Tax Tips for Farmers!

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With tax season on us, Three Ridges Ecological Farm held a Kitchen Table Meeting on Tax Tips for Farmers. Greg Schoniker from FBC in London dropped by the farm to discuss all things farm taxes. The four of us in attendance all learned something important so I thought I would share Greg’s tips and advice.

FBC’s Top Tax Tips for Farmers:

  1. Keep good records! This includes readable copies of all your receipts, and credit card statements aren’t receipts!
  2. Always file a tax return AND file on time – even if you don’t owe! Late filings increasing your chance of an audit!
  3. Time capital gains and losses to reduce your overall tax burden. This is especially important for large purchases or sales with large capital gains.
  4. Plan borrowing to avoid losing tax deductions. Separate loans between personal and business to help identify tax deductions, remembering that interest is a tax deduction.
  5. Make mortgage interest tax deductible. Consider refinancing and investing the equity in your business.
  6. Get the facts before you rent out a portion of your property! Aside form legal implications, there are tax implications to consider, like depreciation on part of your primary residence.
  7. Use spousal RRSP to split income. This is especially pertinent if the farm business structure is sole proprietor.
  8. Plan your RRSP contributions. The tax deduction of RRSP may be better used in years when you anticipate having higher net income, while Tax Free Savings Accounts may be better used in lower income years.
  9. Invest in a Tax Free Savings Account. 
  10. Have a Risk Management Plan. 

Some other tips we took away from the KTM:

  1. Keep a vehicle log for all vehicles driven for farm-related activities.
  2. Each farmer-owner is eligible for up to $1 million in Capital Gains Exemptions, which need not be only on the gains on a property.

Similarly, ACORN released a blog by Coastal Tax and Accounting Services about Tips for Small-Scale Farmers, which you can read here.

Also note there will be a similar Tax Tips Webinar in May – keep an eye out!



This blog cannot and does not replace or substitute in place of a consultation with a knowledgeable accountant who may offer tax advice based upon the specific circumstances of your situation, and the tax layws in effect in your geographical location and jurisdiction.

Dundalk Area Beef Farmer Wins 2017 Mapleseed Pasture Award

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February 22, 2017 (Toronto, ON) – The Beef Farmers of Ontario, Mapleseed and the Ontario Forage Council, sponsors of the Mapleseed Pasture Award, are pleased to announce that Paul DeJong of Ventry Hill Farm from the Dundalk area in Grey County is the winner of the 2017 Mapleseed Pasture Award. The award was presented this afternoon at the Beef Farmers of Ontario Annual General Meeting in Toronto.


For his environmental improvements and exceptional pasture management, Paul received a cash award of $500 and a bag of forage seed courtesy of Mapleseed.


Ventry Hill Farm consists of 450 acres, 100 of which are in pasture, along with an additional 30 acres of rented pasture land. Paul runs 50 cow-calf pairs and currently raises about 70 stockers that are pastured during the summer months. In order to maximize pasture production and weight gain, he uses a strip grazing system to maintain a consistent forage height and improve forage quality. This method allows Paul to meet his herd’s nutritional requirements, contribute to calf growth, and ensure his cows are in optimal body condition.


“Pasture is the main source of feed for my herd and there is a high water table in our area,” explains DeJong. “We try to pasture at least six months of the year, and by grazing a fall rye cover crop, pasture can be extended by two weeks.”


To prevent excessive trampling of his forages, Paul installed a waterline to provide fresh water to each paddock, which is equipped with quick-attach couplers for a convenient water supply at all times.


“The weight gain and cost per pound of gain achieved by Ventry Hill Farm proves that effective rotational pasture management can have many environmental and economical benefits,” shares Lawrence Levesque, District Sales Manager, Mapleseed.


Ray Robertson, Manager of the Ontario Forage Council, commented that as producers try to maximize their net profit from every acre, the management decisions made on Ventry Hill Farm are a great example of how some producers can improve the overall profitability of their operation.
The deadline for applications for the 2018 Mapleseed Pasture Award is November 30, 2017.

EFAO Volunteer Opportunities

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EFAO Volunteer Positions

On-Farm Event Coordinators

Position: On-Farm Event Coordinators

Type: 7 month volunteer (details below)

Organization: Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (

Location: Guelph, Ontario

EFAO is looking for 2 Volunteer On-Farm Coordinators, one located in Eastern Ontario and one located in Southwestern Ontario.

In this position, you would attend and facilitate farm tours and on-farm workshops (for free!) on behalf of the EFAO. These events cover a variety of topics, from irrigation to cut flower production. The On-Farm Event Coordinator is a volunteer position starting in April and lasting until November 2017. The position involves approximately 40 hours of work total, depending on schedule and availability. Events may be on weekends or weekdays (typically, though not exclusively, Sunday, Monday, or Wednesday) and can be up to 6 or 8 hours, including travel time. Volunteers are reimbursed for travel expenses.

More details at:
Deadline: February 24, 2017

Questions about the position can be directed to Naomi Krucker, Membership Services Coordinator (, 519-822-8606 x.105)

Email resume and cover letter in a single document to

EFAO Online Community Forum

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EFAO Online Community Forum


The EFAO is proud to launch a new online resource built to serve Ontario’s ecological farming community: the EFAO Online Community Forum. This tool is meant to foster and facilitate the exchange of ideas, knowledge and expertise, as well as the pooling of resources amongst members of the ecological farming community.


As with any community, you get what you put into it. Therefore we encourage you to actively participate: ask questions, offer up opinions, and answer other members’ questions. The forum is open to anyone that has an account on (members and non-members alike).


We know your time is precious, and with that in mind we made sure the Forum is easy and convenient for you to use. Some of its features are:


  • Daily/Weekly/Monthly/Yearly digests (you decide!)
  • Topic activity notifications
  • Reply-by-email
  • User preferences to customize your forum experience
  • Fully indexed and searchable content
  • Actively moderated by EFAO staff and volunteers


As far as content goes, you can expect the following:


  • Categorized content for all aspects of ecological farming
  • Input from the EFAO member base
  • Classifieds (buy/sell, jobs, etc.) section exclusive to EFAO members
  • Special content from EFAO events (presentations, workshops, etc.) and post-event discussion


In order to access the Forum, you simply need to use your account username and password. If you don’t have such an account, you can create one for free and get access to the forum. So don’t wait and bookmark the link below.

The EFAO Online Community Forum is generously funded by Carrot Cache!


Join the discussion now at:

Seeking On-Farm Event Coordinators!

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EFAO Volunteer Positions

On-Farm Event Coordinators

Position: On-Farm Event Coordinators

Type: 7 month volunteer (details below)

Organization: Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (

Location: Guelph, Ontario

EFAO is looking for 2 Volunteer On-Farm Coordinators, one located in Eastern Ontario and one located in Southwestern Ontario.

In this position, you would attend and facilitate farm tours and on-farm workshops covering a variety of topics, from irrigation to cut flower production on behalf of EFAO. The On-Farm Event Coordinator is a volunteer position starting in April and lasting until November 2017. The position involves approximately 40 hours of work total, depending on schedule and availability. Events may be on weekends or weekdays (typically, though not exclusively, Sunday, Monday, or Wednesday) and can be up to 6 or 8 hours, including travel time. Volunteers are reimbursed for travel expenses.

Deadline: February 24, 2017

Responsibilities may include:

  •  Bringing necessary supplies
  • Taking registrations and payment
  • Introducing EFAO
  •  Supporting farm tour host as needed
  • Collecting evaluations
  • Documenting the event (blog post, pictures or video)


  • Experience coordinating events
  • Experience public speaking
  • Practical farming experience
  • Knowledge of ecological agriculture
  • Excellent oral communication skills
  • Timely and attentive to details
  • Relationship-building skills
  • Ability to see tasks through
  • Familiarity with broader farm community in Ontario


Position Requirements

  • One of the volunteers must live in, or close to Guelph, Ontario and be available to come into the office
  • You will need to have access to a car and valid driver’s license


A complete application will consist of:

  1. A resume outlining relevant experience
  2. A cover letter describing why you would be a good fit for this position


Questions about the position can be directed to Naomi Krucker, Membership Services Coordinator (, 519-822-8606 x.105)

Email resume and cover letter in a single document to

Member Profile: Fiddlehead Farm

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Member Profile: Fiddlehead Farm

This is the full version of the member profile that appeared in the recent September/October edition of the Eimg_1197-version-2cological Farmer in Ontario newsletter.


1.)    Please tell us a bit about you and your farm.

We are Heather and Steve of Fiddlehead Farm in Prince Edward County. We run an eight-acre market garden producing veggie boxes and running farmer’s markets locally, as well as in Toronto 11 months of the year. We have six amazing crew members who are a mix of full and part-time employees on hourly wage.

We grew up in Montreal & Toronto and came to farming in our mid-twenties. With the help of parents, we were able to purchase a farm in 2012. Steve had spent a few years WWOOFing, interning, and completing the Fleming Sustainable Agriculture program. I spent the first two years working off farm, continuing to learn from other farmers, and then joined Steve full-time, full-year, on farm in 2014.


2.) Where do you farm, and why are you there?

Our farm is in Prince Edward County, and it’s a kind of natural in-between location for family in Montreal and Toronto. Moving down from Ottawa, it was right in the middle of all our social networks. It’s in a very touristy area, which helps support city luxuries like fine dining, independent shops, and lots of other small businesses. They in turn also attract lots of folks like us who believe in making the world a better place, and it’s got a whole different vibe from some of the other rural townships we visited when property hunting… this feels so much more like home!

“The County” is a little blip on the climate zone map, so we can add a month on either end of our growing season compared to the rest of eastern Ontario. Unfortunately, it’s a bit drier too… It is in the east, where land prices are way lower than the south-west. Finally, we’re in a corner of the county where there weren’t major farm stands to compete with, we’re closer to the 401, and property values were lower as it is a quieter “ward” – although we’re happy to be part of changing that!


3.)    What are your short-, mid- and long-term plans for your farm?

Short-term we want to take a holiday this winter, provide year-round employment for at least some of our staff, and better balance out our workloads. We need to reduce our summertime stress levels, and want to do some re-visioning as we’re just coasting out of our start-up five-year plan.

Medium-term we want to make sure we can use farming to meet our life and business goals. For life, that means fixing up our 1845 house, having leisure time, and being able to spend quality time together, too. For business, this means building up our soils, improving our efficiency, adding screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-9-30-12-pmto our off-season capacity, and creating meaningful year-round jobs for employees. We want to reduce the endless training cycle of seasonal workers at our end and to creative viable long term farming careers for our employees.

Long-term we want to be able to feed people in a sustainable system that balances ecology, economics, and society. This sees us farming with minimal waste, incorporating poly-orchards into our produce offerings, and successfully feeding people 12 months of the year with a relatively stable work flow.


4.)   Heather — you have a M.Sc. in Landscape Ecology. How does this training play into your life as a farmer?

For now, it doesn’t feel like it has a role in daily life… yet I think it really does play a role in our underlying approaches to farming. Steve also has a Masters (in Political Science) and I don’t know if it’s the studies or our personalities but people seem to comment on our “business sense.” I’m going to chalk some of it up to a slightly more mature entry into farming, and most of it I’ll attribute to attending numerous workshops – like holistic management, growing forward, and endless local farm tours. We’ve also had a pretty hardline approach since the beginning: either the farm pays for itself or it doesn’t happen. That being said, we’ve heavily re-invested our “wages” back into the farm over the first five years, living off one person’s draw.

My background certainly got me through the first few winters farming as I was able to find work. I had a lot of fun tackling data management over at Vicki’s Veggies with Tim over a few winters, building a cost of production-driven employee tracking system. That itself was a huge boost to developing my “business” sense.

5.)   You are trying out different mulches this year, with the idea that you might conduct a trial with the Farmer-led Research Program (FLRP) next year. Can you talk more about your motivation to experiment with mulches, and how you are conducting this informal trial?

There’s been a lot of confusion around so-called biodegradable plastic mulches, and we got caught in the midst of it. Bryan and Shannon at Broadfork Farm do a great summary of the issue in an ACORN newsletter also posted on their website:

fiddlehead farm fieldBasically, biodegradable black plastic mulch is an amazing solution to the age-old problem of balancing the benefits of mulch with practical and efficient ways to use it. In 2015 the Canadian Organic Standards were clarified to specify that despite being biodegradable, the mulch would have to be completely removed after use to be permitted in organic systems due to the presence of a plastic polymer. If you’ve ever worked with it before, you’ll know that is almost impossible as it partly biodegrades within a season, and tears up into shreds. There was a memo extending the permitted use until 2017, but we’re left with figuring out how to replace it.

So this year we ordered two other mulches to try alongside our classic black biodegradable mulch that we’ve become so attached to.  We put three different mulches on three rows of tomatoes to get a first glimpse at how they compared. We’re comparing the classic black biodegradable plastic mulch, some reusable thick landscape plastic mulch, and some paper mulch.  It’s just a little demonstration – since there’s no controls, randomization or replication… basically it was the quick and dirty version to get an idea of things. First impressions are that the woven landscape fabric held up the best and is reusable while the paper mulch came apart easily and sections ripped out in the wind when wet. We want to take ecological footprints into consideration as well. Over the winter we’ll take some time to design a proper experiment by thinking through a research question and hypothesis, designing an experiment to test that question, and then draw conclusions.

6.)   What gets you excited about participating in the FLRP next year?

Since coming to farming I’ve found that farmers are always trying to learn and share their knowledge, which is great. Sometimes I feel that we never really “know” things though, we’re just constantly trying out different approaches. Other times, information is presented as facts, but some learning venues were harder for me to grasp. I finally realized the issue when Steve was watching a video one day on pseudoscience vs. science. It was an aha moment.


Pseudoscience sets out to prove ideas, while Science is a careful attempt to DISprove your ideas. You never really “prove” any one answer, you only disprove competing hypotheses. That way in Science the door is always open for another explanation to come along and explain something better. It ensures the system can “learn”!

I’m really excited to participate in the FLRP because I feel like I have a grounding on both sides of the fence (research and farming) and there’s so much out there for us to learn. It is so simple to build some basic experiments and it is something I’ve not yet made time to do within the hectic farm startup life.  I think there is a lot that we can learn.

7.)    What has the impact of the drought been on your farm operations/yields this year? Have you seen any mitigating effects by the mulch trials so far?

At first, we were thinking ourselves lucky as we’re a market garden and we have an irrigation system. However, the system was not designed to handle this much water moving through it. Our irrigation pond, which typically runs out sometime in August was dry by early June. We got a second gas pump, and 500m of 2” piping to try to refill the pond from the marsh at the back of our property. We’ve spent a lot of time troubleshooting the system ourselves in addition to devoting one staffer full-time to irrigation, which is a huge cost, but thankfully she has embraced the challenge. The marsh water levels were far below normal when we got there, and by early August there was no more standing water (just muck). As I write this we’ve just gotten permission from a neighbour to try and run lines about 750m through his cattle pasture over to a lake, and if we can pull that off we’ll save our season, our staff, and our winter CSA. I’ve stopped speaking or thinking in “what if’s” as a basic attempt at sanity. 😉

The mulched beds have performed better overall as they are able to make better use of the water we’ve been giving them. We generally see better wicking of moisture and fuller saturation of the beds. They stay moist to the touch for several days longer than bare beds. It was a great year to try them out!

One challenge that evolved over the summer is that voles and field mice have been seeking sanctuary under the mulch and munching into the drip lines for water. We’ve have to do some patch work with the system running to make sure the lines weren’t flooding sections of the mulch. These days the leaks can be spotted by looking for patches of green weeds next to the mulched beds.

8.)   Have you had any “ah-ha” moments this season dealing with the drought?

There’s a huge difference between triage and production. A little water can keep a crop alive, but it takes a lot more water to keep them producing. We’ll need a way bigger reservoir to keep our vegetables producing if we have any more years like this one. Reducing the size of the garden to ensure that our land can “produce” the water needed to irrigate is an important consideration.

The drought has forced us to think critically about how we irrigate. We are hyper aware of the time, resource, and maintenance issues tied to our irrigation system as a result of this season. We entered 2016 wanting to upgrade and improve our system. At first that meant bringing in more overhead and reducing drip lines, largely from a time and footprint view of the materials involved. This year has pushed us to look more creatively at future solutions to address the major holes in the system, namely lack of capacity to move sufficient water in drought.

Moving to a solar electric pumping system emerged early since we are spending a hour of labour to cycle our pumps as the gas tanks empty, and a solar pump on a WiFi hookup could run itself with a text from our phone. Increasing our reservoir to allow us to survive extremely dry seasons is the another. Simplifying the system so that it is easier to water sections of the garden without switching each line on and off is the next challenge to think about. We like to build our infrastructure to survive the worst case scenario. This year has been a good case study.

8.) You are representing EFAO at the Organic Science Research Conference in Montreal in September. What are you hoping to learn or gain from the conference?

It’s so hard to tailor research to be useful to farmers and then get that research to them. Having worked in a research lab and also been a farmer I know it’s a tricky world to navigate. Research gets published in a scientific format in journals that are often physically inaccessible, as well as being overly technical. If we’re lucky, it gets interpreted by journalists who mostly interpret correctly. On the other side of  things, it’s easy to get lost in the concrete reality of farming and trying to think about science in season seems daunting, let alone tiptoeing around experiments and protocols as we work long days and are mostly desperately trying to keep things alive. There’s always something getting lost in the weeds, desperately needing transplanting, or drooping dangerously… at least at our place!


9.) What does the future of farming look like from where you are now? Fiddlehead farm team

Labour is a key issue on farms, and as we’ve moved from interns to staff on hourly wages we’re always dreaming about how to make it better. We see ourselves spending copious amounts of time training each year, and building a returning staff base feels like a far more efficient use of our time. We see that as requiring a new role on farms – rather than interns on minimal stipends or full-fledged owner/operators there needs to be a middle ground. Returning career farmers, with experience and expertise, could share the responsibility of farm management and production with the farm owner and should be compensated accordingly.

Starting a farm makes you realize how much of a jack of all trades you really have to be, and master of most. The trick is to recognize which bits you’re not good at, and to delegate or hire others to complement your skills. We’re lucky as our skills complement one another as a couple, but that’s not to say there isn’t ample work around to share the responsibilities of managing the farm with staffers.

Farmer Health Day at Zócalo Organics

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Regional Report

Farmer Health Day at Zócalo Organics: July 10
By Bethany Klapwyk


This is the full version of a Regional Report that appeared in the latest Ecological Farming in Ontario newsletter.



Participants gather in the Zócalo Organics barn for yoga.

In collaboration with the EFAO, our farm (Zócalo Organics) held a “Farmer Health Day” on Sunday July 10.  I want to share with you some musings about why I felt motivated to host this day and some reflections from the day itself.

In the last five years of farming, I have been able to access some incredible supports to help me cope with chronic health issues.  The supports I needed were not always easy or quick to find.   A therapist friend of mine once asked me the question I have often asked myself, “Farmers deal with so much, why are there no support groups for farmers?”

I get why people quit farming; it can stretch the body and mind in a fast and furious way. A week of missed weeding/planting/harvesting and the effects can reverberate for the rest of the season.  A farmer’s body works incredibly hard physically toward a specific goal.  When things do not go as planned or when things fail, I have often wondered how to let go of the physical memory of all this hard work and how we envisioned things happening on our farms, when we ask our bodies for so much.

It is also important to consider the role of geography and community in farmer health, and how farmers can feel isolated from one another or from a supportive community.

Despite the many challenges farming might present to a person’s health I maintain that farming, especially ecologically, is the best profession there is.  The rewards are so many!  So how do we strengthen our farming community so that geographical isolation or other factors that separate us do not get in the way of our individual and community resilience?



Carla Giddings leads the group in a stress management workshop.

What did we do together at our Farmer Health Day?

Throughout the day we offered workshops to farmers that related to both physical and mental health.  The day started with gentle yoga and breathing exercises to relax. We then learned some practical tips about how to be flexible farmers; we learned how to move our bodies and improve our physical fitness so that we have more energy for our work and we can farm safely. We had a delicious potluck lunch, filled with discussion and connection.  The day continued with a workshop on Homeopathic first aid where we learned about an alternative to Western Medicine and talked about how homeopathic medicines are made.  To finish, we discussed stress management on the farm, and were led in a discussion of how we can use our minds to respond, rather than react, to stresses on the farm.

Concurrently with the workshops, we had four local health practitioners offering individual treatments to farmers under a tent outside the barn.   There were many different modalities offered including osteopathy, Reiki, Indian head massage, foot reflexology, the body code, and shiatsu massage. The healers were booked back-to-back all day long, generously offering their services at reduced rates.


What were the results of the Farmer Health Day?


In addition to the scheduled group activities, participants could partake in reiki, Indian head massage, bio-energetic sychronization technique (B.E.S.T for short) and shiatsu massage with practitioners in a quiet setting.

Gathering together as farmers and acknowledging the work we do on our farms can be a powerful and comforting experience. It may not be logistically easy to meet up with other farmers, but I personally never regret making the effort. It was also amazing to host health practitioners who were eager to sympathize with and give to our farming community. This day was a reminder that we are part of a community of people who need support from one another.  There is a role for everyone — as supporter and supported (and likely a combination of the two!)

Hosting the Farmer Health Day was one of many activities I hope that can happen on this topic and one that I hope can continue.  Manorun Organic Farm in Hamilton has volunteered to host a fall Farmer Health Day for the West Region, and I look forward to being a part!  Please come on out or plan one at your farm for you and your neighbouring farm friends.

For more information about the Manorun Farmer Health Day visit  To find out about hosting a day on your farm, please be in touch with


Practical Tips for Farmer Health

We will be including these in future newsletters and/or blog posts, so please be in touch ( to share your thoughts and suggestions.


#1 Communication

Many of us are amazing communicators and great at telling others the what/how of the farm.  Talking about the products you produce, your production practices, and the details that most consumers wish to know about your operation.  As you communicate these details, I encourage you to tell others what is happening with your body and mind. “Come-out”, so to speak, about your struggles and successes.  Communicate boldly and authentically.  Educating consumers by telling them stories from the field AND connecting to people through conversations at a heart level will provide you with tangible support.  As far as you can, help non-farmers understand that when we say there is “trouble in the fields”, many times that “trouble” extends beyond the fields to a farmer’s heart/home/relationships/family/body-health.  Engage in conversations.  Listen, support, and be open to learning from anyone.

And as you engage and communicate with others in your life here are some things I learned from a mentor that I like to keep in mind…

  1. Be related. find and foster the things that connect
  2. Be authentically interested while not intrusive in the business of others
  3. Be intimate with others but not inappropriate
  4. Be bold with others, but not overbearing
  5. Be unreasonable, challenge others, while also being sensitive
  6. Be inspiring while not over-sentimental.


#2  Being a Flexible Farmer

(contributed by Naomi Krucker Farmer Health Day participant from Manorun Farm and EFAO staff)

Tips from Biomechanics graduate Andrew Sweetnam and his session on ‘How to be a flexible farmer’

Dynamic Stretching: Incorporating a few minutes of stretching before your work day can really help prepare your body for a full day of work and lessen the chances of injury. Dynamic stretching is a cardio type of stretching that gets the blood flowing and muscles active and ready for work. Incorporating jumping jacks followed by a couple minutes of stretching into your morning meeting are an easy way to fit stretching into your day.


Helpful body positions while working: Lifting bushel after bushel of vegetables out of the field will take a toll on your back if not done properly. Andrew explained that every time we bend over to pick something off the ground we are exerting 10 X the weight of our upper body onto our lower back. That is a lot of extra stress on the back! This can be eliminated by lifting with your legs. Keeping you back and shoulders nice and straight and then squatting deep to lift things shifts the stress from your back to your legs. While awkward to adjust to at first, your back will thank you later! Hand weeding is also hard on the back, especially when a lot of people tend to do it hunched over on their knees. This can be avoided by switching to the ‘jaguar’ position occasionally to relieve the stress on your back. In this position you are on your knees and bent over at the waist so that your forearms are bearing most of the weight. It works great for straddling carrot and beet rows and frees up both hands for thinning and weeding!
Extending your energy reservoir: Are you repeatedly exhausted after a hard days work? According to Andrew, you can extend your energy reservoir in order to avoid always feeling like you’re running on fumes. By making time for a bit of extra activity in your off hours (biking, 10 minute run, hike, etc.) you are building up your energy reservoir, which will leave you less exhausted at the end of your work day. Helpful tips for the hardworking farmer!

Is bird-friendly grazing ‘for the birds’?

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Rotational grazing is generally considered ecologically beneficial because of its potential to build soil and maintain diverse and robust plant communities. Grass-based farming (i.e. pastures for grazing and haying), however, can come in conflict with the ecology of other organisms such as grassland birds.

Some have suggested that refuges – areas that aren’t grazed by cattle during the nesting season – may help reconcile the use of these ecosystems by cattle and grassland birds including the threatened bobolink.

A Bobolink nest built on the ground in a cattle pasture. Photo: Gerald Morris, BECO

A Bobolink nest built on the ground in a cattle pasture. Photo: Gerald Morris, BECO

To assess whether strategically placed bobolink refuges can have meaningful impact on conservation efforts for this species, Bird Ecology and Conservation Ontario (BECO), a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of birds in Ontario through the use of ecological research, is teaming up with the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) on a 2-year study in the Ottawa Valley. The project is funded by the Government of Canada through the Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands initiative.

Starting in May 2016, wildlife biologists with BECO worked with 5 farmers on 8 pastures that are each rotationally grazed by 1 herd of beef cattle (herd sizes vary, as do stocking density, rest period, etc.). Across the 2-year study, each pasture has 1 year of treatment, when ~2 hectares remains un-grazed during the bobolink breeding season (mid-May to mid-July) to provide refuge habitat, and 1 year of control, when all paddocks are grazed during the nesting period. When possible, the order of refuge treatment vs. control was randomly assigned.


Grassland Bird Field Assistant with BECO, watches for signs of Bobolink nesting activity. Photo credit: Andrew Campomizzi, BECO

Grassland Bird Field Assistant with BECO watches for signs of Bobolink nesting activity. Photo credit: Andrew Campomizzi, BECO

In May, June and July, the BECO crew located and monitored breeding success in nearly 90 bobolink territories. In these territories, they found and monitored 32 nests, of which 15 fledged young while the others were predated or destroyed by cattle trampling. After year 2, they will compare the proportion of bobolink that fledged young in each pasture under treatment and control.

The conservation implications of this study are important and complex. If refuges are effective at supporting bobolink conservation in pastures, what does this mean for grass-based farmers who may already feel the burden of conservation efforts in an agricultural landscape composed primarily of monocultures and field crops? If refuges don’t improve bobolink reproductive success, then what does the future hold for this charismatic grassland species?

Tea bag science for all

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The Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative recently blogged about The Tea Bag Index, a citizen science project to measure rates of decomposition across the world. Their blog was a good reminder to share this project with EFAO members and talk about the importance of estimating decomposition.

Why decomposition?

Decomposition is a critical function performed by soil microbes that recycles nutrients, forms humus and stores carbon. It is important to understand decomposition so we can improve soil nutrient status and take carbon out of the atmosphere. Said again: understanding what controls rates of decomposition is central to soil health and global climate change mitigation. (Check out this video on humus formation!)

Historically, researchers measure decomposition using “litter bags”: mesh bags, sewn by frantic graduate students, and stuffed with pre-weighed amounts of dry material like leaves, stover, straw, needles, etc. depending on the research question. Bags are buried in the soil for a pre-determined amount of time and then dug up and re-weighed. The difference in mass between the bag before and after burial is used to estimate decomposition rate. The trouble with the litter bag method is that it’s hard to compare from ecosystem to ecosystem, site to site. Is the decomposition of wheat straw in Saskatchewan different than in Ontario due to differences wheat variety, length of time buried, or soil/climate and soil microbes etc.? Another issue is that estimates of decomposition rate require two measurements after burial to get change over time.

Photo taken from

To reduce the number of unknowns and simplify the method to just one measurement, researchers at The Tea Bag Index in Europe standardized and simplified the litter bag method using two types of tea bags – Lipton Green tea and Lipton Rooibos tea – with both types buried at specific depth and for a specified amount of time. This means anyone with access to these specific tea bags (which can be found here in Ontario!) and a scale can collect data on decomposition that can be compared to all other experiments that follow the protocol.

The Tea Bag Index isn’t just for scientists.

Yes, it is great to participate in citizen science projects because standardized datasets from around the world are incredibly powerful. Even more, the Tea Bag Index is a cheap and easy way to help you better understand microbial life in the soil on your farm. You can compare different materials (e.g. different pastures, different crops) or the same material in different soils/fields or at different times of year, or a combination.



It is generally recognized that there are two types of organic material: labile, easily decomposable material that is broken down in months, and recalcitrant, less decomposable material that takes many months or years to break down. This results in two stages (phases) of decomposition following exponential decay: rapid decomposition of labile material occurs in the first stage; decomposition slows down and levels off in the second stage when only recalcitrant material remains.

The Lipton Green Tea is composed of labile, or easily decomposed organic material, while the Lipton Rooibos Tea has more recalcitrant, or less decomposable organic material. After 90 days buried you assume:

  • labile Green tea decomposes so quickly that it is in the second stage of decomposition and;
  • Rooibos tea is still in the first stage of decomposition because the little amount of labile material it has is enmeshed in recalcitrant material and harder for microbes to access and decompose.

[An important caveat: not all labile material will decompose! Some will be stabilized. More on this below.]

You can use weight loss of the Green tea bag that you measure to determine how much of the labile fraction is decomposed and how much is stabilized. This gives you a stabilization factor that is valid for both Green and Rooibos tea and is used to calculate the decomposable portion of the Rooibos tea. Finally, the decomposable portion of the Rooibos tea and the mass loss of the Rooibos tea bag that you measure (weight before burying – weight after burying) are used to calculate the decomposition rate.

Full details on the mathematics of decomposition can be found in this publication by researchers at The Tea Bag Index.

Interested in collecting data for The Tea Bag Index? The simple step-wise protocol can be found here.

Questions about The Tea Bag Index? Contact the organisers directly or contact Sarah (

Learning from other farmer-researchers: strip-tilling and forages for pastured pigs

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While EFAO farmer-researchers are busy collecting data and tending their research plots, it’s a good time to share results from other farmer-led research studies.  Highlights like this will continue throughout the year, so if there’s a study you’d like shared or summarized, please email me ( The following studies were also highlighted in the July EFAO Member Newsletter.

Summer squash yield higher in strip-till compared to no-till in Iowa

Squash growing in till and no-till plots at Mustard Seed Farm on Sept. 17, 2015. Photo credit: Practical Farmers of Iowa

Squash growing in till and no-till plots at Mustard Seed Farm on Sept. 17, 2015. Photo credit: Practical Farmers of Iowa

In cooperation with Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), Alice McGary of Mustard Seed Community Farm in Iowa tested winter rye as weed control for summer squash. She established 8 plots (6’ wide x 36’ long), with 4 randomly assigned replicates each of strip till and no-till treatments. In tilled plots, 2’ wide strips of cereal rye were incorporated prior to seeding; in no-till plots, summer squash was seeded into cereal rye that was scythed at maturity.

Results revealed that mean plot yield and number of fruit produced were higher in the strip-tilled plots than no-till plots. This trend was driven by better plant survival in the tilled plots, with surviving plants under both treatments producing similar yields. McGary suspects the difference in yield was due to an outbreak of mosaic virus in the no-till plots. Replicate experiments are needed, however, to determine if no-till increases disease risk to cash crops. Time spent weeding was lower in the no-tilled plots, but additional analysis is needed to determine the revenue trade-off between yield and labour costs.

Overall, McGary concluded that the strip-till method, which leaves the majority of soil mulched and covered, may be a good compromise. Read the full report here.


Testing field peas and barley as forage for pastured pork in Maine

In cooperation with Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NE-SARE), Hanne Tierney of Cornerstone Farm in Maine tested whether pasturing pigs on field peas and barley can reduce feed cost and fat content of pork. She wanted to conduct this experiment after observing her pigs’ preference for high protein forages.

For the experiment, piglets from two litters were randomly sorted into two new groups using ear tags, with 10 pigs in each group. She assigned one group a full grain ration + standard pasture (control) and the second group a 1/2 grain ration + pasture with succession plantings of field peas and barley pasture (treatment). Every week she weighed the pigs and collected forage samples. After slaughter, hanging weight of the five largest pigs and % fat were comparable between groups. However, the five smallest pigs were smaller in the treatment compared to control group, resulting in the treatment group costing $0.09 per lb more to raise.

This is only one replicate (i.e. a group of animals is equivalent to a row of vegetables) such that additional experiments are needed to draw robust conclusions. Tierney noted that future studies should decrease competition among pigs for grain, especially in the treatment group that receives less grain. She also noted that planting a greater diversity of forages that mature differently throughout the season might better supplement the pigs.

You can watch the full video report here and read the full report here.


Looking for other resources? Check out these useful links!

Practical Farmers of Iowa Farmer Knowledge Database

NE-SARE Learning Center

Resources for reduced tillage and no-till vegetable production.


EFAO’s Farmer-led Research Program is made possible by a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation. Contact: Sarah Hargreaves,