A small not-for-profit group in the Slocan Valley is hoping to encourage big changes in the way local people care for the land, their farms and their properties.
The Elk Root Conservation Farm Society has just received a $5,000 grant from the Regional District of Central Kootenay to expand its demonstration garden of native plants for educational and research purposes.
It’s one of a number of initiatives the society has underway on the 13-acre property it leases at the junction of the Slocan and Little Slocan Rivers near Vallican.
“The whole property is planned and designed to create a model of how agriculture, local food security, ecological stewardship and conservation can go hand-in-hand,” says Kate Misurka, the founder and chair of the Conservation Farm Society.
Started in 2016, the society’s stated goal is to develop the farm as an educational space, and an innovation and research centre for native plant propagation. Working with biologists, soil specialists, engineers and landowners, they are designing programs, encouraging schools and interested individuals to take part in courses, developing a research partnership with Selkirk College, inviting volunteers to work in the gardens, and selling seeds and seedlings to support their efforts.
“We’ve been pretty quiet so far, but all of a sudden it’s like the world has found us,” says Misurka. “We love that. We’ve just been in the ‘build it and they will come’ phase.”
A tour of the main demonstration garden shows the early success they’ve had. Four years of soil research and remediation has resulted in incredible growth – with massive sunflowers, well established berry bushes, vegetables, and flowers. One focus of research is on heritage fruit trees. The farm has everything from persimmons to walnut trees, 18 varieties of cherries, as well as various strains of peaches, plums, apples and more.
It’s all done ‘beyond organic,’” says Misurka, with no chemicals or sprays, and even limiting the use of non-natural materials like plastics or landscape fabric. The emphasis is on plants that are both productive and hardy for the Kootenays – with its long hot summers, occasional drought, and often early frosts.
“We’re seeing what varieties will grow best, and provide that research and information to growers,” she says. “There’s some very rare stock in here – it’s very cool.”
One connected and spinoff success from the huge garden is the society’s work at enhancing bee habitat. Collecting only local bee colonies, Elk Root has constructed a state-of-the-art ‘bee barn’ that encourages the keystone insects and protects them from the harshness of the elements.
“We are teeming with bees,” she says. “We work with biologists and they’ve identified the Western bumblebee, an endangered species, in and amongst the garden here.
“We have a lot of bumblebees that don’t even go anywhere anymore, they’re so happy,” she adds. “The garden has created a whole ecosystem that goes beyond our expectations.”
With its main demonstration garden established, the society is slowly ramping up its activity and outreach. The next big expansion will use the $5,000 RDCK grant to expand the Native Plant Demonstration Garden.
Right now the demonstration garden is hardly impressive, compared to the main one. On the surface, it’s just scraggly looking shrubs, plants, and saplings. But the 150 varieties of plants it contains – native plants, adapted to local conditions -- are even more important, in many ways, than the spectacular flowering garden.
“People will be able to come here, learn how to utilize them in their own gardens. They can be just as beautiful as cultivars, if managed correctly, and also as a resource for re-wilding projects,” she says.
“Rather than just a nursery, it will be like this, on display, so people can actually see the best environments the plants work in,” she says. “But at the same time people and organizations can come in and volunteer, learn, and collect seeds, so we can support projects and support fundraising for ourselves.”
But it’s only the start for the society. Over the coming years, they plan more demonstration gardens, a market garden, restoring the riparian area where the rivers meet, and developing programs to encourage education and environment-friendly farm and landscape practices.
“We want this to be an educational hub where people can feel like they’re part of the community, whether they are two feet tall or going to their 100th year,” she says. “And they can learn there are ways to think outside the box that allow you to keep productive and create a unified vision of ecological stewardship in the valley.”
The society’s received support from government programs, private business, and not-for-profit organizations. Among its supporters have been the Bee BC program, the Kootenay Native Plant Society, Urban Bee Supplies, West Coast Seeds, Nelson Home Hardware, Pacific North West Garden supplies, among others. Misurka also credits RDCK Area H Director Walter Popoff for his support.
The society will be holding its first annual fall fundraising plant sale soon, with a few cultivars and heritage fruit trees grafted by Elk Root staff onto regionally suited rootstock. While it will be a small sale this year, Misurka says they hope it eventually will be a major way the farm supports its conservation projects.
Right now visits to the garden are limited, and an appointment is needed for a guided walk of the grounds. You can visit the Elk Root Farm Conservation Society website or Facebook page for more information.
John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice