Category Archives: Sustainable Farming

Bears and fruit trees, part 4

Because of what I do and where I live, I am often talking with people about the human-wildlife conflict, and am continually surprised by what I hear. There are many misconceptions about our relationship with nature in general and with wildlife in particular. During these discussions, I notice there are several persistent, pervasive false beliefs about the human-bear relationship. Some of these beliefs are even enacted into public policies and laws, and contradictory policies at that. For example, there is a lot of talk in the media these days about local eating: the 100 Mile Diet, re-localization, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, and so on. There has even been some B.C. Ministry of Health interest in promoting the aforementioned with their recent ‘access to produce’ initiative. However, the Conservation Service (Ministry of Environment) seems to be at odds with this food security agenda by advising people to cut down their fruit trees whenever there is a bear-human conflict. This issue is the fuel that sparked this series of posts—when I found myself in conversation with some folks from the B.C. Food System Network who were alarmed by their Conservation Officer threatening them with fines if they did NOT cut down their fruit trees.

It’s a question of food security

While it may sound as if I would have all bears and wildlife destroyed, it is not the case. My position with respect to the human-wildlife conflict is rooted in terms of food security and community/rural survival: we cannot have food security when there are oppositional philosophies being enforced by different Ministries.

What I hope to do over the course of several posts is to examine these key themes and shed light on these common false beliefs. The other post of this series are:

1.How to make bears and fruit trees get along

2. Bears and fruit trees, part two

3. Bears and fruit trees, part three

As ever, I welcome your feedback and comments as they can add to the discussion and help me develop my position.

False belief #4: After all, you are in ‘their territory’

Some readers’ responses to one of my posts about the human-wildlife conflict provide a departure point for discussion of this false belief: “Any thoughts about the fact that you are placing tasty food morsels in the bear’s territory? Why are you keeping fruit trees in bear territory?” … “If you have animals and fruit trees then you are just asking for predators to come”… “Well, you are in their territory so you just have to accept this” (my personal favourite). The very concept of ‘territory’ is the essential problem. It is a neat fiction which presumes a boundary between the bears’ ‘territory’ and ‘ours’, and a contractual agreement as to where that boundary-line is. If so, where is it? At the edge of cities? around all rural areas? or should we all move out of the countryside and back into cities… again, where is the edge of the city? At this field, or that fence-line? As with so many issues, this debate is over boundaries, borders, and margins, and yet there is no demarcated boundary to any natural creature’s territory—only constantly changing niches or ill-defined ranges, constantly fought for with tooth and claw. The idea of identifiable borders is a human invention (viz. Hadrian’s, China’s, Berlin’s, Peach Arch Park and the 49th parallel) and we have difficulty maintaining even those (look at Gaza, or the Mexico/US border, or China and Tibet, or the Northwest Territory now Nunavut, to name a fraction of the infractions). Animals like bears do understand territory and mark theirs distinctively, but that territory is a living, changing thing, depending on each bear’s niche, condition, and the state of the food supply. That food supply is intimately linked to the general bear population; if the food supply or population changes, the bear’s fight for territory becomes more competitive; the delineation and extent of that territory shift and morph under these pressures. With respect to our current bear problem, a poor summer with few fish or berries coupled with an increase in bear population means their food source is too scarce in their own food shed, so the fight for territory between bears has become more vicious. Consequently, the weaker and younger bears that are denied access to prime habitat are pushed out of what we think of as ‘their territory’ and into ‘ours.’ Easy pickings are chicken houses, fruit trees, gardens and garbage; combined with a policy of ‘non-attractants’ it’s not long before bears consider ‘our territory’ theirs. When we add the fact that people are no longer ‘fighting’ back as we once did against these carnivores, their assumption is understandable. Unlike the bears along the river fishing for salmon, who drive us and each other away in order to protect their food source, we humans didn’t even put up a fight when they came and ate all our chickens, turkeys and ducks; nor did we complain when they harvested all our carrots, parsley, plums and pears.

So how do I establish and maintain my border? A border, however loosely defined, only has existence if both sides acknowledge and maintain it. In contrast to predators’ shifting borders, humans have always grown gardens, had fruit trees, and raised domesticated animals in this valley. While the bears’ boundary is shifting, our human boundary has always been clearly delineated (mown lawns, driveways, and often a fence, etc.), and we have throughout history educated the animals by trapping and shooting. Everywhere in the world, people have marked their ‘territory’ by shooting and trapping offenders in this way, and thus they have trained predators not to intrude across the humans’ clearly delineated, and relatively unshifting borders. Like dogs, bears and cougars can be trained, and that is why we have a residual idea that those animals have a natural fear of humans. But there is nothing innate about it; it is a learned behaviour and a direct result of an ancient human-wildlife conflict in which we have always been engaged.

