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How Gillian Flies Is Using Regenerative Farming To Fight Climate Change

Looking to create a better life for their young children, Gillian Flies and her partner left their stressful, busy lives in the city and bought a farm. The New Farm is a certified organic family farm located on the crest of the Niagara Escarpment just west of the village of Creemore. They produce premium quality organic vegetables for restaurants, retail stores and wholesale customers. 

Flies is a strong proponent of Regenerative Agriculture, a movement towards redistributing carbon from the atmosphere to the soil. This can be done through farming practices (like staying clear of pesticides, planting diverse crops, and never leaving the soil empty) that help to keep the soil’s organic matter healthy and thriving. 

We chatted with her this week.

OB: Can you tell us a little bit about your career trajectory?
 
JF: I started in the Peace Corps as a teacher in Africa. Following that was an international political development advocate and human rights investigator, which led me to management consultant. And finally ended up where I am now – a farmer! We’ve always been organic farmers, but now we are organic regenerative farmers and climate change activists.
 
What is the most beautiful and gratifying part of your job? What is the most challenging?

The most gratifying part of my job is knowing that we are farming in a way that provides people access to nutrient-dense, healthy food while at the same time doing our part to restore the environment and doing everything we can to help educate farmers and consumers on how their food choices can have a positive impact on the environment, climate change and their health.
The most challenging part of my job is that farming is hard.  Each year now we are being thrown curve balls around the weather.  Late, cold wet springs, wild hail storms, heat waves and drought are now something that we have to learn to grow food around.
 
Seeing as regenerative farming is a newer term, can you explain how it differs from sustainable farming?

Sustainable farming means that you are able to farm in a way that dies not continue to degrade your soil and the environment.  However, maintaining the status qui is not sufficient when our soil and environment are broken.  Regenerative agriculture is about rebuilding the life and health of our soil, environment and communities.  Regenerative agriculture also has a huge capacity for sequestering carbon and mitigating climate change.
 
We loved visiting your farm, and seeing all the innovation taking place! Can you share with our readers some of the super cool things that you’re currently doing to reduce tilling and why?

There are five main principals to regenerative agriculture and we are implementing all of them.  We have realized that building and protecting the life in the soil is what it is all about.  It draws down and stored carbon in the soil, holds way more water, absorbs water quicker during heavy storms and produces way healthier food. So how do we do this?
 
1.  We always have something growing on our soil.  It acts like armor.  Unprotected topsoil just blows away and that is where many of the nutrients are.
 
2. We try to till the soil as little as possible.  Farmers are now realizing that the soil is Gerald together by a network of micorizal fungi and a type of glue called glomulan which provides structure, sequesters carbon and helps move nutrients to the plants.  When you till you break up this vital network and destroy soil life.
 
3. Having living plants growing at all times is hugely important to maintaining soil life.  So whenever we are not growing salad greens on a part of our garden we rest it for a year at a time and grow cover-crops.  These crops are not for us to harvest, sell or eat, but rather they are designed to feed the soil.  Did you know that it is way more effective to grow legumes that capture atmospheric nitrogen and store it in the soil than to apply synthetic chemical fertilizer?  We have 14 different plants in our cover crop mix, each of which helps to repair the soil in some way.
 
4.  All of the latest research shows that integrating ruminent (grass eating) animals back into the rotation is incredibly important and by far the fastest way to put carbon back into the ground and restore the life in the soil.  The trick is that the have to be grazed intensively – which means moved daily as Bison used to do in the wild.  So, we have introduced cattle back to the farm and we use them as mobile composters to eat our cover crops I stead of us tilling them into the soil.
 
5. We have 18 bee hives on the farm and have planted pollinator strips – we have also planted 12,000 trees.
 

6.  Regenerative agriculture doesn’t just mean rebuilding your soil it also means rebuilding your community.  We have many events and fundraisers that bring our community to our farm, together we have raised over a million dollars to put organic food into good food organizations (insert video link?) and we have a profit sharing model with our employees.

5. As you mentioned in your TED Talk, data suggests that there are less than 60 harvests left, which is terrifying AF. What changes can we start making right now to reverse this? 

 

If consumers demand regeneratively grown food farmers will grow it!  The biggest impact you can have is to buy food that is grown in a way that enhances the environment.  Right now in Canada the best way to do that is to buy organic, many of the regenerative practices are already required in our standards.  Shop at the farmers market.  Know your farmer and ask if they are sequestering carbon – they will know what you are talking about.  Pay more for your food.  This idea that food  is suppose to be cheap is ridiculous.  It externalizes all the true cost of production to the environment and our health.  If people continue to demand cheap food, farmers will continue to wreak havoc on the environment to provide it for you.

What if we wanted to do more? What if we had a little bit of extra time or dollars to contribute to the cause – how else could we get involved and impact change on a larger scale without starting our very own regenerative farms?

Become a member of the Canadian Organic Growers www.cog.  COG is a charitable organization that works to educate farmers on organic and regenerative practices, lobby government and transition conventional farms to organic and regenerative.  They are currently transitioning 25 farms per year in Easter Ontario and have farmers lining up to join the program.  As we raise funds we hope to offer this transition program across Canada.
 
What makes your spicy salad greens so delicious? We’ve been craving them ever since we got back from The New Farm. (PS. They’re available at Fiesta Farms!)
 
Humans are designed to taste the nutrition in food.  Our greens are absolutely packed with nutrients having been grown in healthy living soil.  We also keep the microbiome of our greens intact we never spray any chemicals in them, they are not irradiated and we triple wash them in filtered well water instead of chlorine.  They are delicious because your microbiome is craving them – and we have spent 14 years finding the most delicious varieties!  Food literally is medicine – we have forgotten how to listen to our bodies.

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