The following transcript is protected under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY
Nelson, BC, Canada
April 17, 2007
Title: "Global Hops Shortage / Biodynamics and Microorganisms"
Producer/Host - Jon Steinman
Transcript - Elizabeth Brost
Jon Steinman: And welcome to Deconstructing Dinner, a syndicated weekly one hour radio program heard on radio stations around the world and which is also available as a Podcast. The show is produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY in Nelson, British Columbia and I'm your Host Jon Steinman.
We have a few different topics to cover on today's broadcast, one of which will reintroduce a topic that was covered last year in 2007 – and that was beer. The beer industry is always a fascinating one to take a look at, as it was beer that was one of the first industrialized food and beverage products in the world. As has now been a relatively well publicized issue, the focus for the first segment of the show will be on the recent global shortage of hops - the key flavouring component of most beers. At the March 2008 Certified Organic Associations of BC conference, I sat down with brewer and farmer Rebecca Kneen of Crannog Ales in Sorrento, BC, and using the opportunities that have arisen from this hops crisis, Rebecca will help project what other opportunities may arise from other food-crises, such as the most recent global food supply and price concerns.
Also recorded at the conference was one of our first ever guests on Deconstructing Dinner – and that was Karl Hann of Biota Farm in Abbotsford, BC. Karl hosted a workshop at the conference titled The Good, The Bad and The Balance. Karl is a biodynamic farmer and he shared his understanding of the role of microorganisms, and similar to previous episodes of Deconstructing Dinner, Karl shared his beliefs of how the dominant methods of farming are taking us in a completely opposite direction from where our farming systems should be heading.
So if you have a beer in the fridge, I will suggest cracking it open because for the first half of today's show, we'll talk about beer. Back in July 2007 I Interviewed the author of Fermenting Revolution - Christopher O'Brien, who believes drinking beer and learning more about the culture, politics and economics of beer can help save the world. And so in a style that I'm sure Christopher would approve of, let's explore the recent global shortage of hops – the key flavouring component of beer, and in taking a closer look at what responses have come out this global food crisis, we can perhaps forecast what responses may arise from other food-related crises (as some indeed are already being played out around the world).
Now hops are a rather obscure component of beer not everyone may be familiar with (especially for those who don't drink beer) – and so to describe them as briefly as possible - Hops are the female flower cones of the hop plant, which is a climbing herbaceous perennial, usually trellised using strings strung up in a field called a hop field, hop garden, or a hop yard. Most small-scale brewers keep the source of their hops as a secret as it is the hops that essentially act as the herb or spice of the beer.
But like with most crops throughout the world, the hop plant was industrialized, and globalized, and most recently, some would suggest this globalization experiment failed quite miserably. Jumping back to 1986, the total acreage around the world planted to hops was 215,600 acres. In 1992 that shot up to 236,000, but then in 2006, that number plummeted down to 123,000. And so why such a difference?
Well one hop industry expert Ralph Olson put it this way; that in 1992 when hops were at 236,000 acres, acreage should have actually been between 160,000-170,000 to meet demand. And so instead, a glut of hops hit the market, created excess inventory and hence, lower prices. These low prices forced farmers around the world to pull out of the industry altogether because the prices being paid to them were often below the cost of production. Sounds like a familiar agricultural story.
So today, we now face a global shortage of hops, because in 2007, a series of weather-related events destroyed hop plants around the world. In the United States, where 25% of the world's hops are grown, bad weather was the culprit. In Europe, it was hail, and in Australia, drought. After all this, the global hops supply turned up at 10-15% short of demand.
To learn more about how this crisis is affecting brewers here in Canada, I sat down with Rebecca Kneen at the 2008 Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia conference held in Sidney. Along with her partner Brian MacIssac, Rebecca helps run Canada's only certified organic farmhouse microbrewery – Crannog Ales in Sorrento BC. Their farm is called Left Fields, and its ten acres surround the brewery with livestock, a small orchard, and, a hop yard. In 2002, Brian and Rebecca received a grant to produce a manual on how to grow small-scale organic hops, and since the global hops shortage, the manual and their business has been receiving an exciting level of interest. My first question to Rebecca was why would a brewer choose to grow their own hops.
Rebecca Kneen: We started the brewery in 2000, at which point we new we were going to be organic, and we looked around and realized that the only organic hops that we could buy were from New Zealand. That seemed kind of ludicrous to us, especially given that we were growing other ingredients for the beer, the specialty ingredients fruit and so on, on the farm itself. To have to suddenly go more than halfway around the world to get a really vital ingredient for the beer, just was completely absurd. And I had grown hops as a home brewer in my own garden before so I knew that they grew well here. I didn't know a whole lot more than that, actually. I did a little research and discovered that, in fact, hops were grown all over BC for years and years. So it was definitely possible to do them here on a commercial scale. We have the right climate and all of the other requirements. So the first step was just saying, well nobody's supplying the market. We need this and its not there, so I guess we better grow it ourselves. That being my usual answer to thing, alright fine, I'll just do it myself.
