rick, tall, suntanned and bit careworn, left me for a few moments to get more drinking water. I wandered about, investigating the components. I dragged my hand along the back wall, a lime plaster application over straw bale construction.

“All the produce we buy from US farmers is simply draining their aquifers” – another resource under climate pressure.”

On Rick’s return, I get the details on the heat-absorbing back wall and two side wings. “This is the actual foundation of the greenhouse. Structural straw bale and carbon sequestering… for the life of the building at least.” The bales are tied into gravel-filled bags, topped with a box beam and vent opening. From this all else evolved, including his window walls – recycled from the family home window upgrade.

A couple of blue barrels (oyster barrels to a coaster like me), upright and half buried with fans inside, initially baffled me. It turns out the barrels, along with four open pipes that arise from the ground at the far end of the greenhouse, are a climate battery. Hot air (from the barrels) draws through half metre pipes buried one metre below ground, and cooler air is expelled at the far end. I’m convinced, as cooler air escapes through my fingers.

Rick Hatch's straw bale greenhouse

Rick Hatch stands among works-in-progress as he completes his structural straw bale greenhouse. Blue barrels are the heat intake end of his climate battery. | Photo by ©Dianne Bersea

For Rick, the overall concept had been percolating for some time. Reality arrived with a cost-sharing BC provincial Small Business Acceleration program that moved surprisingly quickly. “I applied in December. The grant was approved in January with the condition the building be substantially complete by March.”

To meet the deadline Rick dug in – literally – moving over 9,000 kg of gravel among other challenges, mostly on his own but with some help. There’s still a lot to do, including installing the thermostatic controls and integral watering system, and adding almost a metre of soil/sand and plantings.

So why is Rick building this massive strawbale greenhouse with plans to further develop his farm? He has many good reasons, including climate change and a personal and family desire to live closer to the land, that led to a move from Calgary with his wife and two daughters seven years ago.

“The greenhouse has the height for trees. I can see cooler, out-of-season local fruits, and out-of-area citrus, perhaps pomegranate, figs and maybe fiejoas.”

Rick is now focused on maximizing local food production to: avoid all costs associated with food transport; support local food security; prepare for the decline of food availability, especially from the US, and; grow perishable/green, out-of-season, and nutrient-dense foods that haven’t been available locally. He adds the startling observation that “All the produce we buy from US farmers is simply draining their aquifers” – another resource under climate pressure.”

What specifically will be growing here? Rick points to the height of the central ceiling beam supported by log struts salvaged from the property, “The greenhouse has the height for trees. I can see cooler, out-of-season local fruits, and out-of-area citrus, perhaps pomegranate, figs and maybe fiejoas.” That last one is a Brazilian sweet fruit also known as a Pineapple Guava. Count me in!

A tour of the rest of Rick’s garden reveals his success, “without fertilizer that upsets the soil microbiome,” as he reminds me. There are dozens more fruit trees, a fenceline of various berry canes, pollinator flowerings, nut trees, a family of chickens, Muscovy ducks, a climate-controlled sprout factory, rich compost from microgreen trays, and a water collection system accommodating 6000 litres.

Thank goodness for future-facing agriculturalists/educators like Richard and Rick.


Contact: Richard Walker, silvermoonfoodforest@gmail.com, Rick Hatch: www.cherrytreepermaculture.com/about.


Dianne Bersea is a professional artist with creative beginnings in the wild places of Canada’s westernmost province. She lives in Penticton, BC. Copyright for article, photos and illustrations remain with the author/artist.

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