I have come to understand that the remaining predators need constantly to be ‘trained’ not to come where humans are. One of the reasons that the large predators are coming back into cities in broad daylight, and generally to where humans are, is that we are no longer shooting at them. Consequently, they no longer see us as an equal predator, or even as a threat. Contrary to the misconception that these animals are innately nocturnal, they have figured out that they can even get away with being out in the day time, so every year there are more reports of their daytime marauding on farms, and through garage bins in cities. The assertion of my blog respondent, that I am in their territory, creates the misconstrued dichotomy of ‘their territory’ versus ‘our territory’, as if humans only ‘belong’ in cities, and that those cities have always existed. However, all North America’s great cities (the same goes for Europe, India, China and so on, though with different predators) were once the bears’ ‘territory’ before ‘we’ decided to stop being hunter gatherers and develop human settlements, based on cultivating crops.

The ‘our territory/their territory’ theory arises from a flawed preservationist philosophy, which mistakenly presumes that bears have a ‘territory’ which we humans have encroached upon, and now drives policy and legislative decisions in British Columbia (and North American in general, as shown in their responses to my blog). Am I really ‘in the bears’ territory’ when I am in the confines of my property’? If so, isn’t all of the North American population? And most of the European (or Chinese, or Indian, or African, etc.) population too, for that matter? The reason we have the few agricultural areas we do, is that we’ve shot almost everything that once moved there (hence the European eradication of wolves and bears and the dearth of them in large parts of the USA that they formally occupied), and continue to let the survivors know they don’t belong there any more. Our food security depends on our making more enlightened land use policies based on historical and biological realities, not these neat, fantastical conspiracies of cartographers.

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Filed under Animal issues, Bears, Conservation, Educational, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, Fruit Trees, Politicking with predators, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming

Bears and fruit trees, part two

Because of what I do and where I live, I am often talking with people about the human-wildlife conflict, and am continually surprised by what I hear. There are many misconceptions about our relationship with nature in general and with wildlife in particular. During these discussions, I notice there are several persistent themes (false beliefs) that are pervasive about the human-bear relationship. What I hope to do over the course of several posts is to examine these key themes and shed light on these common false beliefs. Other posts in this series are, ‘How to make bears and fruit trees get along‘ and ‘Bears and fruit trees, part three.’

As ever, I welcome your feedback and comments as they can add to the discussion and help me develop my position.

False belief #2: We are not in competition with bears

Many people don’t understand that, despite trappings of modern civilization that buffer us from this reality, we are in direct competition with wildlife for our existence. Not only have we lost sight of this fact, but we have also begun to believe that there is a way to ‘live in harmony’ with nature and we work hard to convince ourselves this is achievable.

If you are one of these people, then you are wrong to think this way and here’s why.

Everything out there is trying to make a living just as we are, from the bears, to the fish, to the squirrels, to insects, and bacteria. Since humans have walked on this earth we have been in direct competition with nature for resources and thus have fought to protect these resources. If we weren’t successful, we starved.

Historically, humans hunted for our food and thus we understood our direct relationship with the natural world. We understood that if the wolf population was too high the deer numbers would be low and this would threaten our chance of survival. Consequently, humans understood we needed to kill some wolves in order to protect the deer numbers and, in this way, indirectly protect our own species‘ survival. We understood we were, and must be, part of that equation.

Today, every time we spray our lawns with insecticide, every time we build a new home, each time we pave a road, each time we build a shopping mall or a university, each time we fell trees to make lumber, every time we fill our gas tank, every time we buy some product that has been shipped half way around the world, every time we buy packaged food from the grocery store, and so on, we displace and destroy (or already have replaced and destroyed) the native plants, insects, birds and animals — and the resources they depend upon for their survival — that previously existed in the are area in question for our benefit.

Today however, few people would recognize the environmental cost to changing a track of forest into agricultural land and the inputs necessary to raise a cow, or a pig, or even an acre of soybeans to grow food for humans. Few would understand that it is environmentally more sound to keep the forest in tact and harvest a moose who is perfectly suited to that forest and requires no artificial inputs, let alone be willing or able to make the lifestyle changes necessary to manage that resource.

Only those who can afford food can ‘afford’ to entertain this false belief system.

Few people in North America today rely on hunting or raising food on their own land for their direct economic survival. Instead, we have accepted that large swaths of nature should be severely altered (if not completely destroyed) in order that we can live in city suburbs, and that agricultural (and other) products can be made cheaply and can be transported long distances to us. So it is not that we are no longer directly in competition with nature, rather that the competition is out of sight and out of mind. We are no longer aware of it because we don’t see direct evidence of it on a daily basis.

California’s bears and other flora and fauna have been displaced and/or all but been destroyed, its landscape severely altered to make way for suburbs, highways, orchards and market gardening, and its waterways re-routed for irrigation, as have the Okanagan and Frazer Valleys in British Columbia, great swaths of the prairie provinces across Canada and the USA, and the Niagara region of Southern Ontario. These areas are some of the major agricultural production areas on which we North Americans depend most for our food production and, therefore, survival. That these areas were once wild, and remain domesticated only by force and vigilance, is an idea forgotten or ignored only by those who can afford to buy food instead of growing it themselves (provisioning). It is only those whose economic livelihood is not threatened, those who live an indirect economic lifestyle by selling their time for a wage so they can buy food, clothing, housing, etc., for their (indirect) survival, who can afford to uphold the misconception that we are not in direct competition with wildlife for our existence.

