This spring, I had the extreme good fortune of visiting Broadfork Farm, where a couple of my farm heroes, Shannon and Bryan, so lovingly and conscientiously produce beautiful vegetables and flowers. They farm with the well-being of every living thing they interact with at heart, from prioritizing nutrient-dense food production for their consumers, to creating habitat for the many creatures that add to the biodiversity of their agroecosystem. “Most things are things I wouldn’t do differently anyway”, says Shannon.
As such, their approach to climate resilience is embedded in their philosophy and life approach. I was inspired to see that they have offered up a manifesto, which you can read on the Broadfork Farm website. They have also shared a beautiful description of why they farm:
During my visit to Broadfork Farm, diversity was the stand-out theme of every conversation. The farm has a new pond. At first, I assumed it was for irrigation, but Shannon explained that they had it dug to create habitat for animals that can be beneficial to the farm – like salamanders. Shannon does her research. She lit up when she described how salamanders eat as many as 200 pests each night. She has even learned to appreciate the black flies. “They’re sensitive to water pollution,” says Shannon. This makes them an important indicator species. “Blackflies can also pollinate some things. They are an important part of the food chain”. My farm in Cape Breton has so many black flies that we talk about them more than the weather! Shannon’s perspective helps me to see them in a more positive light.
Diversity (alongside beauty) inspires Broadfork Farm to grow a range of flowers for bouquet sales. The flowers attract pollinators but they create habitat over winter when the stems are left standing. They are also important to diversifying the farm enterprise. Bryan and Shannon have found it essential to spread out their efforts across different crops to mitigate risks. Last year, the farm saw a very late last frost on June 24th, followed by a very early first frost on September 8th. While the farm experienced major yield reduction resulting from these frosts, the farm as a whole had higher sales than ever before because of the diversity of crops and varieties produced.
Diversity is also central to Broadfork Farm’s pest management. The farm uses no pesticides, not even organically approved options. “It is a treadmill of chemicals that bypass natural cycles,” explains Shannon. Instead, she focuses on research to try to understand pest cycles and experiment with solutions. One strategy the farm uses is planting flowers which are known to attract beneficial insects, to help offset the balance of pests in their favour.
The porch at Broadfork Farm was lined with little shrubs, waiting to be planted into a new, permaculture inspired hedgerow. This hedgerow will further add to the plant diversity on the farm, create habitat for even more diversity, while serving as a wind break.
Regenerative agriculture focuses on restoration and conservation of farm soil, water and biodiversity. It uses an ecosystem lens to strengthen the health and resilience of farm systems. Broadfork Farm brings this concept to life in the management of their farm.
Cover cropping is key. Bryan and Shannon sell off of one acre of land, but they maintain four acres in cover crop. According to Shannon, it is all about “constant roots”, or never leaving the soil uncovered. They have some perennial cover crop for future production, with a long cycle of annual cover crops in their vegetable fields. For every three years in vegetable production, a field sees three years in nourishing, regenerative cover crops of diverse species, helping to build soil organic matter, soil fertility, and break pest cycles. Cover cropping can create challenges for a low-till farm. Bryan and Shannon use a rototiller with the PTO turned off to roll or crimp a cover crop stand, so that they can seed the next cover crop straight into the residue, rather than tilling. The third year of the cover crop cycle is a mix of sorghum sudangrass and field peas, which will winter kill, leaving the field ready for a spring planting of cucurbits (cucumbers and squashes) into a long-life landscape fabric.
All of the fields also see a substantial application of compost each year. Broadfork Farm aims for one inch each year, and they have a massive stockpile of compost from diverse sources to prove it. Over time, all of these practices result in healthy soil with greater water holding capacity, and the resiliency that comes with microbial diversity.
As part of their ecosystem-based approach, Bryan and Shannon put a lot of consideration into water. “Our water is so good! We want to do right by it,” says Shannon. Meanwhile many people in the nearby town of River Hebert cannot drink their well water. In order to protect their household well from the demands of the farm, a deep irrigation well has been drilled. Regenerative practices also extend into the farmhouse where a composting toilet had replaced a conventional flush toilet, and Bryan and Shannon opt out of hot running water. These philosophies are a code that they live by, not just a farm model.
Shannon speaks very passionately about seed saving. She likens warehouse-based plant breeding to confined animal operations. “It suspends their purpose,” describes Shannon. “their experience with other organisms, and the sun and wind.” Historically, food plants co-evolved with us, sharing in learning, change and adaptation. Broadfork Farm applies this thinking to seed saving. She has a particular love for Swamp Milkweed, which she maintains for visiting Monarch butterflies, who’s larvae depend on this plant.
Locally adapted varieties of plants, selected year after year for their resistance to local weather challenges, soil conditions, pests and more, are key to climate change resilience.
Infrastructure and Innovation
Broadfork Farm depends on several moveable high tunnels to help mitigate risks of weather – cold, frosts, wind, and rain-related disease pressures. These tunnels extend the season but also allow Shannon and Bryan to control conditions. “We’ve learned to expect less than ideal weather,” says Shannon. Greenhouses and tunnels help with this, but Shannon also envisions a future of subsistence: a time when people’s expectations adapt along with us, so that customers are not looking for local tomatoes in June. This would decrease the need for plastic intensive structures that are vulnerable to storm damage and snow damage, a constant worry during challenging weather.
An important innovation for Shannon and Bryan has been the building of a self-loading compost spreader. Finding appropriate technology to reduce tillage, and reduce labour has been important to developing a farm system that is productive, and viable while still adhering to their values.
Shannon and Bryan have also been experimenting with frost irrigation – a technique for protecting frost-sensitive crops in the event of an early frost. This method helps the farm keep greens, flowers, beans and more, growing past those early fall frosts. Overhead sprinklers are run over night, creating a layer of ice on plants as temperature dip below zero. This ice protects the plants from freezing themselves. On frosty nights, Broadfork Farm has found this method more effective than row covers. Check out a video Bryan made to illustrate the process.
I asked Shannon what comes next. She is looking towards building a root cellar for passive storage of produce, which is a great way to extend seasonal availability and reduce the need for refrigeration. Whatever Bryan and Shannon add or change, I am sure their farm will remain a shining example of land and water stewardship, which goes hand in hand with climate change adaptation. In Broadfork Farm’s Manifesto, Shannon says, “I want to be remembered as the person who left her farm better than she found it.”
- Regeneration Canada
- Broadfork Farm
- FAO: Adaptation to climate change in agriculture, forestry and fisheries
- ACORN: Cultivating Climate Resilience
Blog written by: Jody Nelson, Community Food Coordinator Cape Breton, Ecology Action Centre
Adventures in Local Food is your source for food news in Nova Scotia, from pickles to policy. It is a project organized by the Ecology Action Centre. Learn more about our program at https://www.ecologyaction.ca/ourfood