JS: So where did they end up going? You said they used to grow here in BC and from what I understand they grew mostly in the lower mainland, the Okanagan you had mentioned as well. What happened to the market that dried that up?
RK: Well, they were originally grown, when white people first came to BC, one of the things they brought with them was alcohol. And they needed hops. And a lot of the places that are now growing apples or have been growing apples were growing hops even before that. So they were actually grown just about everywhere in southern BC. From the Shuswap straight down the entire Okanagan Valley, all the way through the Thompson Okanagan, around the Kamloops area, also all over Vancouver Island and the lower mainland. The last big commercial areas were around Pritchard, near Kamloops, and in the Fraser valley. And those areas went out in the late 80s and mid 90s.
JS: The story of hops begins to sound much like the story of most foods that have too been globalized. Similar to many grains, fruit, beef or pork as examples, these products have, just like hops, been allocated as specialties in specific regions of the country and around the world. Rebecca comments on what happened when hops were no longer an economically viable crop to be grown in BC.
RK: They went out of hops production, primarily because of globalization in beer. So just the same kind of pressures that we're finding with globalization in any other food commodity. We only had multinational breweries around. The American agricultural industry was heavily subsidizing hops production. They really wanted to focus on that and capture the world market and Canadian producers were not subsidized and simply couldn't compete. That started a 15-year depression in hops prices where hops producers were getting $1.50 - $1.75 per pound for dry weight. Now hops have a lot of volume and no weight. So that translates into basically zilch per acre. It was way less than the cost of production. Very much the same situation that wheat has been in for years where the prices haven't changed no matter what happens to the cost of production. That only has recently started to change in terms of hops pricing because we now have a lot of craft brewers that have come on board and craft brewers have a very different ethos than large multinational corporations. These are small companies who work in their own communities. They're very focused on supplying their own local market which has led them to an awareness of the need for local supply. The most recent development of that has been a crisis in hops production where because prices were so low, hops growers were producing fewer and fewer hops, but also producing only certain varieties that they could get top dollar for and taking more and more acres out of production. Going into things with a much higher rate of return, whether it is ginseng, apples, it's been lots of herbal products, and things that they could work with the land that they already had and now into bio-fuels which was what really put the pressure on in the last two years. Loads of land coming out of hops production and going into bio-fuels. So those three things, the price being really really low, the pressure to use land for bio-fuels, and the potential for higher value non food crops essentially, has reduced the production of hops. And then, due to global warming, we've had some really extreme weather conditions all over the world coincidentally a lot of them in major hops growing areas which resulted in a serious crash in production in 2006 and again in 2007 which meant that there was no stored hops for people to carry on with.
JS: Similar to how such a shortage of hops would play out for other foods, the recent hops shortage illustrates how in times of crisis or economic fluctuations, industrial operations are far more secure than small-scale and local producers.
RK: The industrial brewers don't have a problem. They contracted years and years ahead and their contracts are for specific quantities, not the produce of x acreage. So they have no problem. They're still paying $1.50-$1.70 a pound to the hops grower and they will be for the next three years by which time hops. . . So what they're doing, essentially, is just taking everything that's there in the market. Craft brewers are then left with the odd and unusual hops that the mega brewers don't want to use or whatever else they can manage to scrounge off the floor, literally.
JS: While the industrial brewers are secure in their supply of hops, craft brewers on the other hand have been forced to find innovative ways to make up for the shortage, and it's because of this crisis in particular, that we can begin to see the opportunities that can arise for viable local alternatives. As we now observe the supply, distribution and price crises waging across the globe, does the response by craft brewers provide a window into what responses may come out of current and future food shortages and price increases.
RK: Well, I think craft brewers have responded in three ways: The first way is to stop using massive amounts of hops in their beers, so we're seeing a real decline in the imperial IPAs and the really high octane, heavily hopped west coast American style beers, which have also been taking over here in Canada. Using alternative bittering agents, going to herbal beers, beers that have their flowers and that kind of thing, really expanding the range which is really fun. But most excitingly, for me, they're realizing that they are not hops secure. They're not food secure. So they're suddenly saying, gee maybe we should work with some local farmers to make sure we have hops supply and while we're at it, they could grow this new variety that I've heard about that I can't get anywhere and that I'm really excited about and/or an old variety that nobody's growing anymore. They're suddenly making that connection and they're really interested in working directly with the farmer. Not just going through brokers which is where they've been for years and years. They're realizing that that's a different kind of security.
JS: Now this was exactly the response right here in Nelson, BC where one of Canada's only certified organic breweries - the Nelson Brewing Company, chose to link up with farmers in the Okanagan Valley to grow hops for their beers. Rebecca Kneen has too been receiving a lot of this new interest in local hop growing because in 2002, she received funding to publish a manual on small-scale organic hops production.
RK: In 2002 we were very fortunate to receive funding from the Investment Agriculture Foundation to create a manual on small scale and organic hops production. To my intense gratification, that has now become a really important document for people because it's one of the few things out there that takes production practices from the 1920s and 30s where hops were being produced this way very successfully, and translates that into the modern environment in terms of mechanization and equipment and all of that kind of stuff. We are now also engaged very directly in a project to try to link new hops growers with brewers and make sure that people understand what is required on both ends in terms of quality and reliability by the brewers and for the brewers to understand the challenges of growing hops and to become involved in it, to go out to the fields and pick hops and help get things started. And we also supply rhizomes. So we're physically involved in getting people literally, getting the plants in the ground.
JS: And this is Deconstructing Dinner, where you're listening to an interview I had with organic craft brewer Rebecca Kneen of Sorrento, BC. I spoke with Rebecca in March 2008 at a conference in Sidney on Vancouver Island.
While the results of the global hops shortage continue to reshape the industry, Rebecca does suggest that when the dust settles, the price for hops will become just as economical for brewers to go directly to the farmers themselves, which in the end, will leave more money in the pockets of farmers.
RK: The best estimate by people in the industry is that we're going to settle out to about $12 per pound to the farmer. So if you're going through a broker, you're going to be paying more. If you're working directly with the farmer, they're getting all of that money so they've got a really good incentive to keep growing hops. For the brewery, you're not paying extra, and brewers are really understanding that connection and the value of going directly to the farmer in a way they never have before because brewing has been treated as an industrial process. So it's really an interesting reflection of the rest of the food system, of people being involved in something that has been considered industrial suddenly saying, wait a minute, we're not that industrial and we need to belong to our communities in a new way and we need to approach this from where our hearts are because every craft brewer I know is in the business for passion. They're not in the business because they want to make a mint and get out as quickly as possible. So they're really interested in supporting their local communities and making that connection and they feel really good about it. It really is reflecting what's been happening in terms of local food security and the 100 mile diet and all of that kind of thing.
JS: Now I did present the question to Rebecca, as to whether she believes the global hop shortage can indeed provide a window into how similar crises of other crops would be responded to. While some may wonder, well, what would a craft brewer know, Rebecca does come from a very experienced family in the world of food security. Frequent listeners of Deconstructing Dinner will likely remember both Cathleen and Brewster Kneen who have lent their voices to the show before. Cathleen and Brewster are the editors of the monthly food systems journal – The Ram's Horn and Cathleen is the co-founder of the BC Food Systems Network and currently the Chair of Food Secure Canada. Rebecca – is Cathleen and Brewster's daughter and clearly understands the subject of food security.
RK: Well I think, coming from a brewers perspective, malting barley is another great place because we have the capacity to grow malting barley here and again, people are looking for local supply. We actually are blessed with a very high quality local organic maltster in BC who is willing to do small batch malting. So we've got a lot of really interesting potential that way. But I think just about every crop you can put your finger on, has got the potential to change its method of production and its method of marketing to work more directly with consumers and for consumers to stop thinking of themselves as consumers and start thinking of themselves as part of the food system, not just a gaping maw.
JS: Just one last question, in coming back to the home brewer, I walk around my residential community in Nelson, and there are hops growing in people's backyards and they seem to grow really well and they grow within other plants. Do you see this also as an opportunity for the home brewer to grow their own hops? Is this something that can be done? I'm not a home brewer myself, but is this a possibility for home brewers?
RK: Oh absolutely, I get hundreds of calls a year from home brewers looking for one or two hop rhizomes and they want to grow them in the backyard which is how I wound up getting started in the whole thing in the first place. So yeah, it's very possible, it's really gratifying, and they're really beautiful plants. And anything that grows over a foot a day is well worth growing just for the sheer weirdness of it.
JS: Before closing out my conversation with Rebecca Kneen, I did also want to hear her thoughts on the difference between the ingredients going into her beers and those that end up in conventional industrial brews. If you pick up a bottle of a Molson or Labatt product and put it alongside a microbrew, the ingredients on the label read the same – Water, Hops, Yeast and Malt. What most Canadians don't know, is that those are the only four ingredients that must legally appear on the bottle – however, Health Canada permits over 100 other ingredients to be added to beer or to the process of making the beer that are not required to appear on the label. I asked Rebecca to share her thoughts on this.
RK: What goes into our beer? Water, from our own well. Barley, organic barley, organically malted. Organic hops and yeast. If we're making a fruit beer, fruit is added. That's it. Conventional beers can have, like you said, there's hundreds of different ingredients, essentially there are clarifying agents, foam stabilizers, head retention agents, things that make the beer hold the CO2 more, so that you get more bubbliness, which we don't actually like because it makes the beer hard to digest, hard to taste, it just makes it very difficult to approach beer properly and to let your palette approach the beer. A lot of it is about visuals. The other major thing that is going into conventional and large brewery beers would be rice and corn. Corn or course being genetically engineered and they're in there because they're cheap sources of sugar which makes the production of alcohol much than growing malting barley and they don't have a whole lot of flavor. So if what you're after is flavorless alcohol, corn, rice, that sort of thing are very friendly. If what you're after is a whole lot of flavor, with a moderate amount of alcohol, then you don't want to use those ingredients and we don't.