We all are in competition with nature, even urban dwellers. Ironically, it is urban dwellers who are, not only the most food insecure because they are more dependent upon an agricultural production and distribution system that is completely out of their control, but also often the most unaware of how much competition they are in with nature for their survival. How many urbanites consider the tons of pesticides that are sprayed annually on wheat alone to keep the average crop from succumbing to weevils? While weevils are not bears, they too compete directly with us for our wheat!

Which brings me to two other important points about direct competition.

The privilege of living close to nature

We have developed strategies for competing with all aspects of nature, from traps (mice and rodents), to fungicides, herbicides, insecticides (molds, weeds, bugs), to windbreaks and rip-raps (erosion by wind and water). We have become so conditioned to these agricultural weapons that we no longer see them as such. We certainly don’t see weevils on par with squirrels, or squirrels on par with grizzly bears.  Many bear enthusiasts would not object to a farmer spraying crops to prevent weevils from destroying it but would be horrified if the same farmer shot a bear to protect his apples. However, if you were dependent upon the apple crop for your livelihood, or to keep you from starving, you wouldn’t. The privilege of a full stomach affords us the luxury of seeing these two actions as vastly different.  Today, most North Americans would tell me to go buy the apples from the store and save the bear because they are no longer engaged in direct economics and can afford to be blindly unaware of the cold hard realities of what it takes to put food on their tables.

If you have a stomach full of food bought from the grocery store, then you can afford to see squirrels, deer, hawks, and bears as part of the wonders of nature and feel ‘privileged’ that they are traipsing through your yard and let them eat your berries, apples, and carrots. But even then, there is a big difference between tolerating squirrels, deer, and hawks, and tolerating bears and other large predators. Squirrels can’t kill you but large predators can. In order to keep our yards and communities safe, we cannot tolerate large predators in our human settlements, period.

However, if you are dependent upon the food you raise for your economic survival (directly or indirectly) you cannot even afford to let the squirrels eat your strawberries or the deer eat your apples. Imagine that every time a deer came in to your yard you lost 1/3 of your annual wage. How long would it take before the joy of seeing a deer to wear off? How long could you ‘afford’ to feel privileged at losing 1/3 (or more) of your annual salary? In order to have food security, you must have the right to defend the food.

In Defense of Food

In short, humans have a right to livelihood. By that I mean the right to grow food instead of selling our time, collecting a wage, and then spending it at ‘the store’ (where cheap food magically appears). We therefore have the right to defend our food sources just as we did in the past. Salaried employees don’t lose wages when a bear comes through their yards, why should a provisioner or farmer? Some will argue that that should be part of the cost of ‘doing business’ as a farmer. Many will argue that I (and other farmers) should buy electric fencing, install bear proof feed bins, build bigger, stronger, bear proof chicken houses and so on in order to prevent the bear conflict. I am against this line of thinking for three reasons: this argument is based on false belief #1 (that humans can control bear behaviour by removing all attractants); there is little enough (if any) profit to be made in farming these days and the additional cost would make their products out of reach for many consumers; and finally, fencing out large predators and leaving them to roam the neighbourhoods around fence lines does not promote human safety.

If we want sustainable farming to be something that younger people choose as a career, if we want food security for our communities, if we want to have agricultural animals raised ethically and humanely, if we want good clean safe food, if we want the right to livelihood, then we have to support those who are willing to do the work and make it worth their while. Otherwise, we will have to accept that those farmers who could get well paying, secure jobs elsewhere, should get them; that we will have food insecurity; that we will give up our right to livelihood; and that we will have to rely upon the corporate agricultural production and distribution system.

Finally, because we all need to eat and that act displaces large tracks of wilderness in order to ensure our survival, then the cost of maintaining wilderness with its full compliment of flora and fauna, in parallel with local food security, should be borne by all society, not just those who choose to live close to the wild and raise our food.

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Filed under Animal issues, Bears, Conservation, Educational, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, Gathering from the wild, Hunting, personal food sovereignty, Politicking with predators, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming

Making bears and fruit trees get along

I’ve recently been involved in a discussion with the BC Food Systems Network about the relationship between bears and food security. In terms of food security, this issue is an extremely important one for anyone living where large predators exist. I plan to write about it over several posts in order to dispel some common misconceptions about the human-predator relationship in terms of food security, and to propose some practical solutions.

Please feel free to voice your opinions in the comments section. I welcome the input, as it gives us all a chance to talk about this important issue. Your comments also provide me with food for thought, and the chance to develop my ideas.

How to make bears and fruit trees get along

A member of the BC Food Systems Network recently wrote about their community’s experience with the Conservation Service. According to this source, the COs in their area, instead of dealing effectively with any nuisance bears, are threatening people with fines if they don’t cut down their fruit and nut trees. While outraged with this Ministry’s attitude, I’m not surprised by it. Here in the Bella Coola Valley, too, people are being advised to cut down their fruit trees by the Conservation Service, instead of being offered support, protection (part of their motto!), and–oh, yes–conservation.

False belief #1: The ‘remove the attractant’ theory

In terms of food security, the idea that we must ‘remove all attractants’ to prevent bears from entering our communities is a dangerous line of thinking (particularly in light of our economic times). The logic may sound reasonable when you are living in the city and dealing with a bear in your garbage can. However, it is not consistent with the goals of food security, because in rural BC there is no limit to the list of attractants. Therefore, we cannot have food security in our communities and be consistent with these Ministry guidelines.

Most specifically, and to put it simply:  if we ascribe to the notion that humans can control bear behaviour by ‘removing the attractants’, then we cannot raise food. Fruit trees, berry bushes, carrots, and parsley all attract grizzly bears. Chickens, ducks, sheep, goats, and rabbits, all attract grizzly bears. The duck feed, the goat feed, and the chickens’ corn all attract grizzly bears. Fields of corn and oats attract bears. Beehives attract bears. (Many of the above also attract a host of other predators that threaten our food security, such as eagles, foxes, wolves, cougars, mice, owls, hawks, martin, weevils, and so on.)

If we are to be consistent with the ‘remove the attractant’ theory, then the next ‘logical’ step is to pass public policy laws that forbid people from raising their own food. In order to ‘remove all the attractants’ we will have to cut down all the fruit trees, plant no vegetable or herb gardens, and get rid of all the feed and grain for our agricultural animals–chickens (see Needless Suffering), ducks, geese, goats, pigs, turkeys, sheep, and so on–lest we be seen to be ‘baiting’ the bears. Instead, maybe we could free range our agricultural animals? No.  To be consistent with the ‘non-attractant theory’ we must leave it to the corporate agricultural producers who can afford (both ethically and financially) to keep animals indoors, behind Fort Knox type fenced areas, or on feedlots.

New Jersey Example

The idea of removing the attractants simply doesn’t work. This line of thinking got the state of New Jersey into its conundrum with their bears. They have gone a long way down this path, having made city wide efforts of removing the ‘attractants’ from their city streets and neighbourhoods. They have made huge efforts to limit the times in which garbage could be out on the street for collection, and even made centralized collection stations. Nevertheless, despite the fact they have removed all the so called ‘attractants’, bears have NOT stopped coming into people’s yards. Now accustomed to viewing human settlements as good food sources, bears are now entering houses. We should learn from their experience instead of continuing down the same path.

If we are going to have, and support, real food security in our province, we have to change the way we look at this problem. If not, then we will eventually lose the right to keep fruit trees, grow gardens, and raise animals for food. The evidence of this is revealed in the current attitude of British Columbia’s Conservation Service Officers.

Living under siege

The idea that humans are responsible to not ‘attract’ the bears is ridiculous. Humans have always grown gardens, had fruit trees, and domesticated animals in places where large predators roamed. Since humans have been on earth they have been in direct competition with other large predators for their food (livelihood) and, by shooting, trapping, snaring, or other aggressive measures, have trained these wild animals not to intrude into their human settlements. Until very recently, we have known and understood our relationship with the natural world; part of our role was teaching wildlife what is appropriate behaviour. We have lost that understanding now that most of us buy food from the grocery store, agricultural production is out of sight and out of mind, and the closest we get to a grizzly bear is by watching the Discovery Channel,

It is time to re-educate ourselves to re-educate the bears. Even the Conservation Officer Service acknowledges that humans  can ‘teach bears bad habits’, so why not teach them some good ones?

To view the series of posts on this topic, see:

Part two

Part three

Part four

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Filed under Agriforestry, Animal issues, Bears, Conservation, Educational, Ethical farming, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, Fruit Trees, personal food sovereignty, Politicking with predators, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming, Vegetable gardening

To stay or not to stay?

About one month after I quit my job in Regina and two weeks after I arrived back home, my husband got notified his services were no longer needed where he worked. Needless to say, our stress level went up. We were lucky enough that he got offered a part-time job in the fall that quickly turned into full time work. However, the job is only a one year replacement position, so we are now faced with the potential of neither of us being gainfully employed after June 26th. Not a big deal for some, but when you live in a small, remote town where there are few, or no, job prospects, it is: we are once again faced with the dilemma of whether or not to start looking for work outside the valley.

Unfortunately, it is not just the lack of jobs that begs this question.

Yesterday, I went to talk with the neighbour who lost the three beautiful dogs to the cougar a couple of weeks ago (see Cougar capers begin again). Since this fatal attack, they too are contemplating whether to stay: “Leaving was never a topic for discussion before this.” To say the least, the loss of the dogs has put a bad taste in their mouths for the moment; he showed me where the dogs were killed, stashed and eaten–and also where the grizzly bears show up each year! He worries constantly about his animals (not to mention his children!); he told me of the myriad battles he had, last summer alone, with different wild predators trying to kill one form of livestock or other. “One night I had 5 grizzly bears in the yard…right over there.” He pointed to a fence-rail that bordered the chicken coop just 30 yards from his house. Frighteningly, this was not an uncommon theme last summer; there were several reports of 5-7 grizzlies in people’s yards at once, unwilling to move off even when shot at!

