NORTH OF THE 45TH PARALLEL: Biodynamic Agriculture in Canada
Diana Thiriar and Laurie Mcgregor, with Karen Davis-Brown
(reprinted from the Fall 2015 issue of the Biodynamic Association Journal)
FROM EAST TO WEST, FROM SOUTH TO NORTH—or vice-versa—Canada’s geography, history, and cultures are challenging to describe or comprehend in their richness and diversity. In a country comprising almost ten million square kilometers, Canadian agriculture, including its biodynamic agriculture, reflects these qualities. From the Pacific Northwest coast of British Columbia through the grain fields and grasslands of Alberta and Saskatchewan; from the severe cold of the Manitoba plains through the Great Lakes regions of Ontario and Quebec; and reaching the eastern provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and Labrador—the unique history and challenges of Demeter certification in each of the provinces provides a window into biodynamic practice and community across this vast and fascinating expanse of continent.
Canada’s government is a federation that is both a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy. Composed of a federal government and ten co-sovereign provinces, Elizabeth II is represented as queen of the country by the governor general and each province’s lieutenant governor. The vast stretches of the three Arctic and sub-Arctic territories (Yukon, North-West Territories, and Nunavut) are administered by the federal government.
The three biodynamic associations that developed in the late 1970s and ’80s reflect the provinces where the first farms were established: British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec. Concentrated around the waterways or rivers (the Fraser and St. Lawrence) and the Great Lakes and coastal areas, they (like the greater part of Canada’s population of 35.5 million) are also close to the southern provincial borders with the United States—almost 6,500 kilometers. At a total of 8,891 kilometers including Alaska, this shared border is the longest in the world.
The “Canadian Shield”—a large area (over five million kilometers) of exposed earth’s crust left by repeated glacial activity in the northern part of the country—has dramatically affected the patterns of human settlement and agriculture in Canada. With its shallow and relatively poor soils, and a more extreme climate that makes for a shorter growing season, most agriculture on the Canadian Shield is ranching and forestry. The Shield even has its own watershed that orients toward the Arctic Circle, rather than south, east, or west, as do waterways in the southern part of the country.
Canada has two official languages reflecting the origins of La Nouvelle France and British North America. There are francophone communities throughout Canada, but Quebec is preeminently the French-speaking province with its own civil laws. Sovereign sentiments have been high in recent history, and two hard-fought referendums (in 1980 and 1995) rejected Quebec’s call for independence, the last only narrowly.
Demeter International (DI), as a certifying body, is a confederation of member countries and guest members from around the world. It was formed in 1927 and the Demeter trademark adopted in 1928. Demeter Canada (DC) was formed in 2000 and joined DI as a full member, but became a guest member in 2008. Contact was renewed in 2013 with full membership likely before long.
Currently, there are twelve farms certified in British Columbia, thirteen in Ontario, three in Quebec, and four in Nova Scotia. Most are market farms with animal husbandry; Demeter-certified processing is primarily done with wine, juice, dried fruit, and vegetables. Each province has its own organic standards that provide a basis upon which DI standards are applied. Provincial associations in British Columbia and Quebec certify within their jurisdictions. Ontario’s Society voted to have DC take over within that province in 2002. There is a growing interest in biodynamics in the eastern maritime province of Nova Scotia, where operations are certified by DC. DC also certifies a few farms in British Columbia and Alberta.
British Columbia is the only province with accredited Demeter certification, where the Demeter logo also includes organic certification, but only for trade within the province. The provincial biodynamic association is part of the Certified Organic Association of B.C., which adopted the Canadian Organic Standards (COS) in 2009. Twelve enterprises were certified as of early 2015, but many more practice biodynamics without seeking certification.
Ferdinand Vondruska, a biodynamic practitioner in Quebec, trained in the 1970s at Emerson College with Herbert Koepf and taught in England before settling eventually in Vancouver and helping to found the Vancouver Waldorf School. He then established his farm and Bio-Dynamic Centre in Paradise Valley northwest of the city, a base from which he travels extensively, giving lectures and workshops, especially to Mexico.
The biodynamic movement in Quebec got its start with a visit from French biodynamics pioneer Xavier Florin in 1979, when he met with a group of forty-eight people in the Gaspésie. By 1982 there were eighty-two members in the Association de Biodynamie du Québec and a structure for Demeter certification was created. The first Demeter farms were certified in Quebec in 1989. Xavier Florin returned to Quebec in 1992.
Three biodynamic practitioners from Quebec trained at Emerson College: Denis La France in the ‘70s with Herbert Koepf, and Diane Gonthier and Claude Gélineau in the 1980s. Denis visited the great German biodynamic pioneer Maria Thun and became a close friend. Thun visited Quebec in 1989, addressing a full hall at the Victoriaville Agricultural College. She returned in 2002, with Denis providing a simultaneous German-French translation each time. Bernard Hack traveled often from the Hack family farm on the shores of Lake Huron in Ontario, clad in lederhosen, with his car laden with biodynamic preparations for the new Quebec farms.
At the turn of the century, there were close to twenty farms seeking Demeter certification in Quebec, with around fifteen certified and the rest in conversion. The Association de Biodynamie du Québec certified Demeter farms with the logo and/or the flower. With new laws reserving both the words “organic” and “biodynamic,” all organic and biodynamic certifying bodies were required to seek provincial accreditation. The Quebec Demeter certification group chose not to become accredited. In late 2012, the Quebec government changed its rules, no longer reserving the term “biodynamic.” At the Quebec Society Annual General Meeting (AGM) in November 2014, the Association de Biodynamie du Québec approved the decision to offer Demeter certification without requiring accredited organic certification first. The certificate must note that it is not for commercial purposes, but only to indicate an adherence to biodynamic principles.
Despite these struggles, the expertise from the pioneer days is still with the Quebec community. Denis La France is still teaching and leading study groups in China. Claude Gélineau inspects for Demeter certification and teaches at La Pocatière Agricultural College. Diane Gonthier—responsible for Quebec’s biodynamic preparations—wrote a guide to their making, storage, and use, and has passed her knowledge on to others.
DC is not accredited nationally, so farms and vineyards marketing their produce must also have recognized organic certification. Currently, DC has determined that dual organic/Demeter certification is cheaper for the farmer than seeking DC accreditation for the Canadian Organic Standard (COS). At the moment, Ontario laws permit farmers to use the word “organic” and/or the Demeter logo in community supported agriculture (CSA) operations and for sale at farmers’ markets. As in Quebec, Demeter certification represents an ethical stance, and those marketing produce are still required to certify with an accredited body.
Despite its large geographic area, most of Canada’s population and agriculture are in the extreme southern part of the country. This enables constant and fruitful exchange with the U.S. biodynamic community. Canadian delegates attend the biennial conference of the Biodynamic Association, and several give workshops and talks. Several Canadian farms in British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec have become mentor farms in the North American Biodynamic Apprenticeship Program. Canadians also actively participate in the Fellowship of Preparation Makers and hosted the annual conference of this group in Ontario in 2011. The Canadian biodynamic communities look forward to broadening and deepening these relationships in the future, as we work together to take biodynamic agriculture into the twenty-first century.