JS: Anyone with access to the Internet can view a list of all of the ingredients that Health Canada does allow to be used in the beer making process. Some of these are caramel (used as a colouring agent), calcium acetate (of which 75% of available sources are produced chemically using petrochemicals), methylcellulose is another used as a thickening agent – methylcellulose is produced synthetically with the aid of Sodium Hydroxide which is also used as drain cleaner. Propylene Glycol is permitted to be added to beer – that ingredient is also used for aircraft deicing, antifreeze and cosmetic products. Nylon 66 (used most often in the automotive industry is also used) and yet another – Pepsin – derived from the stomachs of pigs. A link to that page on the Health Canada web site will be posted on the Deconstructing Dinner web site at cjly.net/deconstructingdinner
JS: Next to maybe maple syrup, moose, and Mounties, one of the things that is always associated with Canadians is beer. Canadians associate beer with themselves and looking at this story of what's going into most Canadian beers now and looking who owns breweries in Canada now, from what I understand 95% of all Canadian beer is brewed by companies now owned by foreign companies and there's only 5% Canadian ownership left in the market. Do you believe Canadians are aware of what's happening to Canadian beer and if so, why are Canadians continuing to drink these beers?
RK: That's a great question. I think you're absolutely right, that I don't think most Canadians are aware that most companies that say they are Canadian on their labels are not, in fact, it's a brand, that's all. That definitely has an effect on people if they realize that the beer that says its Canadian is not Canadian, there's a certain sense of betrayal there which is beginning to turn people away from those beers. But we've been drinking that stuff for a really long time because for a long time, there were no other choices. Our palettes have gotten used to it. Tasteless beer works really well with the fat and salt fast food diet. If that's what your palette is used to, that's what you're going to want. At the same time, I think people are beginning to realize that there are options and more and more people are actually turning to that and I think it's coming along with the local food movement as well. People are willing to not just look at local food but to look at all the other things they ingest and use on a daily basis and actually change their approach. That being said, I don't know why anybody would want to drink fizzy tasteless beer. It just seems really pointless to me.
JS: And that was Banks Oregon musician Heather Alexander and her tune Fresh Hops and Ale – and she closed out my interview with Rebecca Kneen of Crannog Ales located in Sorrento British Columbia. I spoke to Rebecca in March 2008 at a conference in the community of Sidney. Crannog is Canada's only certified organic farmhouse microbrewery. On the farm they grow many varieties of Hops including Golding, Fuggles, Nuggett, Wilamette, Mt. Hood, Challenger and Cascade among others. Their Small-Scale Organic Hop Production manual is available to view on-line and print copies can be ordered on their web site at www.crannogales.com (and crannog is spelled c-r-a-n-n-o-g).
JS: And this is Deconstructing Dinner – a syndicated weekly radio program and Podcast produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY in Nelson, British Columbia. This program is supported in part by listeners such as yourselves and we encourage all of our listeners to help support this program by becoming a monthly donor through our web site at cjly.net/deconstructingdinner.
The first segment of today's episode does lead nicely into this next one. Just as Rebecca Kneen discovered how the same practices being used in the 1920s and 1930s could be applied to the organic cultivation of hops here in Canada, Karl Hann also believes in looking to the agricultural methods of the past in order to question the direction in which our agricultural systems have evolved. Similar to the topic of our recent broadcasts on pesticides and our cultural connections to weeds, this next segment also expands on that very same school of thought, but in this case, we'll go into more detail into the beneficial role of microorganisms in helping provide us with food using what Karl Hann believes are more sustainable methods than conventional and organic agriculture can provide. Karl Hann lent his voice to Deconstructing Dinner back in January of 2006 when he joined our one-hour expose on the egg-industry. As Karl is a biodynamic egg producer, he presented one alternative to the battery-cage industrial methods that currently dominate the industry. Karl is a native of Romania and has been living and farming in Canada for over 20 years. He currently operates Biota Farm in Abbotsford, BC and he co-hosted a workshop at the 2008 Certified Organic Associations of BC conference. He spoke to a room of mostly organic farmers and his workshop was titled The Good, The Bad and The Balance. He opened up by sharing what he has observed is a completely misguided approach to producing food, the same approach that has taken over North American agriculture.