We talked about the lifestyle we were both committed to, and the pros and cons of achieving it here. Then we commiserated about the fact there is work here for only one of them, as a couple. He laughed as he told me he thought farming would save them money–it doesn’t. “It would be cheaper to go buy the stuff from the store–even the organic.” He tells me about making mozzarella cheese from the local milk that he bought, and realizing that after all that work, he could have bought a bigger block of organic mozza from the local store for the same price he paid for the milk! He has tried to make a living on the farm in a variety of ways but doesn’t see any way of making it. He even bought a saw-mill, but the price of lumber is now too cheap to make even that pay–and that’s when he has his own trees to fall!

Despite the fact he’s not ‘making a living’, he is doing amazing things on his farm. He’s raising lamb, chicken, and beef for his family, growing a vegetable garden and raising fruit trees. They buy in wheat and make their own bread. At one time they kept a dairy cow and made all sorts of milk products but when she died they didn’t bother to replace her–too much work for one man. Besides, they found another source they could access. They keep two llamas for the fibre and–he tells me, not inconsequentially–the poop! Apparently llama poop is like gold for the garden: you can put it straight on the veggies and it won’t burn them. As if that was not reason enough to recommend llamas, their poop comes weed-seed free!

On top of all that he’s doing on the farm, he managed to grow a decent crop of wheat in what is supposedly a very marginal area for wheat–something I’m quite envious of and interested in doing. I took over my two samples of wheat to compare. Beyond the ‘hard red wheat’ identification of the label on the original bag, he has no idea what kind he’s grown. It appears to be neither of the two kinds I had: the Marquis and Red Fife. I’m curious to know what kind of wheat it is, because it certainly did a lot better than my experimental plot of Marquis last year–and last summer was nothing to write home about. His wheat resembled the Red Fife most closely, but had a much deeper, richer color–it is very beautiful.

While I look out at his field of ‘wheat to be’ (this year he’s going to grow two green manure crops to enrich the soil and not plant wheat again until next year), I am envious of his space. It has always been my dream to grow a field of wheat. The way my place is laid out presently, there is no room for a field of dreams! Since we bought the place we have not taken down any of the trees in the front half of the property. We’ve worked within the space that was already cleared but have now utilized nearly every square inch. So something has to give. For one thing I want my own field of wheat, and another–the predators. I want to feel safer on my property. So we plan to clear some of the front half (about 1.5 acres) and fence it. I’m hoping it will push the predators further from the house, and encourage them to go around the property instead of through it as they do now.

I tell my neighbour about my plans to clear some trees, fence in more of my property, and generally limb up trees to provide better visibility. He nods and says he’s going to do more of that himself. He has two small children at home and no longer feels safe on his own land: “They can’t be outside without one of us.”  I ask if he’s going to get more dogs and he shakes his head. “I can’t justify the cost of getting more dogs to work like those ones did. I lost $4000 in dogs in three nights–actually much more than that, when you taken all their training into consideration.” We talk about the heartache of losing them and our love of living with dogs in general. They will get one family dog but it will come in at night, so it is safe. Sadly, this will leave his farm animals unprotected. Without saying this explicitly, he sighs as his eyes survey the paddocks with the various grazing animals, “If we have a year like last summer…”

He says he likes spending time in the wilderness, but in places where you don’t have to worry about bears and cougars; he laments the fact that he can’t take his children hiking here. As he says this he pauses to consider the towering mountains surrounding us and laughs, “Actually, we are probably safer out hiking in the mountains than we are standing right here on my land among my animals! There are probably various sets of eyes watching us right now.” I know he’s right. I’ve got those same eyes looking at my place. I’ve seen them reflect back at me when I shine my flashlight at night after the dog has alerted me to the direction of their presence.

I find contemplating these sorts of realities depressing. This is my home, my dream-life and I don’t want to leave. But I do have do consider that there may be easier–and much safer–places to live. I have to consider whether or not this place will ever satisfy the farmer in me, or if I’ll have to keep relying on my husband to earn money that supplements the food I’m producing (with the losses from predation, this place has, thus far, been impossible to make pay for its running costs). Then there is the further investment of clearing land, fencing it off, and more housing to keep the animals safe. Another friend of mine was lamenting the fact she had to spend $1000 to build a chicken coop. I wish I had those kinds of cost worries! (A grizzly bear would smack that structure apart in one swipe.)

I wax and wane in enthusiasm for this place. Mostly, I love it. After all, it was my dream for over 15 years to live here.  I do wonder about whether or not to forget growing food for others and simply homestead, as my neighbour friend is. I am not sure I can let the desire to farm go, but as we both get older and the predator question becomes more and more ridiculous, I find myself rethinking the wisdom of staying. As my neighbour agreed, the most outspoken people on the predator question often have no clue about the realities of living with these creatures. They don’t grow their own food so they don’t address all the issues; instead, the wild animal issue has become largely sentimentalized.

As I bid my farewell, my neighbour leaves me to consider the question he and his family are pondering: “With all these wild animals right at our doorstep and the general population against our right to defend ourselves, is this any way to live?”

Post Script:

I am aware that there may be economic opportunities that I’m too blind to see. Thus, I am open to suggestions as to how I could make this work; ideas, suggestions welcomed.

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Filed under Animal issues, Bears, Cougars, Learning to Farm, Locavore, Politicking with predators, Sustainable Farming

Special features

Conversation with the writer/director of ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’

My ‘David Suzuki Digs My Garden’ audition video is–hallelujah–in the can. I would like to thank my cast and crew who worked tirelessly to get this done: David, Nick, Pavarotti, Elvis, Tui, Gordon, Malcolm, Fatty-Fat, Shiraz, Sundown, Coco, The Girls, and Martha. If I have missed anyone just tell me at next feeding time and I’ll add you to the list. Most of all I’d like to thank my ‘Best Boy’, Ahmed, who ransacked Vancouver in order that my production values were top notch, and my ‘Sound Engineer’, Buddy Thatcher. Thankfully, I saved on money by doing the location scouting, casting, catering, writing and directing myself, and the fact that the actors were willing to work for not quite peanuts–but close–helped keep us within budget. It was a very happy set except whenever I mentioned the word pesticide.

Although this was my first feature film, I found the whole experience so creatively stimulating, that I’m thinking of expanding into more short films to document my life and work here. I have spent this past year writing words and am now intrigued to write scripts and story-boards for this visual medium.

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Filed under Animal issues, Educational, Ethical farming, Goats, Horses, Just for fun, Preserving the harvest, Sustainable Farming, Vegetable gardening

David Suzuki Digs My Garden

SuzukiGnomeVancouver’s most famous Environmentalist, David Suzuki, is running a contest for pesticide free gardeners this summer. They say you don’t have to be a master gardener to play a starring role in the ‘David Suzuki Digs My Garden’ contest. They want a passionate storyteller who believes pesticide-free growing is the way of the future–which needless to say I do–that they can follow this summer in video, pictures and print, from soil prep and composting, through seeding and weeding, to reaping the harvest.

Without hesitating, I filled in the contest form on Thursday night and promptly went to bed. On Friday, I received an email saying I was accepted to the second phase, the video audition. How exciting! There are, of course, many problems with this: I don’t have a video camera, I don’t know anyone with a video camera, I haven’t ever used a video camera, I live 500 kilometers from the nearest store with a video camera, and no, I can’t buy one over the phone from the Vancouver camera stores. Consequently, I spent Saturday hunting down some options and finally a friend in Vancouver came to my rescue. He bought the camera and put it on the plane to Bella Coola this morning.

It arrived at 1:30 pm. I have since then been reading the instruction booklet whilst charging its batteries. I’ve managed to write my script and practice it twice on an old tape-style video camera (that won’t let me translate it to an AVI file so I can upload it to You-tube as the Suzuki Foundation requests) and hone it down to about 90 seconds. Now, I’ve gotten half way through what was going to be my final take–on the newly charged fancy digital jet-lagged camera–and I’ve hit something that has made the whole thing mute, and can’t figure out how to undo it!!! It will be a miracle if I manage to get this completed by Wednesday night! Wish me luck.

If I successfully manage my way out of the nanotechnology quagmire I’ve waded into, I’ll put it up on the blog for all to see. In the meantime, you can view Suzuki’s just over one minute promo video by clicking here.

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Filed under Developing Community, Just for fun, Sustainable Farming, Vegetable gardening

To bee or not to bee

beeonwhiteflowerSince living in New Zealand, where there are more kinds of honey on any grocery store shelves than I ever thought could exist, I have wanted to keep bees. In New Zealand, until very recently, all honey had been organic by default. The country did not have veroa mites and very few bee diseases in general, so the apiarists could raise bees in natural conditions (sadly, this is no longer the case as the veroa mite moved into the country in about 2002). “Bees are the easiest animals you’ll ever keep on your farm,” was the typical response to my queries; thus this thought has remained with me.

Since my time in New Zealand, I have wanted to add bees to my repertoire on the farm. Keeping my own bees would be the answer to getting off the grocery store dependency for sugar. For a couple of years in NZ, I lived without sugar when I was lucky enough to live next to ‘Tony-the-Greek’ who kept his own hives and always gave me some of his honey. When I ran out of Tony’s honey, I could drive about a mile further down the road and buy more from ‘Robin-the-honey-man,’ who had his extractor not far from our house. At the time, I did everything with honey: sweetened my coffee and jams, baked with it, even used it as a skin softener.

To date, I have never been ready to accommodate bees by early spring, when  you need to get organized and order them. This year I finally thought I had the time to do this, and began the task of finding the equipment and different sources for the actual bees. There is a lot to learn about bees that I hadn’t counted on. Once I began my research I was soon quite discouraged: “You’re living in a very marginal area for bees,” was the answer I got from two agricultural specialists. Further inquiries with the two local fellows who have historically (or in one case, still do) kept bees confirmed what the professionals said. These two men have either lost all their hives or all but one hive over the past couple of years.

