In my early 20’s I attended a weekend retreat at New Brunswick’s Falls Brook Centre, a demonstration and registered charity working to foster community engagement, facilitate education and encourage people to be mindful of how their practices impact the environment. The weekend was chock full of learning, community building, and organic homegrown food. Being at the Centre felt like being a part of something bigger, an effort for social and environmental change through which intentional community was built to support these energies.
Fast-forward nearly 10 years and the Centre has relocated to West Glassville, outside of Fredericton, NB. They also now have a satellite office in the city. I recently had the opportunity to speak with the Centre’s Executive Director, Afton Conneely. With a background in microbiology and a penchant for permaculture and its applicability in the mainstream, Conneely was a pleasure to talk to. Her passion for sustainability came through and it was clear that she has a macro-vision for the province which incorporates a long-term plan for environmental resiliency, job creation, education, and shifting the perspective on how the environment relates to economics.
We discussed everything from permaculture to finances in New Brunswick, composting toilets to the original sewer systems. Our conversation was so long that it had to be broken into two parts. This first part of our discussion focuses specifically on permaculture, sustainable farming practices, and environmentally sound technologies, all approaches, which can be employed in our communities to ameliorate the current environmental conditions.
Can you tell me a little about the Falls Brook Centre’s mission?
Well, we as we are based on permaculture, which is all about creating resiliency through ascertaining that identified needs are served by more than one component of the system. And making sure that any outputs, any pollution is actually used within the system as an energy source.
It is a model for sustainability that can be done on the farm or in the household, but also on a region wide basis.
So what we see as the best for New Brunswick is an interlocking economic model, which draws on our dependency on thriving natural systems. The idea is that our economic future should not be reliant on one sector, but rather several businesses and companies that can provide pay checks and long-term sustainability.
So, you’re suggesting that the interlocking model accounts for both economic and environmental factors?
Well you have to, otherwise if we don’t have clean water, if we don’t get our air recycled through the trees, if we don’t have a healthy soil to grow food, we’re done. Unfortunately economics has been acting like its completely separate from the environment and it’s a false picture. That has put us in a very precarious position.
But there have been some recent advances in the biotech sector. There are a lot of areas where the biotech sector has stepped up and identified diverse methods of employing people and growing business while also aiding the environment or reducing the weight of the environment.
What kinds of examples of these biotechnologies are being explored?
Well, for example, Agri-Tech is moving forward now. There is a company that’s looking at narrowing the window of when the mare [cow] is going to give birth, which takes a lot of the uncertainty away.
There is also SomaDetect that looks at the dairy industry.
There is another group looking at making a bio-polymer from grown fungi. If you go to bio-NB there are dozens of biotech startups in this province that could translate into really good jobs.
The hope is that they will continue that responsibility and actually use their clout to increase the sustainability of the local environment.
There does seem to be a lot of forward momentum around biotech. Can you speak a little but about why it is important to develop more sustainable farming practices and why it is important for citizens to support local farming?
That’s a two-part question. In terms of sustainable farming practices, it is pretty clear right now that farming practices as they exist right now are not the most sustainable. If you look at the age of the farmers, if you look at the soil quality going diminishing, if you look at the increase in inputs on the farm each year, they all lead to the same conclusion: we can’t keep going the same way.
So, if there are more sustainable farming methods, like what we [Falls Brook Centre] showcase, if those are encouraged and actually taught on a larger scale, then what you end up is farming being less expensive to do.
The quality of the soil increases over the years instead of decreases. The amount of runoff that goes into the river is significantly reduced so that reduces the cost. The other thing is that these sustainable farming practices are about utilizing these natural systems where the bi-product is food.
So you’re actually increasing the resiliency of the farmer because the exact same acreage will give them more types of crops. Which means more types of paychecks. So in a year like this where its not amazing for certain crops, it is good for others. You’ll find every year there is going to be weather that doesn’t suit certain crops. Whether it’s too wet or two dry or too windy or what have you. But if you have a range of crops, then you’re actually broadening your chance to come out with a really good harvest.
The other flip side of that is that increasing the knowledge of these sustainable practices like putting in these perennial systems, like poly-culture planting, even in-situ crop rotation.
What happens is the natural system that surrounds these types of farms, create a more resilient eco-system which provides a place for animals to live.
For example, we have to get past the idea that all birds are evil, because it’s just not true. So if you have birds that eat insects that are happy being around your field, this will reduce your pesticide use. Well pesticide use should not be happening, but the amount that you lose to pests to grasshoppers that’s going to go way down, if birds are around.
Resilient eco-systems encourage creatures of all kinds. The more pollinators you have the more fruit is actually set. The more hawks and other hunting birds that are around, they will get more of the rats and the other vermin that destroy the crops. All of these things tie in together. So just eliminating one part of the eco-system because its inconvenient in the short term can have massive effects in the long term.
So, taking all that into consideration, I’m wondering, what would you see as some of the barriers to increasing sustainable farming?
A lot of it is education. The mantra of tear out all your tress, make your fields as flat and one crop as possible. Just spray more fertilizer just do this just do that. These ideas they looked like the worked at first. But what happened was that it was burning through the soil reserve that had been built up over centuries. And what happened in a lot of places is that the reserve is now gone. So what is going on now is that the nutrients of the soil are not being replenished down to the strata the way it used to be so we are just putting fertilizer on top and that is getting used up. There was a recent CBC article that identified that we are over-using by 150% a year. In turn we have to use chemical fertilizer to make the soil take the crops.
There are places down in the southern states that it is it is so intensively farmed that they actually have to inject liquid nitrogen into the soil. The soil is now so dead that they actually have to do to force the plant root to take it up. When you do cover cropping or cow fertilizer it is actually worked on by all the biota, bacteria, and fungi and nematodes in the soil. When you use natural fertilizers that are what happens. What occurs is it’s digested by the life inside the soil and then its available to the plants. But when you have low life in the soil you have to do extremely drastic measures like injecting liquid nitrogen.
End of Part I
I learned so much on a simple phone call with Afton; I am looking forward to sharing the rest of the conversation with you in a follow up post.
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