The Organic Farming Movement In Nova Scotia: A Grassroots Vision For Sustainable Agriculture

Norland Farm is an 'island' of diversity tucked into a hilly section of countryside between Port Williams and Canning in the Annapolis Valley. The soil is fertile and the climate is superb by Nova Scotian standards, which makes it tempting to car ry out a very intensive style of agriculture. Intensive cereal, potato, orchard and dairy operations are characteristic of the area. 'Intensive' usually means capital-intensive and chemical-intensive; Norland farm, on the other hand, is knowledge intensi ve.

In agriculture, the relationship of the farmer to the soil is at the root of many problems which develop. Conventional farmers may be out of touch with the natural soil processes which provide the crop with nutrients. In natural systems dead plant and animal material deposited on the surface of the soil is broken down by decomposer organisms. The nutrients in the organic material are released in a plant available form slowly over time as these decomposers die and contribute to the pool of humus. Acti vely growing plants will utilize these nutrients as they become available. On the other hand, when soluable synthetic fertilizers are used, the soil may be loaded with readily available nutrients which the crop can not assimilate immediately. The accumula tion of soluble nutrients in the soil can also result in environmental damage from leaching and run-off of nutrients into groundwater and streams. These problems can be particularly serious in places with high annual rainfall such as Nova Scotia. Alterna tively, excessive rates of nutrient uptake by plants can cause plant tissues to be succulent and attractive to pests as well as being more susceptible to disease. The use of synthetic fertilizers can therefore result in a need for more pesticide use to co ntrol these problems.

Organic farmers take another approach to providing their crops with nutrients. They strive to work with natural systems rather than seeking to dominate them. Soil fertility is provided by using crop rotations and by treating manures as the valuable s ource of fertilizer we intuitively know them to be.

Erica Garrett and Neil van Nostrand of Norland Farm are organic farmers. One of their many challenges is to produce good quality food in a way that satisfies the requirements for organic certification. Farming without synthetic fertilizers or pesticide s,they use only approved methods on their farm that regenerate, rather than deplete, the land. They must carefully monitor the health of their plants and animals, develop strategies to minimize pest damage without using synthetic biocides, as well as att empt to ensure that their neighbours do not allow contaminants to drift or seep onto their farm.

Neil and Erica have a mixed organic farm with a wide variety of crops and livestock. Grapes, apples, nuts, vegetables, grains, lamb, milk, cranberries, peaches, eggs, herbs, honey and more are produced on this farm. The variety is staggering - and pr obably mind-boggling for Neil and Erica who have to develop expertise in many aspects of farming.

Neil has learned his farming techniques gradually, through a process of trial and error. He has spent years observing and learning the mysteries of nature, plant and animal growth. His enthusiasm for knowledge has been fuelled by a natural curiosity, keen observation skills and many calls to the research station in nearby Kentville. Experimenting is a key factor in any farmer's success. Neil tested and developed many ingenious methods of organic pest control in his years spent building Norland farm . He uses wormwood (Artemesia absinthium) to help keep worms out of his stored grains. He has learned that the key to storing squash is to let it cure in the sunshine, then at 80oC for a week, then store it in a cool dry location (none of these requirem ents are easily achieved in Nova Scotia!).

Neil is one of the few people in the province who's been able to successfully grow apples organically. Part of the reason for his success is his close association with neighbour Carl Gates, who is also experimenting with organic apple production. App le scab, a cosmetic defect which can seriously affect the value of an apple crop, is best dealt with by growing scab-resistant varieties. Although Neil has experimented with insect traps and other "gimmicks" for fooling insect pests, he claims "They don't work, or I don't need them." Instead, he works on the principle of keeping the dropped apples cleaned up except around a few early varieties of "decoy" trees which will attract the apple maggots. Dropped apples that remain on the ground allow the apple maggot to complete its life cycle transition from fruit to soil so it can infest the tree the following spring. Sacrificing the apples of one tree in order to get maggot-free apples on the rest has been the only successful strategy so far.

Neil also works on the principle that if the tree is getting optimum nutrition, pest problems will be minimized. Generally, he finds that spreading a bale or two of hay around the base of the trees provides just the right amount of slowly released nut rients for the tree to thrive. He has learned, through constant discussion with other farmers, reading and experimenting, that optimally growing plants and animals are best able to fend off disease and pests. Pushing for maximum growth causes problems b y making the plants very succulent and attractive to pests. On the other hand, limiting crop growth also stresses the plant, inviting disease and pests. Finding a middle road which provides conditions for plants to grow optimally is part of the learning process that all organic farmers go through in their quest to build a sustainable crop production system on their farm.

Part of the key to successful organic crop production is starting with the right crop variety. Neil admits that he is a strong believer in heritage seed varieties as well as propagating and saving his own seed. He doesn't necessarily have a conscious breeding program where seed from the best plants are chosen for propagation next year. For Neil, simply collecting seeds from plants that were able to do well enough in this particular place to set seed is very positive. Why? The plants from saved see ds "are more used to conditions on this farm". Apart from optimizing his vegetable varieties for local conditions, Neil is making a political statement by continuing to grow his own seeds. Part of the organic approach is to rely as much as possible on l ocally produced resources. By saving his own seed, Neil is uncoupling himself from the global food production system. This system is increasingly controlled by transnational agrochemical corporations who encourage the use of genetically engineered plant s which require fertilizers and pesticides in order to be successfully grown. Farmers can fight this tide by seed saving and exchange among friends and neighbours.

In October at the Norland farm, people gather to celebrate and learn about growing good food. Cups of cider, grapes, spelt bread, home made cheese, and devilled eggs are some of the offerings -along with much discussion ranging from consumer advocacy to habits of cows. A relationship of mutual trust and respect has been built between Norland customers and those who work on the farm. Comments about the role of consumer loyalty in helping to support and develop an 'organic movement' reinforce the noti on that consumers do have a role to play in deciding the direction of agricultural development in this province.

In the case of Norland, consumers have the opportunity to participate directly in the farm in various ways. It is not unusual to see a family arrive at the farm, dig up a bag of carrots, weigh them, and leave appropriate money at the farm desk. In thi s way they can get top quality produce for a reduced price and have the opportunity for a family outing, fresh air, and exercise to boot. Erica and Neil also offer 'rent-a-garden' plots, working by the hour in exchange for produce arrangements, and even a gardening course for those who are interested in getting more involved.

Obviously this is not the most 'efficient' way to run a farm. Efficiency and profit per acre are not the main driving forces at Norland farm. Instead, the focus has been on healthy soil, plants, animals and ultimately, people. From that perspective, a ll the learning and hard work seems to have paid off.

In the last couple of years Neil has been happy to share his experiences with fellow farmers in the Nova Scotia Organic Growers Association. This fledgling group has taken on the daunting tasks of administering a certification program for its members, and providing general information on organic farming. Although the group is small, with limited resources, it has been able to successfully achieve these goals probably because of the broad base of its membership. Farmers like Neil provide a wealth of practical knowledge and experience about farming and the organic movement as a whole. But, NSOGA also has as members home gardeners, consumers from urban areas, researchers and academics. All members are free to interact in an atmosphere that is relaxed and convivial. Sharing knowledge and experiences is vital for the establishment of a successful organic farming industry in the province. NSOGA is fulfilling this need by acting as a meeting place for the exchange of information and ideas. It has conne cted farmers around the province with common interests who face the same challenges. NSOGA's role will continue to evolve and develop according to the needs of its members.

There are several key points which have been fundamental to the success of the organic farming movement in Nova Scotia. This success is primarily based on knowledge. The know how to farm organically can be partially acquired in books, but sharing and exchange of information among growers is vital. NSOGA has become an effective forum for this exchange because of the broad base of its membership and the variety and range of skills that each member brings to the group. Organic farmers draw on past exp erience, frequent experimentation and indigenous local knowledge to develop systems adapted to their farm's conditions. Curiosity and imagination are necessary to develop these systems, along with a good dose of common sense. A willingness to work with n atural systems must be at the root of every organic farmer's approach to agriculture. Successful marketing of organic products is characterized by a close connection between the producer and the consumer: this eventually develops into a strong sense of c onsumer loyalty. Beyond this, marketing must be innovative and multi-faceted. For organic farming to realize its potential as part of the solution to rural economic woes, its focus must be local. If local resources, local marketing and the use of local know how are used as a basis for establishing an organic farming system, its chances for survival will be ensured.

Written by Julia Cooper, March 1994

From the "How to Live in the Real World" education kit, created by the Nova Scotia Environment & Development Coalition.


Scott, Jennifer. 1994. A Tour Through Alternative Agriculture In Nova Scotia. Written for the Nova Scotia Environment and Development Coalition.

Van Nostrand, Neil. 1993. various conversations in September and October.

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