Apparently, bees like warmer weather than we get here–they don’t appreciate our wet weather or the damp–and they need acres and acres of good fodder (think wildflowers like fireweed and clovers) in order to keep healthy and well fed. Because Bella Coola is in a rain forest, coupled with the fact that we have very little cleared farm land, there simply is not enough fodder to support a colony of bees. If that wasn’t enough to put me off, the local experience is quite the opposite of the New Zealand experience. Bees are not the easiest farm animal to keep in British Columbia–even in a better, warmer, drier location. We have a higher number of diseases and thus the amount of work involved and numbers of times you have to tend to your hive are far greater than the time I have to dedicate to such an uncertain endeavour.

So, like the growing of great tomatoes and shell out beans, bees have been crossed off the list of things I can do well, given my geography. Despite the fact that the maple and birch syrup take a huge amount of energy to extract, that is a much more environmentally suitable solution to my sweetener needs than honey. Location, location, location–it’s not just good advice for real estate speculators. Now I know why most of Canada’s honey comes from the Prairies!

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Filed under Agriforestry, Animal issues, Educational, Food Security, Learning to Farm, Sustainable Farming

First attempts with Cornish Crosses

With any luck, this is what I'll end up with when these babes are full grown. Photo credit: JB Farms

With any luck, this is what I'll end up with when these babes are full grown. Photo credit: JB Farms

Spring has sprung here on Howling Duck Ranch and it is marked with the arrival of the new baby chickens. I have ordered 50 day-old Cornish Cross birds for meat. They are said to be easier to raise than the straight run Cornish broilers with less chance of heart attacks and water-belly that the broilers (regular supermarket birds) are prone to.

The arrival was not without its complications. They were supposed to arrive on Friday afternoon on the mail truck. However, around 11 am I received a phone call from the Williams Lake Post Office letting me know the chicks would be arriving there at 5:oo pm, oh, and could I please pick them up before they close. The Williams Lake Post Office is a nearly 500 kilometer one way trip away!

Needless to say I spent the better part of the afternoon in a panic trying to find someone to care for the chicks over the weekend and arrange for a courier company to pick them up on Monday and bring them in to town. Thankfully, the feed store owner came through for me, they picked the chicks up on Friday night and the only courier that comes to Bella Coola said they would bring them in on the truck on Monday. Even so, the feed store owner was worried about them making another long trip without food and water being less than a week old by Monday.

As luck would have it, someone from Bella Coola dropped into the feed store yesterday and the feedstore pounced! Would you mind taking these chicks with that order of yours? Being a neighbourly sort (as many of us who live in the sticks are) he kindly obliged and my wee-uns arrived safely last night in the gentle care of a man I’ve only met once last year at a party! He did a fine job as everyone arrived alive and well.

So, this morning’s chores once again included the now routine ‘poopy-bum patrol’. So far, everyone still looks well. In fact, I’ll be surprised if I lose any more (one was lost in the mail before making it to the feed store). If there are no other losses, this will be the best rate I’ve had. Usually with 50 chicks I expect to lose 2-3 chicks in the first week. Fingers crossed for these babes.

I decided to try the Cornish Crosses for two reasons this year: my customers wanted a heavier meat bird and I want to breed them into my range birds. I’ve been breeding a heavy heritage mix of bird over the past few years in an attempt to get the best of all worlds: a good egg layer, good meat bird, efficient range bird, and cold heartiness. In the end, the heritage breeds are only so big and don’t have the real ‘meatiness’ of the breast that we’ve become used to thanks to the hybrid birds of the commercial flocks.

I’m by no means doing a professional job of this. I’m not worrying about line-breeding or incubating generation after generation. Mostly my chickens take care of themselves. They do the mating and the hatching on their own. My only hand in the process is to cull the ‘Jenny Craigs’ (the skinny light bodied chooks) and ensure good breeding stock. So far, we’re all quite happy with the program.

This year however, now that I have these Cornish Crosses, I plan to separate some of the bigger hens and mate them to the Cornish Roosters. We’ll see if those plans pan out!

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Filed under Chickens, Educational, Ethical farming, Heritage foods, Sustainable Farming

Clearing the ‘front’ forty

Over the past few years a grizzly mama with her cubs beds down each summer just behind my pergola. I have watched in horror as she stole a whole garbage pale full of duck feed right out from under the ducks beaks and have been startled while hanging my laundry by her and her cubs as they raced through my front  yard having been scared off by the neighbour’s dog. I have also had them come in the yard and harvest many of my apples, breaking valuable tree branches as they go.

Because of the numbers of bears we have coming through the property each summer, one of the tasks I work on over the winter and spring is clearing the dense undergrowth from the second growth forest that is on the front half of the property. It is no where near forty acres, instead it is a two acre tangle of alder, birch, maple, fir, hemlock, spruce, and a host of dense ugly undergrowth species–the worst of which is devil’s club; a beautiful but deadly plant thanks to it vicious two inch thorns that can  take out an eye if you are not careful and has a penchant for grabbing hold of passers by and clinging to them with the tenacity of barbed wire.

