Always look on the bright side of pesticide: big ag gives us “The Real Dirt on Farming”

On the home page of a local feed and farming supply store, I recently came across a prominently displayed 50 page booklet, entitled “The Real Dirt on Farming”. Remembering the excellent 2005 documentary, “The Real Dirt on Farmer John”, about maverick organic farmer John Peterson, I had a look at this publication. It purported to answer questions Canadians have about farming, and to “debunk some myths”. Since I keep a small flock of laying hens on our farm, naturally I turned to the page on laying hens to see what it would say. I nearly fell off my chair when I read the following:

“Many laying hens are raised in cages. Why? Modern laying hens are descended from jungle fowl, that live in small groups under tree roots. This means it is natural for hens to want to live closely together with other birds, and in small, enclosed spaces – reminiscent of those ancient tree roots that made them feel safe and protected.”

Wow. Seriously? Is that the best they can come up with? Chickens are basically like gophers? Does this jungle fowl look like a gopher, scurrying around under tree roots?:

jungle fowl

I searched around to try to find where the writers of this booklet had come up with this particular justification for the mass indoor confinement of chickens, and the only reference I could find was a publication by Humane Society International, in which it describes the nesting behavior of the jungle fowl as follows:

“Under natural conditions, hens leave the group and find a secluded nest site when they are ready to lay their eggs. Wild jungle fowl nest in tall patches of grass, which provide cover for their broods. They may scratch out a shallow bed in the ground or under the roots of a tree, and line the “scrape” with vegetation and feathers.”

In other words, they may occasionally make a nest under the roots of a tree – but only after leaving the group, and only for the three weeks a year it takes to brood a clutch of eggs.

The Humane Society International publication goes on to say that, “Being extensively innervated and connected to the autonomic nervous system, the tip of the beak is very sensitive, and has neural receptors for touch, taste, and temperature.” Funny how the “Real Dirt” authors didn’t quote that one in their section on beak trimming, which they claim is done to “prevent laying hens from hurting each other.” The fact of the matter is that when you cram thousands of birds in all together, some of them are going to peck others to death, unless you remove the pointy end of their beaks. Give them more space, and this becomes a non-issue.

The fact that such a laughable and ill-founded claim is made about chickens calls into question everything else in this booklet.

I did a little more digging into the “Real Dirt” to find out who was behind this thing, and quickly found it was published – and inserted into 360,000 copies of the Globe and Mail this spring, among other places – by the Farm and Food Care Foundation. Oh, beware the vaguely named organization! The FFCF’s stated goal is to “enhance public confidence in food and farming in Canada”. Its board of directors includes people from Nutreco Canada (a livestock feed company that was recently fined $40,000 by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for putting a medicated ingredient into a swine feed without listing it on the label, and for not providing instructions for the withdrawal period necessary prior to shipping the animals to slaughter), Farm Credit Canada, Agribiz (a agricultural communications firm), Greyridge Eggs (the second-largest egg grading company in Canada, and repeatedly found shipping leaking, dirty, and stale eggs to market), a former CEO of Adfarm (an agricultural marketing company), RBC, Cargill Value Added Meats (Cargill being the largest privately held corporation in the US), and the Canadian Animal Health Institute (“the trade association representing the developers, manufacturers and distributors of animal pharmaceuticals, biologics, feed additives and animal pesticides in Canada”).

The FFCF has also received donations of $250,000 from Burnbrae Farms, Canada’s largest egg grader, and $50,000 from the Egg Farmers of Ontario, who have been one of the foundation’s most consistent donors. You’d think with that much egg money behind them they could spin better tales than jungle fowl living happily under ancient tree roots.

The sponsors of the “Real Dirt” publication include Croplife Canada (a trade association of the world’s largest biotech and pesticide businesses: Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, BASF, etc.), the Council for Biotechnology Information, and many other mainstays of the agrifood establishment.

The picture is now coming into focus; Big Ag, concerned about the negative press they’ve been receiving of late from documentaries like Food Inc., the local food movement, organics, etc., has decided to fight back with a glowing portrait of how everything that the industrial food system is doing is just great, not a problem in sight, and that in fact those fringe guys – the organic and local farmers – are not doing as good a job.

This is actually a good sign, if you believe in local, organic food; as the saying goes about social change movements, first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you. It would seem the movement of local and organic agriculture has graduated past the first two steps in the evolution towards a new paradigm in Canada. They must be afraid that they’re losing the battle for hearts and minds, as this poll is but one example of.

In reading through “The Real Dirt on Farming”, three things strike me. First, there’s a ton of spin. That’s to be expected. More on that later.

Second, it does seem to be an at least somewhat sincere attempt to inform the public about what modern farming is like – in some ideal sense. Too often modern agribiz hides behind bucolic caricatures of red wooden barns and roosters crowing on fence posts; this booklet instead embraces the scientific advances that have remade farming in the past 60 years. But instead of charming us with agrarian visions, it instead tries to dazzle us with the “cool and funky” technology being applied on some farms today. The message is that science is cool, therefore biotechnology – which is really cutting edge science – must be really cool. And to be against industrial agriculture, you’ve got to be anti-science. I don’t think this is spin; I think this is how people working in the industrial agriculture industry actually tend to think. I think many of them are genuinely perplexed as to why people seem to be turning against them, and the “Real Dirt” is their attempt to respond sincerely.

Third, although the booklet usually maintains a convivial, upbeat tone, occasionally its fangs come out when provoked by some particularly irksome issue. Take this passage, for instance:

“Factory farm is an inflammatory term created by anti-farming activists and is not one that is used by farmers.”

So to criticise some types of farms makes you against all farms? Is there not a fundamental difference between a farm whose motivating goal is to produce as much pork for as little money as possible, and a farm whose motivating goals are to give their pigs a good life, while producing healthy meat in the most sustainable way? I’m anti the first farm, but pro the second. And I think “factory farm” is an apt descriptor of the former farm, because it views its pigs no differently than widgets to be churned out in a factory, while the latter farm sees its pigs as living, sentient beings with needs and wants, and as part of the larger agricultural ecosystem. But I don’t like to be too “inflammatory”, so I use the word “industrial” instead of “factory” to differentiate farms like the former from farms like the latter.

