woman walking four blackfaced sheep down a path

Farming for the climate future

Canada’s National Observer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Tamara McPhail’s morning chore never changes, but the infinite variety of sounds and seasons makes milking cows every day unique. 

On this spring morning, Zinnia and her new calf Equinox are restless and nagging — bellowing, bleating and raring to get outside into the fields. 

Other mornings, they greet McPhail with gentle grunts and low moos as she enters the barn as if relishing the connection they’ll have with her. 

“I’m really attached to the livestock system,” says McPhail, who along with her partner Adam Schick, has been part of a team stewarding the land at Linnaea Farm on Cortes Island, B.C., closing on 25 years. 

“There’s just something about sitting in a cold barn with your head up against the warm belly of a cow and milking early in the morning,” McPhail said. 

“Hearing their digestive processes and the splosh, splosh into a bucket and realizing we’re still doing old-world stuff.” 

At Linnaea, much of what’s old is being renewed again, as farmers and global agrifood systems — which generate a third of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions — struggle to adapt to the new climate future. 

‘Old world’ tactics can tame future climate impacts

The term regenerative farming is a buzzword being bandied about by large agri-food corporations, but many of the techniques are timeless and have been practised by cultivators for generations and even millennia. 

Regenerative agriculture practices are the heart of Linnaea Farm — a 314-acre organic co-operative land trust established in 1991, dedicated to sustainable agriculture, the environment and education on behalf of the Cortes community. 

The focus of regenerative farming isn’t to take from the land but to replenish or improve the ecosystem that sees soil, water, plants, humans and animals as interconnected, said McPhail, Linnaea’s executive director and one of the resident stewards, along with Schick, who’s in charge of the market garden. 

The cows are part of Linnaea’s ecosystem, with their barn poop covered and composted in stages for three years before the nutrients derived from the farm’s pastures are returned to its crops, McPhail said. 

“Those cows are actually more a part of the landscape than I am,” she said.

“It’s amazing when you pull back some of those tarps and you see the mycelia going through it; you see the worms, all those red wigglers in massive quantities,” she said.

“We’ve had enough manure lately that we’ve been able to sell some to offset the costs of the cows and spread that fertility around.” 

Although farming on Linnaea has not radically changed as climate impacts pick up speed, adaptation methods evolve as new challenges crop up, she said. 

Farmers are always vulnerable (and must respond) to unpredictable conditions, but there seem to be increasing bouts of intense weather over the last few years, she said. 

Cortes Island is part of B.C.’s temperate, rainy coast, often dubbed the “Wet Coast.” However, the persistent rain typical for much of the year seems to be on the decline. 

“We won’t have rain for a while, then we see an increase of high water volumes over a shorter period of time,” McPhail said. 

Apart from the extreme heat dome that scorched the province in 2021, the island is seeing increasing stretches of hot, dry summer weather. Cut hay dries in record time, but plants go to seed and fruit ripens quicker, making harvesting more challenging. 

This spring was excessively cold and snowy, while last year’s was extremely wet, flooding the market garden early in the growing season, she added.

“We had potatoes rot in the ground, which has never really occurred before,” she said. 

“The two decades we’ve been here is a relatively small window for documenting what’s been happening, but when you see a whole crop fail, you’re like: Wow, OK, that just happened.”

Due to the last couple of springs being unusually cold, the bees’ pollination schedule has also been off-kilter, she added. 

“These climate events are kind of plunking themselves down in the midst of our old normal weather patterns,” McPhail said. 

Cows are connected to the farm’s ecosystem 

But a number of farming tactics already in place at Linnaea to improve soil health, capture nutrients and carbon and promote biodiversity are reaping rewards, she said. 

For much of the last decade, McPhail has practised rotational grazing. 

The farm’s livestock feed in and fertilize smaller paddocks for shorter periods to prevent overgrazing before being moved elsewhere to allow the pasture to rest and recover. 

Extra attention must be paid to the animals and land, and the number of livestock McPhail can raise is limited by how much pasture is available. 

The grazing method retains soil moisture, prevents erosion and boosts wildlife habitat, particularly for pollinators and insects. 

The grazing model also boosted the farm’s resiliency during the extreme heat dome and summer droughts in the past couple of years, she said. 

“Our grass still grew out in our pastures,” McPhail said. 

“The rotational intensive grazing we’ve been doing gives the grass time to develop these deep root systems, which, in the whole heat dome, were tapped in so deep, they were able to access water and nutrients way, way further down.”

In the market garden, Schick employs a range of tactics to nurture topsoil and capture carbon, like shallow tilling to limit erosion, using crop residue and mulch on fields to build soil, rotating crops and planting cover crops while fields rest to prevent erosion and build up nitrogen stores. 

A lot of time and energy is also put into growing Linnaea’s seed library, McPhail said. Seeds are collected from plants that have evolved over time to thrive in local conditions and that will continue to adapt to local climate changes. 

“We’re really deepening the use of our own seeds that are specific to this landscape or that have developed their own sense of place in the land,” McPhail said. 

Natural solutions buffer floods and droughts

Working with nature to capture and slow water on the landscape, especially as rain events become more infrequent and intense, is one of Linnaea’s most recent projects and a newfound passion for McPhail. 

Linnaea, a longtime education hub for locals, tourists, volunteers and students wanting to learn about ecological land use, recently collaborated with conservation groups to restore a wetland within the farm’s boundaries. 

The Dillon Creek restoration project was designed to slow water during heavy rain and reduce sediment flow into the nearby Hague and Gunflint lakes to improve water quality and curb algal blooms in the island’s important water sources. 

The two-year project was completed this spring, thanks to the Friends of Cortes Island, a local conservation group, and the BC Wildlife Federation’s wetlands education program. 

The project got extensive community support and a horde of volunteers helped shape the wetland and planted hundreds of different native plants, trees and shrubs, said project co-ordinator and wetland restoration specialist Miranda Cross. 

Volunteers even went out collecting local seeds from plants and trees to introduce to the wetland, she said. 

The wetland was put to the test almost immediately after being planted in the pouring rain last September, Cross said. While volunteers were still on site, Dillon Creek overflowed, spilling water into the wetland. 

The restoration area successfully slowed the runoff before it hit the lake, and since it was finished, the wetland has prevented roughly eight double-dump trucks of sediment from flowing into the lake, Cross said. 

Beyond improving water quality in the lakes downstream, the restored ecosystem is already providing habitat for pollinators and wildlife like frogs, salamanders, eagles and ducks. 

Linnaea’s new wetland will also buffer climate impacts like floods, drought and fire, Cross said. Disappearing wetlands, drained for development and agriculture, act as natural fire breaks, limit flooding and erosion, and capture and store carbon in sediment and vegetation, she added. 

Restoring the wetland was an opportunity to improve caring for Linnaea’s land while striking a balance with, and potentially boosting, the farm’s agricultural needs, McPhail said. 

Fine-tuning that balance while climate change advances will be an ongoing process at Linnaea, she said, but they’re not starting from scratch. 

“We’ve always tried to do things in a way that leaves the land better for the next generation,” McPhail said. 

“We’re making these micro-adjustments, but we’re still farming in the same way that we have for a couple of decades.” 

Links of interest:

Top image credit: Tarmara McPhail escorts her sheep to pasture each morning on Linnaea Farm, an ecological agricultural land trust on Cortes Island in B.C. – photo by Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter