I recently had the opportunity to speak with the Falls Brook Centre’s Executive Director, Afton Conneely. The Falls Brook Centre is a demonstration center and registered charity working to foster community engagement, facilitate education and encourage people to be mindful of how their practices impact the environment. 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 New Brunswick, 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. You can read the first part here. This is the second portion of the interview, where we discuss the benefits of organic foods, poly-cultural farming practices, the ins and outs of compostable toilets, and the reason Maritimers should care about environmental sustainability including some ideas about how to get involved.
The conversation continues with Afton shedding some light on unsustainable farming and food production processes.
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 do natural fertilizers, that’s what happens. What happens 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.
Injecting liquid nitrogen into the soil seems like a band-aid solution to a deeper problem.
Well, it would be similar to putting steroids into food. I compare it to a non-natural bodybuilder. When they have gone off steroids for a while they lose muscle tone and they go all flabby because they are actually just plumped up by water.
It would be similar to using Miracle Grow or other chemicals. You get these great big potatoes, but there are no more nutrients in the potato. It is just plumped up with water. There is a really good movie called dirt that challenges the false dichotomy that suggests that if we go organic we won’t be able to feed everyone. That’s nonsense. If you value your food by weight then, sure, you’re not going to get the same amount of weight. But if you’re looking at nutrition, the nourishment you get out of the organic matter is far higher.
Interesting, that says something about how we value things in society: the bigger the better.
It really does, it just shows that we don’t count things accurately. But what we don’t often realize is the chemistry that goes into making food. Food chemists are good at camouflaging the detrimental aspects of food. For example, when you get a pack of Doritos, and there’s something just moreish about them. You have a few, and you want more right away.
The reason for that is that is a coating on the chips that have the taste buds tell the brain that these chips are providing nutrition. As far as your brain is concerned you’re getting nutrition from chips and you tend to want more.
Tomatoes that have been grown with miracle grow and chemicals don’t offer the same trigger to the brain. However, if you eat organically grown tomatoes you get a nutrition kick. So that’s the other reason we need sustainable farming practices. In order to get the same nutrition from the monoculture, chemical-dependent practices we need to eat far more. But, if we increase the availability of organic produce, we will actually place less of a strain on the system.
That’s also why local systems are so important because when we encourage the local food system and we choose where our dollars are going to go, we can choose the farm that uses natural and organic ingredients.
You can go to the farm and walk the fields and check out how the animals are doing. You can talk to the farmer and go for a tour. Then you know exactly where your dollars are going.
Plus you’re supporting the local economy.
Right, as long as the dollars are circulating within the local economy, the richer New Brunswick and the Maritimes get. It’s when we send our dollars out of the province and out of the region that we get poor.
So if we could shift a little bit, I was reading a little bit about the restoration orchards and I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about those.
The polyculture orchard is based on the food forest idea. Right now the Falls Brook only has one type of apple tree at a time so we can’t call it a forest, it’s not a forest. But it’s based on the idea of planting multiple types of plants that each have different roles and inhabit different layers.
Very briefly, a true forest has seven layers and if you want to plant a forest then you mimic those seven layers. The layers are the canopy, understory, shrubs, herbaceous, ground cover, and root bed.
The forest meets the reason why a forest works and why it thrives on its own is because with those seven layers every need of the forest. The strongest way that you can grow lots of food, long-term in a space is by the perennial, polyculture method.
If you are interested there many videos on growing a half-acre food forest in your backyard.
So what we’ve done for this year’s project is plant 4 apple trees surrounded them with loads of aromatic herbs. The aromatic herbs act as food for the pollinators and they also repel pests. The cobbling moth, for example, is a pest for the apple tree, so we brought in a couple of aromatic herbs that attract the insects that eat coddling moths.
You can also repel deer and certain types of molds with different herbs. The main thing that you are actually trying to do is to have as much food grown there as possible. For example, underneath the apple tree, you can put in squash, watermelons or pumpkins. You could also put in tomatoes, or hot peppers would be better because the tree will take a lot of water, and hot peppers don’t need a lot of water.
Then you put in a cover crop that will benefit the tree both in terms of annual fertilizer. You may choose to put in some clover. When the clover dies back every year it injects nitrogen into the soil. The flowers are also very beneficial to bees and other pollinators.
When you create a food forest you have to maintain each plant until it is established, but once they have been taken up it should be self-sustaining. For example, the clover actually chokes out a lot of the grasses and this is important because trees and grasses don’t actually mix well. The soil structure under trees is more basic; trees like fungi. Grasses on the other are more acidic and they like bacteria.
The intent of demonstrating this polyculture approach is to show that anyone you monoculture to a polyculture. Again, if you are looking to farm on a larger scale, polyculture allows for more types of paychecks, it increases the health of the trees, the quality of the soil and more food is grown. It also reduces the need for so many pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, because the forest is self-sustaining. It also reduces the number of pests that prey on the apple trees and the fruit.
Miracle Farm in Quebec is a great example of an organic orchard and which was transformed into a food forest.
Ok, so shifting again, I would love to know more about the compostable toilets. I remember them being a highlight for me when I visited over 10 years ago.
Well, if you want to talk sustainability, using only flush toilets on our land just doesn’t make any sense.
15 L of fresh water goes down the toilet a day. If you’ve got a low flush toilet it would be less but if you’re someone who uses the toilet as a waste paper basket essentially then that’s going to climb up. When you think about it that could be drinking water. We don’t need to be doing that.
Obviously, there are a lot of places where you cannot have compostable toilets like you know in downtown Fredericton that would not be a good idea. But somewhere like up in Glassville or a more rural location it makes more sense.
The idea behind a compostable toilet is as old as human beings. The reason animal waste smells so bad when it breaks down is that it is very nitrogen rich and there is a whole lot in there that isn’t actually broken down. It’s also dangerous when it’s not broken down because the bacteria are live. That’s why the flush system and the sewer system came into being because it was a way to control waste and bacteria.
With the composting toilets, the waste is put into a container. The old outhouses would have just been in a pit. Over time it became known and recognized that when you add sawdust to waste it breaks down without so much smell. Basically what this does is that it breaks the waste down into a soil that would be similar to fertilizer. It’s not used now in that regard.
We do not use it in that regard, let me point that out right away. Don’t worry we do not use it in our gardens. But it’s the addition of carbon in the form of sawdust that allows the waste to break down in a way that is complete. So if you don’t have the addition of carbon you have incomplete breaking down of the waste. That’s what gives that awful smell, that’s what leaves that residue, and it leaves it unusable for any other purpose whatsoever.
With the addition of carbon, the waste is essentially composted. When you use a compostable toilet the instructions are that you add carbon/sawdust in about the same quantity as your deposit. That one to one ratio is what is used to break everything down into the soil. It has to sit for quite a while before this happens.
The way we have things set up is that the shoot or the pipe from the toilet goes down into a larger roller bin. So you leave it and once the bin gets to a certain volume, you just add more carbon on top and put it aside to decompose, put a new bin underneath and it is ready to go again. The bin needs to sit for about a year to properly decompose. You need to be absolutely certain that everything is broken down until you can handle it.
We do have flush toilets inside the building. The only thing about these compostable toilets is that they don’t really work that well in the winter. Things won’t break down in the winter.
Great! Thank you for sharing more about how the compostable toilets work. This will be my last set of questions to you. Why should New Brunswickers or Maritimers care about environmental sustainability and how can they get involved and learn more about what they can do?
When people are asked about why they choose to live in the Maritimes, the response is usually related to our access to wilderness. It is to do with the ability that you can just get out of town and go and stand in the middle of the forest quite easily in ways that you cannot do in larger cities.
If we want to be able to do that and we want our grandchildren to be able to do that we have to care about environmental sustainability. If you want to keep fishing salmon you have to look after the salmon, the rivers, and the policies that govern them. If you want to go and enjoy the forests and the crown lands, you have to be involved in making sure that they stay. So it’s not about in my back yard, it’s about whether we are going to be able to enjoy living in this region or not. It is worth going to attend the political process to make sure that we have to say in these matters, to make sure that we can keep enjoying this place.
And how can people get involved?
Find the particular cause, I know that there is such a huge array that sometimes it can be paralyzing. Take a look at what is most important to you. If it is fishing, then go and get involved with your local watershed association. Do you care about being able to go and do birding? Then find your local naturalist association. If you want your food to be more reliable and more local then spend your dollars that way. Lots of people don’t have a choice about where they get their paychecks from, but there’s lots of choice about where your paychecks can go.
If you see a company that is trying to be more environmentally friends, encourage them. You might not be able to spend a whole whack of money there, but you could write them a letter saying that you appreciate what they are doing.
If you don’t have money but you have time then go and volunteer with an organization that has a mandate that you feel strongly about. There’s a lot more people can do than just donating. Don’t get me wrong donations are great. But, you care it is about more than just money. If you see in the political process that there is something coming up that you care about then get involved. If you see a motion coming that you feel strongly about then get involved. The politicians get their marching orders from us. If you don’t like what they are doing vote for someone else.
I like what you are saying here about how there are multiple ways to take action. Overall what you have said is that it is context dependent, you’re not saying we need to overhaul the whole system, but right now within this context, these are some real changes that we can make that will make a difference.
Yeah, there are. Even if it’s a case of seeing that there’s a movie night at the Conservation Council, go to it. If you see that there is a workshop series going on, for example, we are putting on a craft series this Christmas. If you want to help out our organization, go to the workshop. The numbers that attend these events matter. They matter because if we can show that we consistently get that many people to our events we have that much more clout. If people don’t bother showing up, we have no clout.
Right, you have no leverage to say to the government we need this funding to keep doing the good work we are doing.
Yeah, and, we have to demonstrate this to our funders or our sponsorship people as well. People always look down and say, Oh, you’re just after the money, but without cash for paychecks, we can’t keep going.
You can make an impact in so many ways. Maybe you can’t do the top five things that are on the list to reduce your carbon footprint, but there are so many other small things you can do.
I absolutely agree.
Those were all the questions I had for you for today, Afton. Thank you for taking the time to meet and speak with me and thank you for all the wonderful work you are doing at the Falls Brook Center.
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