Karl Hann: I would like to start my introduction with a quote. I have a particular interest in everything that is relatively old. And here, I'll show you Soil Association magazine from 1963, it is significant in more than one way. The quote on top says, "The balance of nature is in a constant state of adjustment. Man too, is a part of this balance. Sometimes, the balance is in his favor. Sometimes, and all too often, through his own activities, it is shifted to his disadvantage."And this is actually why we are here. Because we try to find out what's wrong with our way of doing agriculture, where we went astray. And it is a little bit disappointing to me to see that in 1963 wrote that, it was significant enough for the soil association to bring it up and they have reiterated that statement and other similar statements so many times over, and still in 2008 there is great resistance from a lot of people to accept organic agriculture as the conventional way of farming. It has been done for 8000 years. It has worked. Humans got it into their heads that they have to control nature for our own good and probably for nature's own good and I think that we have screwed up pretty badly. It's time to recognize that. Now whenever microorganisms come up and we have people approaching me and asking about secret recipes and miracle microorganisms, there really is no such thing as far as I can see. And from my experience working with microorganisms, I don't even know what they are, roughly speaking. But I can see their work and the effects that it has on the plants and the animals that I raise on the particular piece of land. Now microorganisms are not new and it is a mistake quite often that we find a researcher discovering that a certain microorganism releases a certain compound either into its immediate environment or into a host plant or host animal and thus miracles there. And now we try t find out which is the active ingredient. The whole focus goes into that active ingredient. Somebody eventually locks himself up in a lab and syntheses that active ingredient and that is supposed to be the solution for all our problems. That approach is wrong, at least as far as I can see it. So for me, it is really looking back to how people have farmed for centuries and for thousands of years in other parts of the world because, truth be told, western Europe is not where agriculture started because they were still hunting wild boars and subsistence farming in today's France and Germany, all the civilized advanced nations when in Asia, they were composting. So composting is a really old practice. And what you do by composting is you perfect an environment for microorganisms to do their job, to transform certain plant materials, animal materials, waste so to speak, it is dead stuff that has ceased to live, into nutrients, to return it back to the soil almost in a biblical sense and provide life for new generations of life forms. Here, in North America we are trying to find somebody who tells us about some miracle products that we use to heal our ailing soils. Because I am not an organic farmer, I am a biodynamic farmer, and in biodynamic agriculture, you focus more on the soil than in organic agriculture. I do not denigrate organic agriculture but I think that we still have a little bit farther to go to actually achieve positive results and production so that we get credibility for being the sustainable way of producing, and producing enough quality and quantity and more quality. So let's say that maybe the quantity is maybe a little bit less but the quality is so much higher that the net gain is actually higher. And this is what's important for me. It doesn't matter that I grow a chicken that is six pounds in 42 days but a guy sits down and wolfs it up in fifteen minutes or less and is still hungry and has to go for a chocolate bar. Before, a family sat down, ate a six pound chicken and everybody had enough. And there were no side effects. No cancer, no stomachaches. Because it also struck me as a little bit strange that you come to a supermarket. I dreamt about being in a supermarket where you do not have to stand in line for six hours to buy chicken feed but you could buy chicken breast. And it was maybe six or seven months into being a westerner when all of a sudden, it didn't make too much sense to go into a store and see that you buy all of this proper food and on your way out, they have a counter where there is the Pepto Bismol antacid.
JS: And this is Deconstructing Dinner. Although farmer Karl Hann has been farming in Canada for over 20 years, he does have a lot of knowledge and experience in the older methods of farming that were used in his native Romania. In this next segment he shares his observations as a biodynamic farmer on how sensitive natural systems truly are, and how disruptive current farming practices are, to these systems.
KH: What I do now is I compare constantly whatever I see here, what the effects are, what was done back in the old country, and really where lies the progress. And I must say in all honesty that I don't see much progress here. And one really good example (and then we go to microorganisms) is that the net return on one acre of agricultural land in the United States of America, which is the top producer, the expert, the one that has the formula to feed and absolve everybody from world hunger, has a return of minus 600 dollars per acre.You explain that to me and I'll move on and get another job. But as long as that is still the truth I feel entitled to be a little bit critical about modern ways of proper agriculture.
So, this composting thing has led over the centuries to soils that sustain a lot of life. When I moved onto the property where I am now, in 1992, I was really shocked when I dug my first holes to plant certain bushes, there were no worms. There was not a beetle hole. There was nothing in the ground. That farm had been chemically farmed for about 25 years and there was no life. Organic matter in the soil was .8 percent, which is still good because there are a lot of places that have only .5. And after fifteen years or so, I now have sections where I cultivate a little bit more extensive, where I can get a soil sample that reads 16 and in most places it is 8. So I think microorganisms work. I work with microorganisms since 1993. I was introduced to them by a Japanese friend and at that time Dr. Higa from Japan created a little bit of a stir with his microorganisms that he called EM (Effective Microorganisms) and it was effectively a blend of 80 different strains of bacteria, algae, nematodes, living more or less in harmony together. This is why I called for the title to be called The Good, the Bad, and the Balanced, because indeed, we have to come to the realization that most microorganisms are beneficial in one way or another. We don't know exactly what all of them do but it is only a few that are really really bad. Now if you combat those microorganisms it is absolutely no use for you to go and buy from EMX technologies the microbes, put them on your soil, carry on with whatever practices you have been doing before and expect miracles because you are actually killing probably 90% of them on the second day. The other thing that the renowned microbiologist said is that the only sure thing we know about microbes behavior is that we put colonies of them in a certain spot and three days later half of them are gone because they are so sensitive to their environment. This is why I am an advocate of disturbing your soils as little as possible.