What was once a tangle of undergrowth now provides a nice vista through the trees.

What was once a massive tangle of undergrowth is transformed into a nice vista through the trees.

While this undergrowth is impossible to get through when you are a human, the bears manage just fine. They tunnel their way through it creating an extensive network of trails that, with practice, I have learned to identify. Now that spring is almost upon us, I have found myself out there again hacking and hewing my way through this barely identifiable network and opening it up for human accessibility. It is hard going without machines. A few days with a front end loader and Bobcat would be all that it needed, but I haven’t got that kind of ‘pocket change’ to hire someone to just get the job done.  So  each spring I pick away at it by hand and tell myself it is better exercise than paying to go to the gym and run on a treadmill! Blessedly, I do have a Husqvarna power tool with a chainsaw attachment which has allowed me to reach higher up on the trees than I can with my hand cutters.

Clarence came by the other day while I was hard at work. He tenderly reminded me that I should be looking up every now and then being watchful of cougars. He then took me on a little walkabout and pointed to a spruce tree, “Why just there I shot a cougar a couple of years ago.” I told him I always bring my dog with me and sometimes even the goats. (Many days I just take the dog and carry the browse back to the goats.) It is a sad but true reality of living here, that one of my animals might save my life by sacrificing theirs. “It’s a good idea” he said when I explained the secondary reason as to why the goats were free ranging that day. They are efficient browsers and would make short order of clearing much of it for me but I couldn’t possibly let them out there alone to do the work. Sadly, it would be like sentencing them to certain death. When we are out there together, I know we all stand a better chance. There is safety in numbers.

Another bear trail system opened up for human use.

Another bear trail system opened up for human use. Notice the water source on the left hand side of the photo.

On the one hand, I’m clearing the brush for the sake of clearing the brush and on the other I have more than bear dissuasion in mind. Now that I have the area developed to a stage that I can walk through, I have begun fantasizing about a cow. While I would love to breed my goats and develop a dairy based on them, the cougars and bears make such a serious investment in goats much too high risk.They are not only part of the cougar prey profile, they are considered a gastronomic delicacy to cougars and because of this people keep telling me to “enjoy the goats while I have them.” Thankfully, cows are not part of the grizzly prey profile so farmers tend to lose few of them to those predators. It would be nice to have an animal that I don’t have to worry quite so much about. Rumor has it that there are a couple of dairy cows in the valley and that one of them is pregnant…

It is interesting to see the choices in direction made by the bears. This path goes past several different native berry species, an ovbious food source for the grizzlies.

It is interesting to see the choices in direction made by the bears. This path goes past several different native berry species, an ovbious food source for the grizzlies.

When I am doing this clearing work I always build a huge bonfire to clear the brush away and at the end of a hard day’s clearing I sit by the last of the glowing embers and enjoy a whiskey and roast some marshmallows. Someone asked me how I plan to render down the Birch & Maple syrup. This year, instead of just enjoying the fire at the end of the day, I intend to use the fire to boil down my sap transforming it into syrup.

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Filed under Bears, How to..., Learning to Farm, Sustainable Farming

A brief update

ant_writingHello folks! First off, thanks for all the comments and advice you’ve so generously shared over the past few months with me. I’m feeling somewhat guilty lately as I’ve not been able to keep up the near daily posts–for various reasons, some under my control and many not. The main reason I’ve been truant of late is that I’m putting together a book! I hope to complete it in the next few weeks. I thought it would be done this week, but thanks to the generous and provocative feedback of some close friends, I’m now adding another couple of sections and chapters. So, I will get back to the more regular posts; it is just going to be a while yet.

In the meantime, thanks to Mitch for the ‘make my day’ feedback about my blog. I will write an update post about the chickens as per you r request, ‘as soon as’. Rest assured, they are doing fine and loving their new home. I will post some updated photos when I get a moment.

I’m thrilled to have happy news to report. Just when I was about to make a confessional report that I’d lost Virginia the kitten, she reappeared! After the first three weeks of having her here, I decided to let her have her first ‘free range, outdoor adventure’ and took her out to the  near barn. She promptly scurried to the back of it, hiding behind 132 hay bales, and wouldn’t come out. Nine days later–with both of us convinced she  was dead (killed by a fox) or had run away–my husband was surprised to find her in the new barn, sitting quietly behind the duck feed, gazing up at him as if to say, “Well where the heck have you been?” She is now  sitting on the couch, purring happily.

And finally, for those Stonehead fans who are wondering what happened to his blog, he has recently confessed that he is taking a ‘grumpy and mean’ break and taken it down temporarily. He’s been being attacked far too personally lately, and so has decided to give himself a rest from the vitriolic bombardment. Here’s hoping his ‘happy and nice’ batteries are soon recharged and he gets back up and running, educating and entertaining us all once again.

And that’s all folks! Back to the galley (and soon, hopefully, ‘galleys’!) …wish me luck.

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Filed under Educational, Ethical farming, Just for fun, Learning to Farm, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming