Organic Science Cluster 3 Blog

  • The Role of Perimeter Plantings in Vineyards

     A perimeter planting (border vegetation at right of photo) at an organic vineyard in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario (Photo: Kasia Zgurzynski).


     Driving through Niagara’s wine country, you are likely to see many vineyards, often in close proximity to one another. What frequently separates these properties are fence-like rows of vegetation known as perimeter plantings (or hedgerows). The use of perimeter plantings in agricultural fields dates back to at least Medieval times in Ireland and England. Perimeter plantings can be remnants of previous forests, or, in many cases, farmers actively choose to plant and maintain vegetative borders with an understanding that these borders have the potential to be valuable elements of the agricultural landscape.

    There are many obvious services that perimeter plantings provide for vineyards. They can provide a protective barrier between properties, for example, filtering airborne weed seeds from neighbouring farms or reducing drifting snow during winter storms (especially if there are conifers). The above-ground density of perimeter plantings can also reduce the potential damage that winds can have on grapevines, as well as reducing the amount of wind-caused erosion of exposed soil. Wind is also a major driver of moisture loss, and perimeter plantings can reduce this impact, as well.

    Perimeter plantings offer other advantages as introduced species mingle with native and cultivated species to provide higher biodiversity than what would typically be found in a vineyard. Many species rely on these perimeters as a connection between habitats that would otherwise be isolated from each other, acting as a corridor for birds, insects, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Sometimes farmers will also plant specific plant species in order to attract natural enemies of pest insects or pollinators. Perimeter plantings can provide food and overwintering habitat for parasitic wasps and predatory beetles, for example, both of which act as pest control. However, some insect pests can also use the perimeters to overwinter or to find alternative hosts. Wild grapevines may inadvertently be found in perimeter plantings and they may need to be removed as they can attract the Grape Berry Moth, a common pest in vineyards. Managing perimeter plantings can help maintain a functional mix of plant species that can potentially attract beneficial insects while simultaneously minimizing the attraction of pest species.

    Although some potential drawbacks exist with having lush perimeter plantings, the services that they provide are valuable on many levels, to us as humans and the ecosystems we inhabit. As we continue to face increasing impacts from climate change, it is important to be equipped with the tools necessary to adjust and react accordingly. Grape growers are stewards of the land that they cultivate, and research on perimeter plantings can support them in their roles by providing practical solutions to complex challenges, including those caused by a changing climate.

    This blog section will be ongoing throughout the duration of the project with bi-weekly updates provided by Liette Vasseur, Heather VanVolkenburg, Kasia Zgurzynski, Habib Ben Kalifa, and Diana Tosato (see research team). We will be providing research activity updates as well as informative pieces that delve into agricultural concepts and important global issues as they relate to agricultural sustainability and climate change. Stay tuned for regular updates!

     

     

    Categories: Organic Science Cluster 3 Blog

  • Cover Crops in the Vineyard

    Three examples of leguminous plant species being tested as cover crops here in local Niagara vineyards. From left: Trifolium incarnatum (crimson clover), Trifolium repens (white clover) and Melilotus officinalis (yellow sweet clover) (Photos: Kasia Zgurzynski)


    Grapevines are not the only plants at work in a typical vineyard. Growers often incorporate additional species of plants in between and (less often in Canada) under the rows of vines as a way to boost growing conditions and potentially improve berry yield. These additional cultivated plants are called cover crops. Cover crops are not typically harvested, but rather serve to enhance the growing environment. Since plants provide a multitude of functions in nature and form the foundation of healthy ecosystems, it should come as no surprise that cover crops can be a useful vineyard management tool. Some examples of environmental enhancement that can be achieved by cover cropping are improved water infiltration, decreased soil runoff and erosion, weed control or the promotion of beneficial insects.

    Cover crops can include various species of legumes (e.g., clover, vetch), forbs (e.g., chicory, oilseed radish) or grasses (e.g., fescue, timothy grass). Most legume species develop a reciprocal relationship with bacteria in the soil. These bacteria are beneficial and help capture the nitrogen and transform it to a form that can be absorbed by plants, making this key nutrient biologically available for the cash crop. Many grasses work as a kind of natural mulch, protecting the soil from drying out and suppressing the growth of weeds. Flowering plants with long and tough roots can break up the compaction in the soil, making it easier for water and oxygen to infiltrate deeply throughout the rooting zone, and drawing up water and nutrients from deep within the soil.

    Sometimes, the true benefits of cover crops occur when they are turned back into the soil, providing the organic matter and nutrients necessary to maintain soil health. Cover crops can also be an important nectar and food source for beneficial insects, such as parasitic wasps that can control leafhoppers. That being said, depending on the species and where or when they are planted, cover crops may actually compete with the cash crop, introduce disease or  impede wind flow between rows, so careful selection is important for the system to perform optimally. With climate change and the possibility of more climate variability, such as droughts and heavy rainfall, the presence of cover crops can help buffer the impacts of soil runoff or drought-induced soil cracking.

    Overall, cover crops have the potential to be a relatively inexpensive and effective strategy for improving the health of the vineyard from the ground up. A plant does not have to be a cash crop to perform a service for the vineyard. These crops can also help integrate the vineyards more holistically into the surrounding landscape. The ecological services provided by cover crops are substantial even beyond the vineyard, as well, allowing vineyard owners to improve their own crops while also providing benefits to nearby growers and the surrounding ecosystem in the process.

    This blog section will be ongoing throughout the duration of the project with bi-weekly updates provided by Liette Vasseur, Heather VanVolkenburg, Kasia Zgurzynski, Habib Ben Kalifa, and Diana Tosato (see research team). We will be providing research activity updates as well as informative pieces that delve into agricultural concepts and important global issues as they relate to agricultural sustainability and climate change. Stay tuned for regular updates!

     

    Categories: Organic Science Cluster 3 Blog

  • Utilizing Mother Nature to help vineyards adapt to climate change

    An example of a NbS, Alyssum plants (white flowers – foreground) have been planted in these Niagara strawberry fields (background) to attract beneficial insects to the crops (Photo: Heather VanVolkenburg)


    Have you ever noticed that nature has some ingenious ways of dealing with change? Natural systems can adjust in order to respond to environmental or climate changes; plants, for example,  can change the timing of bloom or grow slower during droughts. Nature can also be a source of inspiration for farm managers and is part of what we call Nature-based Solutions (NbS).

    Nature-based Solutions include, but are not limited to, actions that address challenges that farmers are facing by protecting, sustainably managing, and restoring agroecosystems and their adjacent landscapes. These challenges can stem from environmental or climate changes that threaten the sustainability of production systems. By utilizing and implementing tools and strategies that we know work in natural systems, NbS can simultaneously provide support for agricultural production, its supporting ecosystem and, ultimately, human well-being.

    High biodiversity is intimately connected to NbS and directly correlated to an ecosystem’s ability to cope with environmental uncertainty (e.g. climate change induced extreme events). In the natural world, it is likely that a community with a relatively high number of plant species will include a few species that are more tolerant of drought or flooding. This diversity can help ensure that the entire community is not lost when a drought or flooding event occurs. Similarly, in agriculture, planting different crop species or varieties can provide some insurance to the farmer if one crop fails. A farmer can also select plant species based on different characteristics, such as the type of invertebrates they attract or repel, or how they compete with other crop plants. Many of these beneficial characteristics evolved first in natural systems, making a strong case for the adoption of NbS in agriculture.

    NbS are based on equity, the inclusion of all sectors of society (farmers, policy makers, consumers, etc.), and the restoration or protection of biological diversity is a top priority. Decisions can vary from local (farm level) to a large landscape (vineyards of the Niagara Region). In all cases, however, decisions should be transparent and integrate sustainable ideas and solutions for all. NbS are also a viable approach for meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and ensuring that basic societal needs are met in a safe and sustainable environment.