JS: As is part of the biodynamic philosophy of farming, the natural rhythms of the immediate location are of greatest importance. In the case of microorganisms, Karl Hann believes that through the encouraging of indigenous microorganisms onto the land, the soil and plants can achieve optimal health and vitality.
KH: I have no slide presentation because there was a misunderstanding between London Drugs and myself, but I photographed a few weeks ago a rock in the greenhouse because there are a few stones that pop out of the ground and you had this rock sitting there and all around this black nice greenhouse soil and you had algae growing right at the surface level and there were a few rocks farther down that had absolutely nothing on them. And this tripped me now to realize how sensitive these little things are. On the soil they wouldn't grow, on top of the rocks they wouldn't grow, just at that borderline in that particular zone. And that happens throughout the soil and up into the air onto the plants. Whatever you find on the underside of the leaf you don't find on the top side of the leaf, because it is a totally different environment. This is why do not expect miracles by buying any particular substance. This is why you have to have indigenous microorganisms. How do I get my microorganisms? You have what's in your neighborhood and on your property and they decay on the bark. You have an abundance of micro-flora and fauna going on. You need some bark, you scrape some moss off, and every once in a while I get excited and chop my firewood up and inside you find a core that has a substance already inoculated with whatever. You made the tea out of it, spray it on your land and if it's taking off, good and if not you didn't really lose much. And it costs nothing. And this is what organic agriculture is about. We want to grow with nothing but rainwater and make tons of money. (audience laughter) And everybody else can go and buy Haifa potassium nitrate, with a reading of 2400 because that was the other thing. I was the first greenhouse grower that went cold turkey in Canada from hydroponic to organic. And the ministry of agriculture said you can't do that you will never be able to grow organic in a greenhouse. How do you get your nitrogen? There's plenty. You have a lot of problems. I had some. But eventually you grow out of it, you learn and after that it is much better than hydroponic because I remember how we cleaned the greenhouse, sterilized everything, planted new, and about three or four weeks later you had every pest under the sun in there and you didn't even open the ventilation yet. So later on when I thought you go organic, you have a whole lot of problems with pests because now you don't have the miracle substances that are all government approved and researched specific to these insects. And at the very beginning, this is what I want to caution you about, do not try to find substitutes for synthetic sprays because you kill and you are not supposed to kill. It says in the bible, thou shall not kill. It's not your job. Get the microorganisms to do it and wash your hands of it. They did it by night, nobody saw it, you come in the morning and there are no aphids, big deal. What happened? I don't know. I was asleep. I had a beer last night.
JS: You're listening in on a workshop hosted by Karl Hann of Biota Farm in Abbotsford BC. Deconstructing Dinner recorded him speaking at the 2008 Certified Organic Associations of BC conference held on Vancouver Island in the community of Sidney.
Similar to the first topic of today's show, beer, is too, the product of microorganisms, and Karl used a beer to launch a brief show and tell of sorts as part of his workshop. Here's Karl Hann.
KH: Beer, it is a microorganism that has done the job for us. And it turned some awful mush into this. It was rotting before, now the Germans have a really nice term. They call rot "edle faule" and it means something like noble rot. I have something here that is really rotten. At times I have too many eggs. And then I decided that you should try and do something with those eggs because it is high protein, high nitrogen. So what do you do? You digest those. So I throw those in the barrel, put my EM concoctions, a little bit of compost, a little bit of water to keep it covered, and then after about a year and a half, that's what you get. You have a few eggshells at the bottom, most of the eggshells are dissolved, you have a little bit of liquid on top of it, and it smells. (audience laughter) I'll tell you something. I can open this, I can smell it and it won't really knock me over. Alaska fish fertilizer smells much worse than this. I had people standing next to me and next to the bottle and nobody said, what's that smell? They didn't even notice that behind them was a bottle, covered, but not closed, with rotting eggs. And rotting eggs are bad. This is not bad. Do not pass it around, but everybody is welcome to get a noseful.
Also, we have this problem of plants that pop up and are called weeds. Weeds are really really really good. Every single weed has different properties, different components, on its leaves, in its fruit stems, and in its fruits it promotes an environment for a particular kind of microorganism. And you will notice for instance, if you have a compost pile and you would allow quack grass to grow over it for about a year, you will have a compost like never before. Not only that, in this quack grass, in that root zone, you will have lots of larger insects, different beetles of different genera, different worms, different life all doing their job, because again, there is a certain focus that we have and it is on the worm. There is nothing like the worm for composting. One guy asked, what would we do if we hadn't had the worm? Well, centipedes, millipedes, even the feared sow bug transforms certain waste material into a really nice humusy compost and it has beneficial properties for your soil. And now you create a healthy soil. If you have a healthy soil your plants will be able to thrive and fight off a number of predators and a number of diseases all on their own. You don't have to do anything. I have seen this happening because I had plants in the greenhouse, same variety, same row. Here I had two or three feet that were suffering and then two hundred feet that were perfectly healthy. So obviously it was not the disease and it is not the predator that is bad, there was something wrong with the plants, and the predators being opportunistic, whatever, moved in onto that plant to take it out or release it from its suffering or, I don't know exactly how nature looks at it. But it is not the disease that is your problem, it is us or the plant or the animal. It is weak. And it is weak because we have eliminated a lot of microorganisms from the soil. And everybody knows now, not everybody, but a lot of people know that it is all these substances, the enzymes, coenzymes, different types of structures that we have not yet identified and named, that contribute to the variety that is needed to support the healthy plant growth. The microorganisms trap and produce a lot of food for the plant and transform it into forms that the plants like much better than bagged manure because bagged manure is a term that was used back in England for chemical fertilizer. They had manure for a while and one time some guy comes around and sells them some chili saltpeter and they called it for a while, bagged manure. But it was not good for much. And it has been proven. We have grown more plants, we have increase yields, the plants have no stamina and so the people that eat them have indigestion. So obviously, something went wrong.
JS: One of the key differences between biodynamic agriculture and conventional agricultural practices, is that with biodynamics the methods used are designed to lay down the foundation for nature to do its work most efficiently and effectively. Conventional agriculture and even many organic practices on the other hand, employ methods that attempt to control nature. In this next segment, Karl uses a rather humourous but effective example of how different these two systems really are.
KH: I said in my introduction, we are here because we eliminated from a lot of land the microorganisms. So what we are doing, we are not making here an improvement on nature, we just try to make it possible for nature to move back in onto our land and support plant, animal, and human growth as it was meant to be. And when I say little disturbance it is for that very reason because we have different classes that work under different conditions. That's why a Rotovator is extremely bad. The invention of the moldboard plow was celebrated, why, because you broke up soil. And one thing that has struck me since I am here, and I am not a critic of whatever is North American because I like it here a lot. But a lot of things have been done because they could be done. Was it necessary? That is my question. It was not necessary to go in there and turn that over. But it looked so good. It was a manly thing. You looked back and you said, "Wow, look at that, I just turned eight furrows in one go with my big friggin' tractor here. (audience laughter) My poor grandfather, he walked behind the plow and all that." This is now where I come in and I go back and read economics for the last two hundred years. Net gain is zilch. So don't give me here the schpiel that, yeah but one guy can do so much. He does a lot of damage. And the guy has absolutely no relationship to his soil. Why? Because he is sitting six feet above the ground in a cabin, air conditioned, listening to a friggin' football game. (audience laughter) Ok? He has no connection to his soil. He doesn't know what happened. Then he has to call in the guy to help him out. So what is the extension agent going to do? Well, you need this bag, you need this bottle, you know. Two weeks later, well I guess you should try this. And then he tells him it's so much and then the farmer puts twice as much on because he wants to be sure. And that's how we screwed up. So what do we do here? We go back to where we split to where we took the wrong turn. Plowing ahead is stupid. Just let's go back and see, when was it still acceptable and lets do it that way. World hunger has not been solved. And we talked about it since the 1940s. Because we do not have the means and the methods to do it that way. If you want to solve the problem, you have to have a lot of farms of small plots, biodiverse agriculture, regional agriculture, 2008, and I stray but that's me. If you allow me to talk, I go all over the place. 2008 is the year of the potato. Bad. Really really bad. Because we do not need potatoes everywhere and nothing but potatoes. It is a great food, I had some today, I had some last night, I can eat a lot of potatoes. But we do not need everywhere potatoes. Leave the yam. It's good for you.
Audience: So are you saying we aren't supposed to break our swords into plowshares after all? (audience laughter)
KH: First of all, when I say plowshares, I don't say don't plow. If you have to plow, plow, but I say do not exaggerate.
JS: And in closing out his workshop Karl Hann ended on the topic of patience. While natural and even agricultural systems have taken millennia to evolve to where they are today, the most recent farming methods that now dominate the global food supply have not had a chance to really evolve at all – and have instead, been more or less imposed onto the land and imposed onto us. As we now see so clearly how unsustainable our global food system is, Karl believes that one of the most important virtues we must now embrace is patience, and he uses slugs as an example.
KH: You see, that is what we do not have, we have no patience. And we do not sit down. And I tell you this from experience. I wanted to be the eliminator. I tell most of the people my slug story. Slugs. There is nothing worse than slugs, I was told. And then I have plants and then slugs move in and then I have, whatever they call that miracle stuff that slugs eat and die and disappear. They didn't. They are still around, they come back for more. So now I go organic, and I have all these piles of rotting material which attract more slugs to my garden. And I go out in the evening and there are slugs and slugs. Now what do I do? I try to find a natural alternative. Beer is supposed to be good for slugs. Indeed, they love it. I go out and pick buckets full of slugs and dump them to the chickens, the chickens eat about a tenth of them and the rest of them, they don't really care for. So at one point I say to myself, I should drink the beer myself and leave the slugs all to themselves. And I did that. And they ate a few plants, it really ticked me off. But you know what? Today I am in that position that I see a slug and I pick it up and I drop it to the ground. I do not have to worry about slugs anymore. Nature has taken care of it. And I don't say miraculously but because I have all kinds of fungi, that if you would lean a little bit with your nose closer to the ground instead of sitting high up on the tractor, you would realize that. You come and you see a beetle there, chomping on a slug. The slug is three times as big as beetle, but the beetle somehow grabs the slug and started eating on it, and by the time I got back to get my camera, it ate half of the slug. You couldn't believe it. There was not even room in the body of that beetle for that one, but somehow it just managed. Maybe it did like the Romans, ate, ate, ate, puked, and ate more I don't know. (audience laughter)
But you know, in that crab grass, that is where those beetles like to live and multiply. And then you go and see slug eggs and you see a little film covering them. It's a fungi that moved in, it likes slug roe, it eats it. There are other insects that eat slug eggs. So years ago I basically solved my slug problem. And I say that I am not free of slugs but it's in balance, that is, if I don't see slugs I might have a problem. But now it is in balance, everybody is doing their job and they do their job much better than people can because people sometimes get too focused. And then you know how you become an expert in your field, and you know a lot about very little. And that is a mistake, at least that's how I see it. And you can disagree with me. The other thing that I realized with microorganisms is that certain plants at a certain point get attacked by a certain disease. And I had my camera bag stolen with four rolls of films where I documented this over a summer, in field conditions. That you have your fields, you have your old crops and you have a variety of different plants growing there and these plants were weedy plants. They were of no commercial use. And then you could see at one point, one species gets a fungi and it is so bad, it takes them out. And it looks as if those plants would have been sprayed with 2,4-D. And then you see other plants that are suffering. Because I think nature does not like any one particular species to dominate. Because if that would have been the case, British Columbia would have been covered by one crop. Blackberries.
It is really difficult to get rid of some scotch bloom, but it is has not really taken over. The scotch thistle is another example. My mother say, why are you leaving, she comes from Germany to criticize, I don't know why, she comes and says, why don't you cut that down. The seeds that you get and it's going to be next year, thistles and nothing but thistles on your place. And I like scotch thistles. I have something Scottish in me. I like spiders and I like thistles. And whiskey. That scotch thistle makes a lot of seeds and there is a scotch thistle coming up here and another coming up here, and here and I have probably not more than fifteen scotch thistles on eight acres. Why? Because when the scotch thistle is ready to drop its seeds, the finches are there and 98% of the seeds are gone. Another plant, you come and look at it and it's going to seed. It's wire weed. Very bad. People hate it. And then one day I go in the field and I also had this documented on film all the seed pods are split open. You know who ate it? The sparrows of all. And we hate sparrows so much because they interfere with our crop. They eat a little bit of crop, but all birds, and now that's why I say extension agents do a bad job most of the time because they go and say you have to get rid of the brush at the end of your field and of the hedgerows and of the bushes and trees because it's a breeding ground for birds and they come in and eat your berries and you lose so much. Let them eat a few berries. Again, the net gain would be so much more because they eat a lot of seeds and a lot of insects. Good ones and bad ones, but that's not for you to determine.
JS: And that was Karl Hann a biodynamic farmer and egg producer at Biota farm in Abbotsford, British Columbia. Deconstructing Dinner recorded Karl's workshop at the 2008 Certified Organic Associations of BC Conference held in Sidney. Karl was also a guest on Deconstructing Dinner way back in January 2006 as part of our one-hour episode on eggs. And in closing out today's broadcast, here's Karl Hann.
KH: That is our mistake. Our mistake is a mindset, an attitude, an approach. That is what I am fighting. Let's be normal again like your ancestors and my ancestors. Because we survived thousands of years and we are killing ourselves now at a really really high speed.
JS: That was this week's edition of Deconstructing Dinner, produced and recorded at Nelson, British Columbia's Kootenay Co-op Radio. I've been your host Jon Steinman. I thank my technical assistant John Ryan
The theme music for Deconstructing Dinner is courtesy of Nelson-area resident Adham Shaikh.
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