Sustainable Farming Practices
Supporting Sustainable Agri-Tourism
The products of small-lot farming extend beyond agriculture production as a mere commodity, but include social benefits such as enhancing livelihoods, cultures, and ecological biodiversity. Rural communities, livelihoods and landscapes can be more sustainable when artisans and agri-food producers collaborate to create a space where old meets modern in engaging and educational ways. Agri-tourism can also strengthen linkages within a community of small-scale producers who come together to create a unique identity for the region.
Artisan producers can achieve more success in their business by building better connections in the region. By working together to create a better understanding of the contemporary importance of their traditional trade, artisans can strengthen the value chains that enhance artisan and agri-tourism opportunities. At the same time, they can build local capacity, protect biodiversity, create jobs and enrich livelihoods, cultures and ecological resources.
The Vancouver Island region is rich with social, cultural and agricultural networks. The region offers many opportunities to engage in "sustainable" tourism, which is a growing segment of the industry. For example, alternative food networks can provide an authentic or heritage experience for visitors, which can improve the economic and environmental sustainability of tourism and agriculture 13.
Sustainable farming practices in Merridale’s Orchard
Sustainable farming practices are evident at Merridale Ciderworks, where Rick prefers to hand weed the wide orchard rows rather than spray herbicides to control the weeds. There are no pesticides used on the property, and the only products allowed are those approved for organic orchards, although the orchard is not certified.
Acres of Orchards at Merridale
Rick is careful to test the soil before applying fertilizers to compensate for the nutrient draw-down during high harvests. In the rainy season, he applies a combination of pelleted orchard fertilizers and natural fertilizers, along with “prilled” (granulated) lime and mulch.
Other sustainable practices at Merridale Ciderworks include using no water on the orchard in July and August because they want to produce dry cider apples, and recycling all of their office and food waste through Cowichan Recyclists. This enterprising small business uses only sustainable transportation, such as bicycles with wagons or a small truck that runs on 100% bio diesel derived from waste vegetable oil collected here in the region 14.
Janet and Rick are partnering with The Land Conservancy to continue to develop habitat in the orchards that is attractive to the native bees. The bee populations on the Island, and around the world, are in decline and it is not clear exactly what is causing the collapse of their colonies. Along with the TLC, Merridale Ciderworks is putting more focus on plant life that attracts bees, and to providing “nests” for the bees in the form of ceramic pots and tea pots. These beautiful nests will add to the whimsy and the magic of the orchard walk through the property.
Many cider producers and growers are developing orchard practices to improve and enhance the environment. For example, they may leave wider margins around the orchard and encourage wild flowers and the beneficial bugs they attract as natural predators of the pests on the apple crop. This reduces the spraying of pesticides, which is typically lighter than is the case in orchards growing fruit for the supermarket shelf 15.
In the past, orchards were planted so they could graze animals under them or grow crops, and orchardists tried to stretch the period of apple picking as much as possible. With factory cider production, growers were pushed to maximise production, so mechanical harvesters and shakers were invented, along with sprays and new varieties of apples. Trees now needed to be closer together and the harvest times reduced to September to December, so that early varieties are typically required.
The orchards at Merridale were planted to suit a small-scale, artisanal cider production system. The 13 acre pomerium or orto 17 (apple garden or orchard) was planted with traditional cider apple stock from the renowned cider regions of England and Europe. The trees are all started on M26 and M9 semi-dwarf root stock, given clean water and plenty of room to spread out, and each can expect to produce happily for up to 50 years. This orchard produces more than 70 tons of fruit per year, while contract growers in Kermeos, Kelowna and Quamichan supply another 30 tons; however, the Okanagan season is 6-8 weeks shorter and these apples do not achieve the strength of flavour that the Island apples show.
Raising cider apples on the Island does create its own challenges, as the mild winters here are hospitable to the air-borne fungal spores of anthracnose, which eats at the young bark of the trees. Rather than use harsh chemicals, Rick carefully trims and prunes around the damage. Nontheless, Rick prunes his trees heavily every three years for improved health, functionality, and to avoid clumping. Typically, the trees in Merridale’s cider orchards are pruned more lightly than with orchards of eating apples, for which appearance is all important.