But watch out, if you’re not labelled an “anti-farming activist”, the “Real Dirt” calls you an “anti-technology activist” on page 33 if you oppose GMO’s. The booklet’s authors clearly have their backs up about activists, as the following quote reveals:

“Activists of any kind are not usually interested in finding solutions, but prefer to focus on problems and dramatic examples to generate funds and support for their organizations.”

This is a common trope – that activists are only in it for the money. It’s an absurd Orwellian reversal of reality. Someone who advocates for a cause – 99.9% of the time in an unpaid capacity – simply because they believe in it, we call an “activist”. Whereas someone who works as a lobbyist, or who puts out publications like “The Real Dirt on Farming”, we call a “strategic communications consultant”. Here’s the above quote rewritten to describe a communications consultant instead of an activist:

“Communications consultants of any kind are not usually interested in finding problems, but prefer to focus on what looks good and reassuring examples to generate funds and support for their clients.”

I think that’s much closer to the truth.


I’ll now dig into some of the specifics “The Real Dirt on Farming” touches on, including organics, local food, food waste, hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, biotechnology, livestock feed, climate change, bee colony collapse disorder, sustainability, and animal welfare (“The Real Dirt” is nothing if not thorough). This booklet claims to have gone “to fellow farmers and experts in the field to find the answers” to these issues, but I’m a farmer, and they didn’t ask me. Nor, I suspect, did they ask any farmers like me. So this is my chance to give some of the answers I’ve found over the years, both from secondary sources and my own farming experience.

One of my favourite headings in the “Real Dirt” is “USING TECHNOLOGY TO OUTSMART MOTHER NATURE”. I couldn’t come up with a better phrase to describe the type of thinking that typifies industrial ag. “Nature”, as defined as “everything not human or created by humans” is a problem, to be overcome with our superior brains and the tools we make with them. Fields must be sterilized of all other life before our chosen crop and the blend of synthesized chemical fertilizers that support it are injected into the dead soil. Contrast this with the emergent paradigm of organic and local (what some are calling regrarian or agroecological), where the act of producing food from landscapes attempts to cooperate with and integrate into natural ecosystems. “Mother Nature” in this paradigm is seen as a supportive parent who will help us realize our goals so long as we respect her rules. As celeb farmer Joel Salatin says, “We are not anti-technology. What we like is technology that allows us to better bio-mimic the patterns [of nature].”

It’s safe to say that Joel didn’t have a hail cannon in mind when he spoke about the kind of technology he likes, but it’s clear the authors of the “Real Dirt” thought we’d all find it pretty cool:

“A technology called a hail cannon is used in some orchards. It shoots sound waves into the air every six seconds whenever there is the threat of hail and breaks up the hailstones that are forming in the atmosphere.”

Yeah, that sounds like a real good idea.

…And back to eggs

The section on eggs, as you might expect from the donors to this publication, is particularly rich with information. “Virtual farm tours” are offered, at the click of a link, giving insights into different hen systems, from conventional to free-range/organic. On the free-range tour, you can click to see the outdoor hen run, which shows a mown grassy strip all but devoid of chickens:

mown strip

A heading asks rhetorically, “Where are all of the birds?”, followed by:

“We’ve just told you that the hens are allowed outside, in the summer, on this free range farm between May and September 15 and you can see that the barn door is open. So the million dollar question is, if there are 7,400 hens living in this barn, and the door’s open, why aren’t they all outside? In actual fact, although they have access to the outdoors, Henk explains that the majority of the birds prefer the comfort of their barn. After all, in the heat of the summer, the barn’s temperature is kept comfortable using large fans. The birds’ feed and water is also inside the barn as are their nesting boxes.”

That’s funny, why do my chickens like going outside so much, then? Here’s a picture of them making full use of their free-ranging prerogative:


Maybe it has something to do with another tid-bit of information given in this virtual tour: that the birds are not allowed outside if the temperature is below 24° Celcius. I had to reread that several times the first time I saw it, because I couldn’t believe it. I’ve noticed from my own chickens that they don’t really love being out in the heat of the day, and here was a standard that doesn’t allow chickens outside unless it’s already pretty hot. That alone would explain why not many hens want to go outside when the doors are opened to them. Oh yeah, and they’re also not allowed outside if it’s raining, in extreme weather conditions, or if a flock of wild birds are nearby (they might catch avian flu from them). In other words, they are very rarely allowed access to the outdoors, and only when it’s hot and sunny. Chickens, like most animals, are creatures of habit, and if they aren’t accustomed to going outside, they won’t want to. Also, a bare mown strip offers little of interest for them.

In a tour of a conventional egg farm, we hear the claim again that, “chickens instinctively prefer to live close to each other in flocks. In my barn, the pens are designed to mimic this natural instinct.” Here’s a photo of his “natural” pens:

natural pens

From the picture of my hens free-ranging above, and from my general observations about them, I can say that when given the space, chickens’ natural instinct is not to clump up together in tight flocks, as this egg farmer would have us believe, but instead to disperse across the landscape as widely as they are able to, within a certain range from their home. There is nothing natural about the industrial model for producing eggs, unless you believe that maloney about ancient tree roots.

In a section entitled, “Why can’t they have more space?”, the following justification is offered:

“…every creature has different needs. For example, a bat chooses to live upside down in a dark cave…[or] if you put a group of calves in a very large open barn, research shows they choose to sleep very close to each other and against the walls or gates for a sense of ‘protection’ or warmth.”

This reasoning conflates how an animal sleeps with how it spends its waking hours. It’s like saying that humans like spending all their time in dark rooms because that’s where they like to sleep.

It doesn’t have to be like this, and it can be a lot better than the in-name-only free-range system profiled. Here’s but one example from a farm in Texas:

Coyote Creek Farm from Gallery Productions on Vimeo.

Pastured poultry isn’t just for small farms – this is large scale, feed-the-masses agriculture. And they’re doing it right. Sure, we can’t do this year round in Canada, but that’s no excuse to not do it from April to November.


When it comes to organics, it’s interesting to note that the organic section in the “Real Dirt” falls under the “food security and affordability” chapter, a theme that the final paragraph in this section zeroes in on:

“Organic production is not intended to become the only way we produce food. Not only would most of the world’s population not be able to afford organic food because it costs more to produce, but with our global population still growing, we simply don’t have the land, water and other natural resources available to grow the amount of food that we will need organically.”

For a good, succinct refutation of everything above, see this article from the Rodale Institute (hey, why reinvent the wheel?). Besides that, the whole “Feed the World” line is little more than Big Ag’s way of scaring us all into accepting their latest technology, which offers little benefit except to their bottom lines. We are already more than feeding the world, since we waste approximately 50% of all the food we grow (one of the few good points in the “Real Dirt” is that it mentions this fact, although it quotes figures of one quarter to one third wasted). The sad fact that so many people worldwide are currently malnourished or starving is about economics and distribution, not production. What we need in order to feed the world are not better biotechnologies, but better social/political/economic technologies. But those can’t be patented, so few are interested in developing them.

The “Real Dirt” circles back to the land argument later in the text, with this “Quick Fact”:

“If Canadian farmers stopped using crop protection products and plant biotechnology, we’d need to turn 37 million more acres into agricultural land to generate the same production we do today – that’s roughly equal to the total cropped acreage of Saskatchewan. Thanks to plant science tools, farmers are protecting valuable forests, wetlands and other wildlife habitats.”

If you’re wondering what “crop protection products” are, by the way, they mean pesticides. Gotta love that euphemism. When you click on the end note provided for this quote, you’re taken to who else but the CropLife Canada website (remember them? lobbyists for Monsanto et al), where you can find the same quote word for glorious word. I guess asking “fellow farmers” is really a euphemism for cutting and pasting from your sponsor’s websites.

CropLife crops up again in this recent Toronto Star article on how Ontario is phasing out neonicotinoid pesticides because of widespread evidence they are killing bees. The “Real Dirt’s” take on this issue is predictable:

“Some people believe neonics are contributing to bee death but there are conflicting views and scientists around the world are working hard to determine what is causing bee mortality. A key factor in bee mortality in recent years has been a parasitic mite called Varroa destructor which has been devastating to Canadian bee colonies.”

They make it sound like these mites are a new problem for Canadian beekeepers, but in reality this mite has been in Canada since 1989. Colony Collapse Disorder only became a “thing” around 2006. The mites are often associated with CCD, but not always. And it could be that the mites gain a better foothold in colonies already weakened by other stressors, such as pesticides. A 2015 article in the journal Science that reviewed 170 studies on CCD concluded:

“Bees of all species are likely to encounter multiple stressors during their lives, and each is likely to reduce the ability of bees to cope with the others. A bee or bee colony that appears to have succumbed to a pathogen may not have died if it had not also been exposed to a sublethal dose of a pesticide and/or been subject to food stress (which might in turn be due to drought or heavy rain induced by climate change, or competition from a high density of honey bee hives placed nearby)… a strong argument can be made that it is the interaction among parasites, pesticides, and diet that lies at the heart of current bee health problems.”

The section on organics begins with this line: “There is no evidence that organically produced food is healthier or safer than food that isn’t certified organic.” While it is true that there is no scientific consensus yet as to whether organic food is healthier, there have been a number of studies that suggest it may be (The Organic Centre offers a number of scientific articles on organics). Organic food has often been found to contain higher levels of antioxidants; the idea is that when plants have to fight off pests themselves, they produce these compounds, which are beneficial to us. There is also no doubt that organic food contains significantly lower levels of pesticides. Here’s a snappy little 90 second video showing what happened when a family stopped eating food sprayed with pesticides:

Sure, the “Real Dirt” echoes Health Canada in that the amount of pesticide residues on non-organic food is below dangerous levels, but no one really knows the effects of all these toxins in minute quantities when ingested day after day for years. To me, the whole idea of spraying toxins and carcinogens (glyphosate, aka Roundup – the world’s most used herbicide, and jewel in the crown of Monsanto – was recently labelled “probably carcinogenic” by the WHO) on our food just seems like a really bad idea. And it doesn’t even work. Bugs and weeds just develop immunity to them. And they kill off all the beneficial insects and soil microorganisms – and most of the critters out there are beneficial. And they’re simply not necessary – a little know-how about how to tackle the weeds and bugs knocks them back to a level where our crops outcompete them. It may take a few years of trial and error to figure it out on your land, but once you get the hang of it, it’s not that hard. And just imagine how much easier it would be if all the resources that are currently funnelled into pesticides went into figuring out how to ju-jitsu pests organically?

Also, no one disputes that pesticides present real dangers to the farmers and workers tasked with applying them. And it’s well established that organic agriculture produces significantly less greenhouse gasses, because pesticides and chemical fertilizers are costly in petroleum to produce, and organic ag tends to sequester more carbon in the soil. And…I could go on and on. But I’ll end with these top 12 reasons for eating organic.

Antibiotics & Hormones

The “Real Dirt” tackles the issue of antibiotic use in livestock by trying to turn the blame on human misuse of these vitally important drugs:

“Antimicrobial resistance is a concern for everyone. Some people point the finger at agriculture, but it’s important to remember that as humans, we have a major role to play here as well. We should only take antibiotics for conditions or problems where antibiotics will actually help…”

True enough – antibiotics are overused in humans. But at least we’re taking them to try to treat an actual problem. About 50% of all the antibiotics consumed in the US are given to farm animals, the vast majority of which is not given to treat a specific infection, but sub-therapeutically as growth enhancers. The “problem” producers are trying to treat is that their pigs and chickens just aren’t growing as fast as they could be. We’re not sure why, but feeding antibiotics to livestock increases their feed conversion efficiency, meaning producers can grow bigger animals faster with less feed, improving their bottom line, and making cheaper meat for the masses. The problem with this win-win situation is that the more we use antibiotics, the faster we lose them, because bacteria evolve rapidly and develop resistance to the drugs. So we’re losing valuable life-saving drugs so that we can pay a bit less for our meat.

Hormones added to beef cattle tell a similar story. They make cattle grow faster, which reduces costs for everybody. The evidence of harm to humans from this practice appears scant, but the hormones do end up in waterways and are having a detrimental effect on ecosystems.

Still, why do we insist on screwing with nature like this? Why isn’t it enough to focus on feeding a cow the best possible feed, keeping stress at a minimum, breeding good genetics, and other measures like that to ensure good weight gain? We know there will be no negative consequences to stuff like this. But when we start pushing things, with pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, GMO’s, and the like, we’re going into uncharted territory, with all sorts of unforeseen consequences lying in wait for us. And why? So we can pay less for our food. But my bet is that we’ll pay more for it in the end when we go down this road. Someone pays the price for cheap food.

Feeding Livestock

A section on “Farm Animals and the Environment” begins with this odd statement:

“Some people incorrectly believe that Canadian farm animals use food needed by people. Livestock doesn’t compete with people for food grains.”

It then goes on to talk about all the waste sources of food that are given to animals “in countries without extra grain”. It was hard for me at first to decipher this unsubstantiated statement, but reading between the lines a bit, I think what they’re trying to say is that Canada has plenty of grain, so we needn’t worry about feeding most of it to livestock.

A common criticism of raising farm animals is that it takes on average 6 kg of plant protein to make 1 kg of animal protein. The 7 billion livestock animals in the United States consume five times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire American population. If we fed that grain directly to people, it would be enough to feed 800 million more people. (How come this idea never comes up when we talk about “feeding the world”?) The critique is usually not framed so much as humans and livestock “competing” with each other for grain, as one of wasteful use of resources, especially when you consider that Canadians already eat too much meat. But the “Real Dirt” skirts around this issue by saying we’re not really “competing”, so all’s good.

But we are most definitely competing with wild animals for food, and when we plow up millions of acres of land to grow crops to feed to our domesticated animals, we are depriving wild animals of habitat and food.

I believe in eating some meat, but ideally the animal the meat comes from would have eaten grass from a natural grassland or savanna (i.e. not deforested land); in rocky, hilly terrain not suitable for field crops; and/or eaten food that would otherwise go to waste (e.g. kitchen scraps fed to pigs or chickens). Cattle grazed in pastures like the one described above can do so without depriving other species from occupying different niches in the same ecosystem, and actually have an overall beneficial effect on the ecosystem.

Later in the same section we are asked if we knew “that greenhouse gas is not actually gas coming from a greenhouse?” Umm…yeah? Who is this publication addressed to, five year olds? The booklet goes on to claim that “scientists estimate agriculture produces 10 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.” That’s the lowest estimate I’ve ever read. Most credible estimates put agriculture’s contribution around 25%; the only sector that causes more climate change is electricity and heat production (transport is only about 15%). Livestock alone are estimated to contribute 18%.


Early on in the “Real Dirt”, the authors invent their own definition of sustainability. It consists, according to them, of the principles of “food safety, human health, economics and food affordability, environment and animal welfare.” It’s from publications like this that the word “sustainability” has become one of the most abused in the English lexicon. I think when most people think about what sustainable agriculture means to them, they think of production practices that don’t deplete resources faster than they can replenish. What does food safety and affordability have to do with that? And as worthwhile a goal as animal welfare is, the concept of sustainability doesn’t enter into it.

But it’s clear that this effort to redefine sustainability serves the interests behind this booklet. “Sustainable” farming is farming that produces cheap food. Tough choices must be made to find the proper balance between “affordability” and everything else.

But the paradigm that I, and a growing number of other farmers, live in doesn’t see these priorities as competing, but as working together (well, most of them – more on that in a sec). The magical formula that we see at play on our own farms is that food grown close to home, organically, is safer, more nutritious, more profitable for the small farmer, and better for the environment. Animals treated well tend to be all these things too.

The one thing that can’t come along for the ride is cheap food. Cheap food undermines all the above, and it’s really about the only thing the industrial food system is concerned with (and, let’s face it, damn good at).

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have affordable food. Canadians currently spend less (about 10% of our spending) on food than anyone but the Americans, yet we are one of the richest nations. We can afford to pay a bit more for food that is healthier, treats animals better, better supports local farmers and agricultural workers, and is actually a net benefit to the environment. You get what you pay for, and right now, we’re not paying for any of these things.

The multinationals behind publications like the “Real Dirt on Farming” support the status quo. But they can’t do it without all of us buying their stuff. Stop giving them your money and support your local farmers, and watch how agriculture – and our culture – changes.


How Sustainable is Maple Syrup?

Last summer I attended a talk by Eric Toensmeier, in which he apologetically (since he was speaking to a Northeast North American audience) declared that maple syrup probably wasn’t a very sustainable source of sugar because its yield per acre is far below cane sugar. Was he right? Should we all be eating sugar from sugarcane instead of from maple trees?

The first objection that came to my mind was yield per acre is a poor measurement when one is comparing cultivated fields with forestland. Naturally a cultivated field, planted to a monocrop, will yield far better of that one crop than a wild growing forest. But a forest is a rich, diverse ecosystem, supporting a multitude of life, while a monocrop is pretty much a sterile desert but for the one crop. The forest also provides a suite of services to the larger ecosystem, including buffering of flood waters, creation of rain through transpiration from leaves, erosion control, soil formation, air cleansing, cooling of surface temperatures, and on and on. A well managed sugarbush can also yield additional crops, such as ginseng, ramps, goldenseal, elderberries, mushrooms, wild game, timber, firewood, and recreation. Forests are also the best way to sequester excess carbon from the atmosphere. And they do all this while occupying some the poorest land around – hilly, rocky, thin soils – land that could never be used to grow field crops.

Boil, Baby, Boil

Eric Toensmeier would probably be the first to agree with all of the above. But a further criticism of maple syrup is that it is highly energy intensive to produce. Forty litres of maple sap need to be boiled down to make one litre of syrup. Maple syrup producers use pretty much every kind of heat source to do so, but the two most common are oil and wood. At Ferme et Forêt, we’ve chosen to go with wood, because it gives us control over our fuel supply (firewood from our own bush), and it’s carbon neutral.

I’ve been told to have 40 face cords (about 13 full cords) of wood on hand to produce the maple syrup we’ll get from our 3000 taps (with no vacuum pump). We’ll see this spring what our actual usage is. Here’s a photo of our sugar shack and wood supply:


We’ve designed our shack without permanent walls; the walls are our firewood stacks, and we literally will burn our walls in wood every year. There are about 29 face cords stacked here. Back up a bit, and you’ll see another 9 cords stacked in the field:


When I first saw all this wood stacked, I have to admit, I was a little shocked. Maybe maple syrup is too energy intensive. But back up a little more, and look at the bigger picture:

sugar shack 1_1

In comparison to the amount of wood available in just the part of the bush visible in this photo, the wood stacks in and around the sugar shack suddenly look pretty insignificant. A well managed, productive bush can sustainably produce a full cord of firewood per acre per year. Even from a slow growing bush, one should conservatively be able to harvest one face cord (1/3 of a full cord) per acre per year. That will likely be less for us, since we’ll be tapping a good number of our trees for maple syrup, but even then, 40 face cords a year from our 100 acres of bush should easily be sustainable.

Not only does responsible harvesting of wood (with light equipment like ATVs or horses, in frozen or dry conditions) not harm the forest, it actually improves the growth and health of the remaining trees, as they will have greater access to light, water, and nutrients. A lot of people feel they are being responsible forest managers by “cleaning up” deadfall. In fact, dead trees are the life of the forest, attracting insects and wildlife, and contributing nutrients and organic matter to the soil. It is far better to cut a live tree that is too close to another tree; the remaining tree will increase its growth and make up for the wood taken out of the system through harvesting.

It should be noted that the discussion of firewood, properly managed, as a sustainable fuel source is in the context of an abundance of wood available in the sugar maple region of the world – northeastern North America. When Europeans first arrived, they cut down most of the forests that the Native Americans had been managing for centuries to make room for agriculture. However, much of this cleared land turned out to not be very suitable for agriculture, and as more crops were produced from less land, and people began making their livings from things other than farming, much of this land reverted to forests. However, the forests that re-emerged were not the same open, spacious ones the natives had carefully managed; they were thick and crowded. These forests could benefit from active human management once again. They can be thinned, the surplus wood going to firewood, and the remaining forest will be healthier than before.

But humans have certainly overused this resource in the past, denuding the landscape in a search for fuelwood. It wet climates like Britain this doesn’t have catastrophic results – the ground is covered in pasture and grazing animals have a heyday. But in most regions of the world, which receive less rain, deforestation quickly leads to soil erosion and desertification.

The Northeast is not a “brittle” landscape like this. It can and has survived deforestation, and ignored by humans for awhile, forests grow back pretty rapidly. However, the land and the people who depend on it are impoverished by the loss of forests, and any effort to harvest firewood needs to be done in a way that preserves large stands of forest. It is possible that, when the oil finally runs out in a few more decades, our forests will once again come under intense pressure to produce the energy our civilization has grown accustomed to. There is already talk of harvesting wood in British Columbia for biogas. Hopefully it won’t come to that, and we’ll turn to more benign technologies like wind and solar (not to mention reduce our energy consumption through efficiencies).

But in this time and place firewood makes sense, not for everyone (because then it would quickly be gone), but for some.

Cool the Fire

If we ever think that we are burning too much wood, there are various ways we could cut down on our wood use drastically. One way we do plan on doing this, as soon as we can afford the $4,500 price tag, is to install a hood with a preheater. This uses the steam coming off the evaporator to preheat the cool sap before it goes into the evaporator, thus increasing the efficiency of the boil. We could also follow the lead of most sugarmakers and get a reverse osmosis unit to filter out much of the water from the sugar before boiling it. Using a bit of electricity to run the osmosis, the sugar content of the sap can be increased from the 2% it typically comes out of the tree at, to 10% to 20%, thus saving lots of boiling time and energy. A third possibility would be to upgrade to one of the new super-efficient evaporators now on the market. These “gasifier” units blow air into the combustion chambers, so that flue gasses coming off the fire are forced back down into the fire, producing a complete combustion of the gasses and a very fuel efficient burn. All these technologies come with their own costs – drawbacks that for now have led us to chart a more low-tech approach (see my earlier blog post about this).

However, low-tech does generally mean less efficient. But we don’t see our higher energy use as too much of a problem, because we see our energy source – firewood from our own bush – as totally sustainable. The bigger problem for us is the amount of time needed to cut the wood. If we’d rather put this time towards something else, or if we find our bush is becoming depleted, we’ll switch to more efficient technologies.

One low-tech way to not burn less wood, but to cut less live wood, would be to make use of the vast stream of waste wood moving through our economy. From lumber slab to dumpsters full of 2×4’s, the wood is definitely out there. You don’t need to burn the top-quality hardwood that most people would heat their house with to boil maple syrup; in fact, softwoods are often better, because they burn fast and hot.The issue is finding it, transporting it, and dealing with junk like nails that may come along with it. If syrup makers could get the waste collection companies to dump suitable construction waste at their local sugar shack, instead of at the dump, we’d be on to something.

Another possible alternative to cutting firewood from forests would be to plant a fuelwood coppice, from a fast-growing and high BTU species like black locust. We would cut wood from this planting on a rotation (say, every 10 years), cutting everything down to stumps, which would then regrow and be cut again in another 10 years. Such as system can last hundreds of years, and you get more firewood per acre than from a natural forest.

One last way that we could improve the energy efficiency of our syrup-making – an approach that I personally find fascinating – is to select and plant trees that give sweeter sap. The average sugar maple produces sap that is about 2% sugar. However, there are trees that have been identified and propagated that consistently produce sap with 5% sugar. This is huge: at 2% sugar, you need to boil about 44 litres of sap to get one litre of syrup; at 5% sugar, you only need to boil about 17 litres of sap! It’s almost like having a reverse osmosis machine built into the genetics of your trees. Cornell University has bred a “Super Sweet” sugar maple variety, which you can buy. Alternatively, when you’re thinning your sugarbush, make sure to test the sap sweetness with a refractometer before deciding which trees to thin. Over time, you can increase the sugar content of the sugarbush overall. Since it takes about 40 years for a sapling to grow to tappable size, with either approach this is definitely an intergenerational project. But still worth undertaking, in my opinion.

Outdoor Plumbing

Another possible critique of modern maple syrup production is the amount of plastic used in the tubing that transports the sap to the evaporator. For instance, for our 3000 taps, we’ll be installing about 20 km of tubing! This tubing will most likely last for between 10 and 20 years, before the UV degrades it and it needs to be replaced. I am aware of some work being done to develop products that make use of recycled tubing (such as plastic plywood for boats), but I imagine a lot of it still ends up in landfill.

Buckets are not really a viable option for commercial sugarmakers anymore. They cost as much or more than tubing to buy, their yield is lower (compared to tubing under vacuum), and their labour costs, for collection, are far higher. If you already have buckets, or can find a lot of used ones at a good price; if your land is relatively flat and you can drive a tractor through it pretty easily; and if you have a large, cheap labour force (like a big family) willing to collect sap from buckets, bucket collection might be marginally viable.

But for most sugarmakers (ourselves included), tubing is the only real option. The best course for the maple industry as a whole is to find good markets for the tubing to be recycled into. The Recycling Agricultural Plastics Program at Cornell University is one good effort in this direction.

The Blood Suckers

One last potential criticism I’ll mention is the idea that tapping maple trees – especially with high vacuum – harms them. Intuitively this sounds plausible – you are “stealing” a bit of the life blood of the tree, and under vacuum even more so. Yet centuries of experience with tapping, and decades of research with vacuum has not found a negative impact on the trees. You are taking only about 5% of the total sap of the tree – well within its abilities to handle.

The tapping guidelines that place limits on the number of taps to put on each tree, depending on its diameter, have much more to do with being able to find places to tap in subsequent years than preserving the health of the tree. It is very hard to kill a tree by tapping it. However, every time you drill a hole in a tree, it creates a wound and sap is directed away from that area in the future. The wound extends maybe a foot above and below the hole, and a few inches on either side. If you try putting another tap into that area next year, you won’t get any sap. So you need to find fresh, unwounded wood to tap into. As the tree slowly grows outward, it eventually grows new sapwood over the old wound, and you can tap into that same spot on the tree again. How long this takes depends on how fast the tree is growing. If you put too many taps into too small a tree each year, it can’t grow fast enough to heal over all those wounds, and eventually you’ll have a hard time finding any sapwood to tap into. At Ferme et Forêt, we follow the conservative tapping guidelines of one tap if the tree is over 10″ diameter at breast height, and two taps if it is over 18″. Never more than two. This should ensure sustainable tapping for generations to come.

So there are the main criticisms of maple syrup that I can think of: low yield per acre, high energy use, high use of plastic, and being hard on the trees. However, none of these criticisms, in my opinion, carry much weight. Low yield per acre? Forests are actually very high yielding – of a multitude of products and services. High energy use? Firewood is renewable and carbon neutral, and modern technology can reduce energy use substantially. High use of plastic? It can be recycled. Harmful to the trees? Not so.

How Does Cane Sugar Stack Up?

Now, let’s look at the main alternative sweetener: cane sugar. Although sugar is also made from beets and corn, beet derived sugar is mostly in Europe, and corn sugar (the infamous high-fructose corn syrup) is generally only used in the industrial food system, not home kitchens. I want to compare what most people would reach for at home to add some sweetness to their cooking – the little white or brown crystals of cane sugar, or maple syrup. (Honey would be another alternative. It’s a wonderfully sustainable choice, but a little less versatile than maple or cane sugar.)

Cane sugar production has a bad reputation. It has the highest water requirements of all major crops; 1 kg of sugar takes between 1500 and 3000 litres of water to produce. Tillage and bare ground creates erosion, which runs off – along with pesticides and fertilizer – into waterways, often damaging coral reefs. Large amounts of decomposing plant matter washed out of sugar mills can consume all the oxygen in the water and cause massive fish die offs. The WWF says that sugar may cause more biodiversity loss than any other crop.

Working conditions are often poor as well. About 50% of sugarcane is harvested by hand; workers are often paid less than $2/hour for grueling labour in the hot sun. Child labour is reported in some countries, and harvesting sugarcane has been called the most dangerous of all agricultural work, because it is done with machetes, and injuries are frequent.

Of course this is looking at the worst case examples of sugar production. Above, I painted more of a best case scenario for maple syrup production, so it’s only fair that I do the same for sugar. There are ongoing efforts to improve the way sugar is produced, such as the Bonsucro certification, which in a few years has signed up enough producers to account for 3.7% of land worldwide under sugarcane production. The Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association and the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency have a website, in which they describe the best practices and ongoing efforts to improve the environmental impact and labour conditions of sugarcane. Perhaps it’s all greenwashing from the world’s largest producer of sugarcane, but reading about their best cultivation practices, it sounds as if sugar can be produced in a much less damaging way. For instance, it can be grown semi-perennially, only replanted every 6 or 7 years. Some sugarcane varieties can even fix nitrogen. Then of course there is sugar grown on certified Fair Trade and organic farms.

Here’s an interesting video about how sugar is made. Watching it, I was struck by how many steps must be taken to turn raw sugarcane into the pure white crystals we all know. Here are the steps briefly summarized:

  1. the canes are harvested
  2. then trucked to the mill
  3. then crushed
  4. then pressed to extract their juice
  5. then mixed with sulphur dioxide vapours to bleach them
  6. then mixed with powdered lime to clarify them
  7. then left in a settling tank for the sludge to settle to the bottom
  8. then boiled in an evaporator to increase the sugar concentration of the juice from 15% to 60%
  9. then left in another tank so the residue can be skimmed off the surface
  10. then microscopic sucrose crystals are added to aid in the crystallization of the syrup
  11. then boiled again in a vacuum evaporator
  12. then put into a centrifugal machine to separate the crystals from the molasses
  13. then bleached again for white sugar
  14. then finally dried with heat to a moisture of 0.02%

According to a journal article entitled The Energy Cost of Sugar Production in the Philippine Context, it takes 61.68 litres of diesel to grow and mill 1 ton of sugarcane, and it takes about 8 tons of cane to make 1 ton of sugar. Since it takes 3.5 to 4 litres of oil (or firewood equivalent) to produce 1 litre of maple syrup (which weighs 1.33kg), you can then do the calculations to conclude that, despite all the steps outlined above, sugar production uses 1/6th the energy of maple syrup production.

Much, if not all, of the energy used to produce cane sugar can come from burning the bagasse – the sugarcane pulp leftover after pressing. This is one area where there is a similarity between cane and maple sugar production: both burn by-products to power their processing – in the case of maple syrup, surplus wood from the sugarbush can be burned.

Another interesting parallel is with ribbon cane syrup, which used to be popular in the southern US. Basically, sugarcane was crushed to extract the juice, which was then boiled in evaporator pans, not unlike maple syrup evaporator pans, to produce a syrup.

However, that’s about where the similarities end. The following table sheds some light on the differences:


I mentioned at the beginning of this article that yield per area was much greater for sugarcane than maple. Sugarcane yields on average 60-70 tons per hectare (although much more is possible) – which can be made into about 8 tons of sugar – while sugar maples only yield about 270kg of syrup per hectare (at 1 L per tap, times 200 taps). In other words, sugarcane yields 30 times more per hectare than maple.

Partly this is because sugarcane is what’s known as a C4 plant, able to photosynthesize much more efficiently than most plants. Partly it’s also because sugarcane grows in the tropics, where it receives much more photosynthetic energy than sugar maples growing in temperate regions.

What To Make of It All

I started off my research for this post thinking I could easily discredit cane sugar when compared to its maple equivalent. However, I’ve developed a grudging respect for the Saccharum genus and it’s amazing level of productivity. I now see Eric Toensmeier’s point. Although sugarcane is often currently grown in ways that cause a lot of harm to the environment and the people who harvest it, it is possible to produce it in much more benign ways. For instance, if situated in the right region, with ample rainfall, it can be grown without any irrigation. It can also be grown without chemicals, and as a semi-perennial, cropped for up to 10 years before replanting. Under the Fair Trade system, it can provide good livelihoods for farmers living in some of the lowest income countries in the world.

The sugar maple industry also has a good and an evil side. Burning 4 litres of oil to produce 1 litre of maple syrup clearly isn’t sustainable. But energy use, through technologies like reverse osmosis, can be brought down significantly, and firewood is not a net producer of greenhouse gasses like oil is.

It seems that the main reason cane sugar takes 1/6th as much energy to produce as maple syrup is that cane juice, once pressed, is 15% sugar, while maple sap is only 2%. So it takes far more energy to bring the maple to syrup stage than the cane. However, with a reverse osmosis machine and a bit of electricity to run the pumps, maple sap can be brought to 15% sugar too. Osmosis reduces the amount of oil needed to produce 1 litre of syrup from 4 litres to 1. That narrows the gap between maple and cane to 1.33kg of maple syrup and 2.02kg of cane sugar produced from a litre of oil, respectively.

That gap can be eliminated, and maple can in fact come out ahead, if one of the new, high-efficiency wood-burning maple syrup evaporators are used. They can reduce wood use by 40%, meaning one could produce 2.2kg of maple syrup from a litre of oil (or wood equivalent), compared to 2.02kg for cane sugar. Granted, it takes more energy to produce crystalized sugar than syrup, but we can see that the two forms of sugar are pretty close in terms of energy use. Cane sugar, of course, has the added energy cost of long-distance transport, if you live in the North.

The fact is, it’s not that maple sugar production is sustainable and cane sugar is not, or vice-versa; it’s that both forms of sugar can be more or less sustainable, depending on how they are produced. The devil, as usual, is in the details.

As a consumer, if you want to buy cane sugar, you should choose organic, Fair Trade, or possibly Bonsurcro, sugar. Less refined, or brown, sugar takes a bit less energy to produce, and retains more of the sugarcane plant’s natural minerals, so it would be a better choice.

If you want to buy maple syrup – or sugar – we have in the Northeast the great advantage of being close to the suppliers, so, unlike with cane sugar, we can get to know them. Personally, I’d rule out any syrup made by burning fossil fuels. Organic certification, in my opinion, is not nearly as meaningful when it comes to maple syrup as it is for most agricultural products. Maple syrup is essentially a wild food, and few producers – organically certified or not – use any kinds of pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers in their bushes. Many maple operations are open to the public during sugaring season, which is great opportunity to check them out and see if you like the feel of them.

Despite the impressive qualities of the sugarcane plant, for me, what makes maple syrup win out – at least for those of us living in its home region – is that it is produced locally, and that it comes from healthy, intact forests. (It also tastes better and is more nutritive – but that’s another post.) A field of sugarcane may produce impressive yields for up to 10 years, but it’s still just a field, producing little but sugarcane, and will eventually need to be tilled and replanted. The total yield of a forest, when one takes everything into account, is surely far greater, and it will never need to be tilled, fertilized, or replanted. It will produce sweet maple sap, which can be harvested by humans with next to no impact on the species that call the forest home. Forever.






Appropriate Maple Syrup Technology

The lazy days of syrup making.

The lazy days of syrup making.

This week, after months of shopping around, we finally bought a new maple syrup evaporator. It was supposed to be a quick and relatively easy decision this May about what to get. But, like most things in farming, once I started to drill down into it, I quickly realized it wasn’t so simple.

My doubts began when I visited the sugar bush of a local maple syrup equipment dealer. He showed me the nuts and bolts of his operation. He spoke of acid baths for the evaporator pans, malfunctioning valves, and finicky vacuum pumps. It was all a little bewildering, and made it sound like his main job was troubleshooting equipment problems. Later, another maple syrup producer told me how he has to wear ear protection when he’s working in his sugar shack, what with the din from the vacuum pump, the high pitched whine from the reverse osmosis, the blower in the stove, and myriad other small pumps all working to get his sap turned into syrup as quickly as possible. Meanwhile he’s multitasking to the extreme, monitoring gauges, adding firewood, adjusting valves, drawing off syrup…It sounded like working in the engine room of a battleship during combat.

Contrast this with my experience of making maple syrup over the past few years, just a few hundred taps at a time: long hours spent quietly working outside, feeling the first warm rays of the spring sunshine on my face, often just sitting and watching the fire burn as plumes of steam rise into the sky, listening to the first songbirds returned from the south. This is what I love about making maple syrup. Although being a ship’s engineer in battle no doubt carries a certain thrill with it, it’s not what I got into farming for. I got into farming to work in partnership with life – trees, plants, animals, microorganisms – to create a richer life for everyone.

As Aldo Leopold put it, “Bread and beauty grow best together. Their harmonious integration can make farming not only a business but an art; the land not only a food-factory but an instrument for self-expression, on which each can play music of his own choosing.”

I began to understand that the more we let technology intervene between us and the things we interact with, the less clearly we can see those things, and the more we see only the gauges and screens of our technology. If you farm from the seat of your tractor, you miss the crucial little details of what’s happening on the ground.

Deciding what kind of maple syrup equipment to buy forced me to clarify how I want to farm. Why, I asked myself, would I want to go the high tech route that most other maple syrup producers have taken, when the way that we produce our other crops is so divergent from the way most farmers do it? We have consciously chosen a lower tech approach with all these other crops, because we believe it will not only increase our enjoyment of farming, but also produce better quality food and improve our bottom line through reduced investment and maintenance costs. I like the idea of Appropriate Technology, which permaculture incorporates. One aspect of this concept is that you should understand and be able to fix all the technology you work with.

However, by taking the low road with technology, our yields will be less, and our work more. Can we run a financially sustainable business without adopting the latest production technology? Will turning what we know we love doing – small scale maple syrup making, gardening, wildcrafting – into a business destroy our enjoyment of these things?

Only time will tell, but I’m still willing to bet that we can do things in a way less mediated by technology, and still make a decent living. What is considered low tech now was high tech not that long ago. Agriculture has been following the high investment, high tech, high yield – and high debt and bankruptcy model for some time now. Maybe a lower tech, smaller output, but higher quality approach to production is what’s needed. Would you take a pay cut to move to a job that you enjoyed more? Most people would, I think, if they could still pay the bills at their new income level.

So in the end I chose to make maple syrup without a lot of the things that most producers now use: vacuum pumps, reverse osmosis machines, fans that blow on the fire. We bought a simple, well insulated evaporator, and the simplest filtering and bottling equipment available. It’s pretty much the way our grandparents made syrup, with one exception: we’re using tubing to collect the sap rather than buckets. Although I will miss going through the bush each day to empty buckets, and getting to know which trees are producing well, when you’re planning on doing 3000 taps, some concessions to efficiency need to be made. And tubing is a whole lot more efficient than buckets.

Who knows, maybe in the future I will eat all these words and embrace the modern world of maple syrup production. There is some technology that I consider more appropriate than others, such as a preheating system for the sap: it’s basically just pipes that the sap runs through, utilizing the steam from the boiling sap to preheat the sap before it enters the evaporator. This kind of technology meets my appropriate technology test, because it’s simple and makes use of energy that would otherwise be wasted, to increase the efficiency of the boil and lower the amount of wood I need to burn. The only reason we haven’t bought one from the get-go is the price – at about $4,500, we’ll wait a bit before making that investment.

Genevieve gathering wood the real small-scale way.

Genevieve gathering wood the real small-scale way.

I would also like to try out a relatively new product, which is smaller diameter tubes than are usually used. They are supposed to better create a natural vacuum in your lines when they run down steeper hills, meaning you can get the benefit of a vacuum pump without actually having to use one.

The point of Appropriate Technology is not to reject all modern technology. The point is to cast a critical eye on the technology you use, and consider it with a wider view than just, “Will this new thing pay for itself with increased production/efficiency/revenue?” Appropriate Technology challenges us to think holistically about technology and ask questions like, “How will this new thing affect my enjoyment of my work?”, “Will it have a negative or positive effect on natural ecosystems?” or, “Will it make me dependent on the outside experts who sell and service this technology?” Then you weigh the pros and cons and decide for yourself. The laptop I am currently writing on is not very appropriate, yet I think it’s too powerful a tool to reject.

Most people think the Amish have rejected all modern technology, but it’s not quite that simple. Their barns and workshops are full of modern, electric power tools. But the power lines don’t go to their houses. They’ve looked at the wider social implications of modern technology, and decided to take a pass – except for those things that are really useful and pretty benign.

I’m not saying I want to live like the Amish. But I do think we’d do better as individuals and as a society if we thought more carefully about how technology affects us, rather than blindly accept everything that’s faster, bigger, and more powerful. We have become aware in the past few decades that new, more powerful technology can sometimes have a detrimental effect on the environment, but we still lag behind in our thinking about how new technology can negatively affect the quality of our work environment.

In the black with black earth

It all comes down to black earth. Black earth, or soil, is carbon rich soil; carbon rich soil is soil with lots of food for microbes; soil with lots of microbes grows lots of healthy plants; healthy plants feed healthy humans, or feed healthy animals which in turn feed healthy humans. And healthy humans have the ability to consciously create more black earth and a more abundant planet for all life.

Black earth is also earth that is storing a lot of carbon in a safe, beneficial place, rather than a dangerous place like the atmosphere. Black earth has the potential to solve the climate problem, at least in the short term.

It’s for these reasons, and the fact that my farm is in the French-speaking province of Quebec, that I’m calling this blog La Terre Noire. Welcome.

The aim of this blog is to chronicle my attempts – along with my wife, Genevieve, and various other farm collaborators – to create a farm enterprise that both helps heal the planet and provides a good livelihood to those working on it. Our farm-based business is call Ferme et Forêt, and 2014 is our first year of operation.

It’s an uphill battle, to be sure. Few people (other than the Mitchell and Webb Situation in this skit) equate money with farming. And profitable business is often seen as at odds with ecological regeneration. A recent New York Times Op-Ed piece, called Don’t let your children grow up to be farmers, exemplifies this thinking.

The author of the article has the facts on his side. The statistics are sobering. And yet there are glimmers of hope in this bleak landscape. We are lucky enough to live three farms down from one of them, Juniper Farm. They raise veggies, chickens, eggs, turkeys, with more on the horizon. Most impressively, though, they are making a decent income for their family, providing several full-time jobs during the growing season, and doing it all without killing themselves – they’re working pretty typical eight-hour days. They are inspirations to us and a big reason why we’ve decided to make the leap into farming as a profession.

There are many other examples we know of. This Permaculture Voices podcast provides an excellent rebuttal to the above Times article. It interviews the co-founder of Oneka, an organic body-care products company in Quebec. Although examples like this are the exception to the rule, these friends and colleagues have proven to us that it is possible to make a living farming, and that it can be done in a way that is sustainable both to yourself and the environment.

I believe that agriculture as it is currently practiced over most of the industrialized world is one of the most destructive things humans do to the planet. Agriculture accounts for over 30% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, more than the transportation sector. It turns diverse ecosystems into sterile monocultural deserts. It pollutes water. The list goes on. I don’t blame the farmers doing this – they don’t believe alternatives exists.

My mission is to prove an alternative does exist. I want to create a farm that improves ecosystem health year over year, while creating a respectable economic return for our labour and investment. The median age of farmers is south of 50; the ag sector needs a new infusion of young blood, people with new ideas, internet and marketing savvy, and environmental ethos (and those farmers already in it, and open to new ideas, to try them!). I want to prove farming as an attractive venture for talented young people.

With this infusion of a new generation of farmers – farming in partnership with nature, rather than constantly battling against ecological realities – we can change that 30% contribution of greenhouse gasses into minus 100%. We can turn one of the most destructive things people do in this world into the most positive and regenerative. 

The land is the source of all terrestrial life, and black earth is the key to it.