    Like many of the research projects in our lab, our OSCIII project aims to investigate a combination of NbS concepts applied to local vineyard agroecosystems. The next few blogs will outline a few of these potential solutions and how they are being applied in our research.

    This blog section will be ongoing throughout the duration of the project with bi-weekly updates provided by Liette Vasseur, Heather VanVolkenburg, Kasia Zgurzynski, Habib Ben Kalifa, and Diana Tosato (see research team). We will be providing research activity updates as well as informative pieces that delve into agricultural concepts and important global issues as they relate to agricultural sustainability and climate change. Stay tuned for regular updates!

    Categories: Organic Science Cluster 3 Blog

  • A few thoughts on climate change and our OSCIII project

    Climate change and the effects of drought-stress on the soil in a Niagara vineyard (Photo: Heather VanVolkenburg).


    For the past few months, we have used our blogs to introduce our research project and discuss the importance of the agricultural sector in the Niagara region. This week, we will begin talking about the main topic of the project: climate change.

    Everyone in Canada loves to talk about the weather. We hear about it on the radio and TV, and it’s often the first topic of conversation with anyone we bump into. Weather is what we experience every day when we go outside, and what influences our daily activities. Daily weather events are also important for farmers, who need to monitor them in order to make important crop-management decisions. If there has not been very much rain, for example, will they need to water artificially? If there has been too much rain, alternatively, will they need to spray crops to prevent mildew?

    We also frequently hear the word climate and, especially these days, the term climate change. The concept of climate tends to cause a bit of confusion, however, and is a little more complex to explain than weather. Climate is more like the overall characteristics of a place, rather than day-to-day conditions. We live in a temperate climate in Canada, which means that we have four seasons with cold winters and warm summers. Scientists characterize our climate by looking at averages of weather variable measurements (such as temperatures) over a period of 30 years or more.  Do you remember (if you’re old enough) what the weather was like 35 years ago?

    The climate on Earth has changed since it was first formed. It also continues to change due to geological changes, such as the movement of continents. If that fluctuation is a natural occurrence on Earth, then why are we talking about climate change so much these days? Climate usually changes at a very slow pace and we would need a very long time period to detect most of those changes (you cannot feel these changes in the short term since we are talking about thousands of years!). However, once humans began using fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, gasoline, tar sands and oil), things began to change at a significantly faster rate.

    Why? The use of fossil fuels injects chemicals back to the Earth’s surface — especially into the atmosphere— that results in an acceleration of changes in temperatures and variables such as air currents and rainfall. These chemicals are the famous (and infamous) greenhouse gases. While we do need some of these chemicals to keep the Earth relatively warm (the planet would rest at about -98oC otherwise!), too much means that we heat up the planet.

    You may think that a warmer climate is not such a bad thing — especially if you dream of having a longer summer! There is a flip-side to a warming planet, however, and it is less pleasant than having a few extra warm days to spend at the lake every year. With changes in air temperature and the resulting changes in water and air currents, extreme events, such as storms, hurricanes, long periods of drought, and/or heavy rainfall begin to occur more frequently. This unpredictability also creates many challenges for farmers trying to manage and maintain their crops.

    We see the impacts of these changes all over the globe; climate change is real, with serious implications for our agricultural sector. By combining farmer knowledge with what we know as scientists, we hope to find strategies to mitigate the negative impacts of these changes through our research.

    This blog will be ongoing throughout the duration of the project with bi-weekly updates provided by Liette Vasseur, Heather VanVolkenburg, Kasia Zgurzynski, Habib Ben Kalifa, and Diana Tosato (see research team). We will be providing research activity updates as well as informative pieces that delve into agricultural concepts and important global issues as they relate to agricultural sustainability and climate change. Stay tuned for regular updates!

    Categories: Organic Science Cluster 3 Blog

  • How is COVID-19 affecting agriculture and research?

    An image commonly seen today throughout the world as a response to COVID-19, April 2020 (Photo: shutterstock.com).


    While we adapt to the new social norms that have been adopted by leaders around the world to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19, it is imperative to also understand how essential services, such as farming, are affected by these changes.

    At the farm level, the pandemic has added to the already complex nature of the agricultural industry. Farming is a physically laborious job with many risks and occupational hazards involved, such the dangers associated from the use of heavy machinery, exposure to various chemicals, and working long hours of intense physical activity in varying weather conditions. The industry also relies heavily on an external workforce; approximately 20,000 of Ontario’s highly specialized field and greenhouse workers are migrants who travel to the province specifically for the duration of the growing season.

    As well as considering the logistics of ensuring these important individuals can safely travel to Canada, farm operators must also enact new protocols to keep them safe and healthy once they arrive. Living quarters and field practices have to be reconfigured to ensure proper physical distancing, for example, and operators must assess their varying needs for personal protective equipment. Operators also have to develop a plan to safely and efficiency enact the self-isolation measures that need to be taken when the workers first arrive, and, if they were to fall ill with the virus while working. Management strategies are being developed and improved in real time to ensure the safety measures put forward by the government are being met, while, at the same time, still maintaining the province’s food supply chain. Having to juggle the task of completing the same amount of work with fewer individuals and less interaction between farm personal is a challenge not to be taken lightly.

    Similar activities are also unfolding in the research sector, particularly for projects and programs involving agriculture and field work. Research is an important component of all essential services, as well for the guidelines that are developed during times of crisis. Without research, agricultural activities or policy decisions risk being uninformed or, at worst, counterproductive and detrimental. Agricultural research is also a long process as countless variables must be taken into consideration, like annual changes in weather patterns and changes in pests or seed varieties. With the added complexity of COVID-19 and social distancing, both the 2020 growing season and the research taking place to support it have been challenging. As part of the Organic Cluster, we have been working tirelessly with our granting agency, farm operators and Brock University to ensure that research can continue in the safest way possible during these challenging times, while continuing to obtain data that are essential to our understanding of vineyard ecology and production.

    This blog section will be ongoing throughout the duration of the project with bi-weekly updates provided by Liette Vasseur, Heather VanVolkenburg, Kasia Zgurzynski, Habib Ben Kalifa, and Diana Tosato (see research team). We will be providing research activity updates as well as informative pieces that delve into agricultural concepts and important global issues as they relate to agricultural sustainability and climate change. Stay tuned for regular updates!

    Categories: Organic Science Cluster 3 Blog

  • OSCIII BLOG: The importance of supporting local consumption and research

    Locally sourced produce grown here in Ontario, May 2020 (Photo: Abby VanVolkenburg).


    Where does our food come from? If your answer was the local grocery store, think again! As we talked about in last week’s blog, much of the food found in grocery stores comes from somewhere other than Canada. This causes challenges such as heightened emissions, attributed to shipping, as well as food chain supply disruptions, especially in times of  uncertainty, such as during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Now, more than ever, we need to consider supporting our local farmers to allow them, in turn, to support us. The relationship is reciprocal, with both parties standing to gain a great deal from one another’s support. Supporting local growers means supporting their livelihoods as well as our overall quality of life. There are also countless environmental benefits of supporting local.

    So how does one support local growers? At first the answer may seem obvious: We need to educate ourselves on where our food comes from and try  to buy locally sourced products whenever possible. Yet, there is so much more to it than that! Aside from selling what they produce, farmers are also faced with many uncertainties in terms of how they produce. Extreme weather events that result from climate change, such as temperature and wind fluctuations and more intense periods of heavy rain or prolonged dry periods, present challenges for farmers. In addition, they also face increasing pressure from pesticide/herbicide resistant organisms, depleted soil fertility, and dwindling (not to mention expensive) synthetic fertilizer options. Farmers need management options that utilize approaches to farming that are more sustainable.

    Sustainable farm management options already exist; many of which have been utilized in the past, before industrialized agriculture became a dominant figure on the landscape. From supporting beneficial organisms, to utilizing non-synthetic fertilizers and increasing cropland diversity, there is no shortage of alternate management options. What is missing, however, is guided research that investigates those different options, and combinations of options, to help farmers apply the best option to suit their own unique situations. Research is not only an important part of understanding farm management techniques, but also in policy making decisions, as well. Policy can either support or work against management choices that are connected to our food supply chain.

    In many ways, farmers are supported by policy and policy is created based on current research data. Anecdotal information is not enough to dictate or change policy (which often works against more sustainable farming practices). There is a need to support both our farmers  and local research efforts to ensure that solutions to today’s sustainable agriculture challenges, both environmental and social, are possible. The OSC3 here at Brock is one such research project that embraces farmers’ knowledge, sustainable practices and the investigation of novel crop management strategies for the future of Canadian food security.

    This blog will be ongoing throughout the duration of the project with bi-weekly updates provided by Liette Vasseur, Heather VanVolkenburg, Kasia Zgurzynski, Habib Ben Kalifa, and Diana Tosato (see research team). We will be providing research activity updates as well as informative pieces that delve into agricultural concepts and important global issues as they relate to agricultural sustainability and climate change. Stay tuned for regular updates!

    Categories: Organic Science Cluster 3 Blog, Updates of the Chair

  • OSCIII Blog: Food security in a time of uncertainty

    A word cloud depicting the important concepts surrounding food security, April 2020 (Photo: shutterstock.com).


    Farming is an essential service. It is also an industry with a great deal of volatility; farmers must continually rethink how they manage their crops in order to respond to changing weather patterns, depletion of resources, pests, diseases and markets . The current COVID-19 pandemic has also demonstrated how vulnerable agricultural systems can be when the number of workers who can be on site at a time is reduced or the farm has to be shut down entirely. A good first step to achieving total sustainability starts with the consumer. By better understanding where their food and materials come from, they can be more aware of the efforts that are needed to maintain food security.

    Food security is the ability for all individuals to have safe access to food that is nutritious and healthy — no matter their economic or social status. When thinking about our current situation, and the need for social distancing as well as economic shut down, we need to consider what it means to Canadian food security.

    So, where does our food come from? Many might think that we get a lot of our produce locally, especially those living in the Niagara region where fruit farms are plentiful and farmer’s markets are extremely popular. It might come as a surprise to learn that Canada actually imports most of its fruit and vegetable supplies from other countries. Outsourcing our produce means that the food has to travel long distances before ending up on our plates. The further that produce travels, the less secure it is and the more environmentally costly it becomes. One reason Canada relies on imports is that we have a relatively short growing season that limits the amount and variety of produce we can grow. Other factors, such as trade agreements, market demands, and the impossibility to grow some of the tropical produce that many people like in Canada, are also part of the equation.

    It’s important however, to not take our local farmers for granted. Many of our local farmers are developing innovative new greenhouse systems and working with new indoor growing technologies to maintain production during our Canadian winters and attempting to farm as sustainably as possible through organic farming practices. Ideally, more people would also attempt to garden at home, and choose produce that is considered to be more environmentally friendly (which usually translates to buying locally). While our urbanized way of life and potential lack of skills and knowledge might be used as excuses to not try growing our own food, it is indeed worth the effort and satisfaction.

    If growing your own food is not an option, changing your consumption habits to support local growers and suppliers is an impactful way to move toward food security. With borders being closed and food production factories shut down for weeks at a time, relying on Canadian farmers makes good sense. Choosing an Ontario tomato rather than one that has been shipped from as far away as the equator not only helps our farmers—who in turn help us—it also reduces the amount of carbon emissions that result from shipping produce over long distances. Bringing our food supply chain closer to home is one way in which we can help to implement sustainable agriculture and reduce the impacts of climate change. As consumers, we have the power to drive this change.

    This blog section will be ongoing throughout the duration of the project with bi-weekly updates provided by Liette Vasseur, Heather VanVolkenburg, Kasia Zgurzynski, Habib Ben Kalifa, and Diana Tosato (see research team). We will be providing research activity updates as well as informative pieces that delve into agricultural concepts and important global issues as they relate to agricultural sustainability and climate change. Stay tuned for regular updates!

    Categories: Organic Science Cluster 3 Blog, Updates of the Chair

  • OSCIII Blog: Farming—an essential service

    Spring soil amendment application in a Niagara vineyard, May 2018 (Photo: Heather VanVolkenburg).


    The term “essential service” is one that most of us have become acutely aware of in the past few months. An essential service refers to an occupation that a government or governing body deems to be necessary for preserving life, health and basic societal functioning. These services are determined to be needed during an emergency as well as when job action is taken in a labour dispute (such as during strikes). Such services must maintain operations during a crisis in order to ensure that society can still function during and after that crisis. Services deemed essential usually include hospitals and healthcare, law enforcement, firefighting, garbage collection, utilities (i.e. water and electricity), and food services connected to the food supply chain.

    Determining what qualifies as an essential food service can be complicated. From a consumer’s perspective, we are often only concerned with the availability of food in the grocery store. Some may also think of food services as the prepared salad on the shelf at your local grocery store or a meal purchased from a fast food joint. While these businesses are indeed essential, there is one essential food service that is perhaps the most important: farming. Farming forms the foundation of all food services, providing us with the food and ingredients necessary to survive from day to day. Without farmers, the grocery store where you bought your salad or the fast food joint that served you a hamburger would not exist.

    So, before you finish unpacking those groceries or sitting down with that take-out container, take a moment to thank the farmers and those directly connected to agriculture. Also remember that thinking of terms like “farm” or “grocery store” is far too simplistic to truly understand the nature of being essential. Think not only of the farms, but also the workers, fuel providers, truckers, packaging suppliers, grocery clerks, and countless other people that have been involved in the food supply chain along the way. Without these essential food services, and the many intricate pieces involved, we would be a pretty hungry lot!

    This blog section will be ongoing throughout the duration of the project with bi-weekly updates provided by Liette Vasseur, Heather VanVolkenburg, Kasia Zgurzynski, Habib Ben Kalifa, and Diana Tosato (see research team). We will be providing research activity updates as well as informative pieces that delve into agricultural concepts and important global issues as they relate to agricultural sustainability and climate change. Stay tuned for regular updates!

    Categories: Organic Science Cluster 3 Blog, Updates of the Chair

  • OSCIII Blog: What is the Organic Cluster project?

    Early spring in a Niagara, Ontario vineyard partnered with the Organic Cluster project, May 2019 (Photo: Heather VanVolkenburg).


    In 2019, Brock University initiated the new project: “Unique Cover Crops, Rootstocks, and Irrigation Techniques for Canadian Vineyards”. The project is funded through the Organic Science Cluster 3 (OSC3): Connecting Environmental Sustainability and the Science of Organic Production, managed by the Organic Federation of Canada (OFC) in collaboration with the Organic Agricultural Centre of Canada (OACC) at Dalhousie University. The OSC3 is also supported by the AgriScience Program under Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Canadian Agricultural Partnership (an investment by federal, provincial, and territorial governments). More than 70 partners from the agricultural community are also involved in these projects.

    Brock’s Dr. Liette Vasseur and Dr. Medhi Sharifi, research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Summerland, BC, are the two principal investigators on this OSC3 grant. Heather VanVolkenburg, a recent graduate student of Dr. Vasseur, is supporting and contributes to the research as a Scientific Project Manager. Together, they are leading the project with several undergraduate and graduate students, with the long-term goal of developing and testing combined cover crop, rootstock, and irrigation strategies that support vineyard soil health. The research is being conducted at vineyards located in two major wine growing regions of Canada.

    Bi-weekly research activity updates will be provided in on-going blog posts. These will be written by Vasseur and the research team, including Heather VanVolkenburg, Kasia Zgurzynski, Habib Ben Kalifa, and Diana Tosato. The team will also write informative pieces delving into agricultural concepts and important global issues as they relate to agricultural sustainability and climate change.

    Stay tuned for regular updates!

    Categories: Organic Science Cluster 3 Blog, Updates of the Chair