Environmental Sustainability

When we purchased the farm in 2008 and started to really examine the fields, woodlot and creek side, we found some environmentally degraded areas. The previous owners of 20 years only used the farm for a couple of weeks a year for retreat-style vacations, and had rented out the lands for grazing cattle and cutting hay. So, other than maintaining the perimeter fencing, little was done to sustain the variety of habitats found on the farm. This benign neglect was not all bad – wildlife were relaxed residents, and the soils, though “played out” had not been exposed to unknown agricultural inputs.

Given our commitment to sustainable land use, we quickly set about to develop a strategy, including several projects to protect and rehabilitate the various habitats. We participated in the Environmental Farm Plan process to develop a plan for the property and establish some of the partnerships that we would need to complete the projects. Learn more about the Environmental Farm Plan here. 

Sensitive Areas Fencing Project

We are blessed with having a 10 acre old growth forest on the property. The forest is dominated by white pine, hard maple and hemlock and would represent what the area looked like when it was first settled, with towering mature trees. Unfortunately, after years of unrestricted access to the woodlot, the cattle had eliminated the plants and shrubs under the mature trees.

We also have a tributary of the Ouse River that runs through a portion of the property. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests have designated the Ouse River and its tributaries as cold-water streams. Because the cattle had been given unrestricted access to the stream for drinking water, they had damaged the stream banks and degraded the water quality.

So, one of the first projects we initiated was fencing the cattle into defined pasture zones, and out of other parts of the farm.

In partnership with the Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) and the former Stream Stewardship Program we were able to design and deliver a project to fence the cattle out of the woodlot and the stream. This involved what felt like miles of fencing installation, along with gates to guide the cattle from one part of the farm to another, while protecting sensitive zones. One additional element was the development of wildlife corridors, so that deer and other wildlife had unrestricted movement along the length of the property and native plants and trees could grow untrammelled by the cattle.

Wetland Improvement Project 

In 2008 there was a degraded wetland on the property that had turned into a solid cattail stand, with no remaining open water area and other wetland plants. A project was developed in partnership with Ducks Unlimited Canada and the Growing Forward Program renovate the wetland by creating a berm/dam, installing a water control structure and generating some open water area. By including a water control structure the water levels in the wetland can be raised or lowered to mimic the natural fluctuations in wetlands. These fluctuations ensure the wetland contains a diverse variety of emergent aquatic plants and open water. Since the completion of the wetland renovation project, a variety of plants, animals, birds, fish, insects, reptiles and amphibians have used the wetland through various times of the year.

Developing an Alternate Watering System

Since the cattle had been excluded from the stream and no longer had access to it for drinking water an alternate water system was required for pastures away from the barn. 

In another portion of the wetland complex near the base of the drumlin that runs across the property there were remnants of a deeper pond. The pond area had filled in due to lack of maintenance and turned into a wet meadow. 

A project was developed and partially supported by Growing Forward 2 to re-establish the pond in the wetland complex to provide some habitat diversity and serve as a source of water for the cattle. A watering system was designed to use a solar panel to provide power to a water pump that fills a 1500 gallon tank at the top of the drumlin. From that tank, water can be delivered through pipelines to any pasture on the farm by simple gravity.

Rainwater Catchment Projects

Soon after we purchased the farm we installed eavestrough on the barn to prevent rainwater and snow from pouring off the roof and washing through the barnyard. This was an essential investment to reduce the possibility of contaminating surface and ground water with the runoff from the barnyard.

Since we have been on the farm we have experience droughts in 2012, 2016 and 2018. The droughts were so severe that our existing wells could not provide enough water for our gardens and livestock and we had to have water trucked in on several occasions over those 3 years. We were being sent a message by Mother Nature!

In order to deal with these water shortages we tried a couple of different things. The first was to divert rainwater from the barn roof directly into an existing dug well near the barn. We also set up two 800 gallon tanks to capture the rain water from another portion of the barn roof that was then used to water cattle when they were at the barn. It is astonishing how much water comes off the roof in a rainstorm, and these simple catchment strategies improved the stability of our water supply dramatically.

But there was still rainwater from a large portion of the barn roof that was not being captured, so a 3000 gallon underground cistern was installed and the remaining rainwater diverted into it. A separate water pump system makes this water available to supplement our use of the ground water in the wells.  A second similar underground cistern was installed to capture rainwater form the house roof to provide water for the flower farm.

Protecting Fragile Ecosystems

When is a hayfield more than just a hayfield? When it is home to ground nesting birds! Meadowlarks, bobolinks, wild turkeys and grouse all build their nests at ground level, so minimizing disturbances during nesting season is critically important. For this reason, our hayfields are off-limits during nesting season, and haying is delayed until the baby birds have fledged. This does have an impact – the quality of our hay is probably just a bit poorer than if we harvested it at the peak time, but sustaining the population of fragile bird populations seems worth the compromise. 

We are also sensitive to the needs of important populations of pollinators and other insects. We delay disturbance of leaf litter in the spring until the ladybugs and mantids have hatched, and as a result have their help in keeping our vegetables and flowers pest free. And we have our own honeybees on site for pollinating the fruit crops.

Contributing to a Sustainable Community

Our ecological sustainability depends upon balancing the social, economic and environmental needs of the farm. We have made considerable investments to address the environmental sustainability needs, and believe that by attending to those, we will eventually reap the economic rewards of robust growing systems. We are committed to the social piece as well, and have committed to teaching others about what we have learned along the way. Each year, we host the Sustainable Agriculture classes from Trent University for tours to see our approaches in action. Nothing like needing to explain yourself to an inquiring student to justify your choices!

In 2019, we were fortunate to host a pilot BioBlitz in collaboration with Peterborough County Stewardship to document a number of the native species observable during the month of September. We hope to be able to continue this process in coming seasons to track the reestablishment of native species at the farm. 

And Mike serves as an advisor to Peterborough County Stewardship and East Central Farm Stewardship Collaborative through Farms at Work to further our connections.