Award-winning organic farmers dedicated to customers and planet
2021 Excellence in Agriculture Award - Sundog Organic Farm
By Lorena Franchuk for Sturgeon County
As spectacular sundogs appear in the sky on frosty winter days in Sturgeon County, James Vriend and Jenny Berkenbosch are reminded they are one northern farm family trying to do their part for the planet.
While it’s still months before their seedlings begin to poke through their fields, the atmospheric optical phenomenon, which happens primarily during winter months, symbolizes “good luck” as two halos often bookend the sun to indicate that snow or rain may be on the way.
It’s been a year of mixed emotions for the couple who have operated Sundog Organic Farm east of Gibbons since 2011. The family, including sons Silas, Eli and George, and a handful of employees grow produce such as carrots, broccolini, lettuce, celeriac, and radicchio for sale at area farmers’ markets and a Community Supported Agriculture membership program in which members receive weekly produce during the growing season.
Sundog Organic Farm was recently honoured with a 2021 Excellence in Agriculture Award by Sturgeon County’s Agricultural Service Board for innovation and environmental leadership.
Expanding the organic produce business hasn’t been an easy journey since the couple first started an “incubator” farm on organic land owned by James’s parents in Leduc County. Two years later they purchased nine acres of their own in Sturgeon County.
“The first time we saw this place, it was just a potato field,” recalled Jenny of the triangle-shaped piece of property near the Sturgeon River. “There was nothing else. All of the infrastructure that we currently work with we’ve had to put on ourselves.”
They are modest about their recognition, acknowledging that they are determined to eke out a living on an organic farm that works for the planet rather than against it, while providing nutritious produce for their community—those who purchase their food.
“I feel like this is what we can do as individuals and as a business, you know, this is our best,” said Jenny, when asked about their global impact as world leaders met in Scotland for a United Nations Climate Change Conference in the fall of 2021.
Their “best” has seen the owners researching techniques to rebuild the soil’s quality without relying on the salt-based fertilizers often used with conventional farming.
James and Jenny are determined to focus instead on rebuilding the natural biological activity in their soil so it is “teeming with fungus, microorganisms, worms, insects and much more,” as noted on Sundog Organic Farm’s website, “to become a nutrient-dense matter that supports plant life” in conjunction with sun and water.
One way they are improving the soil is through a no-till method introduced this year. Rather than working their land before spring seeding and after harvest, Sundog applies four inches of compost mulch on top of the soil, uses cover-cropping (growing plants for the purpose of maintaining moisture, reducing erosion, deterring pests and diseases, and improving soil health rather than for consumption), and adds biological inoculants in the form of worm castings and casting extracts.
It is their hope the no-till strategy will help Sundog’s crops withstand the extreme weather conditions that they have faced over the past few years and perhaps help them extend their growing season. Soft, spongy healthy soil is able to withstand extreme drought and flooding easier than hard, compacted dirt, said Jenny.
“We are very hopeful that because of the resilience that no-till farming seems to provide other farmers with that will also provide us with resistance to flooding and resistance to drought and just (yield) healthy vegetables,” she said. “That translates to income security, but also food security for the region.”
Another strategy they are excited about is regenerative agriculture which includes carbon sequestering, a process where carbon dioxide gas is left in the soil. Since the land isn’t disturbed through tilling and exposed to oxygen, various organisms are able to consume the carbon dioxide rather than it being released into the atmosphere.
“What happens is those tillage events are actually huge polluters—a big pollution event that happens every spring and every fall—and so when you don't need to work the land in that way, then you are keeping that carbon where it's meant to be,” said Jenny.
It’s much like what happens on the forest floor where various layers of vegetation decay to create an environment rich with micro-organisms.
Not all organic farmers use this method of regenerative agriculture, but there is quite a movement occurring now in Europe and the United States.
“Organic farming is good, but it isn’t the solution to climate change,” said Jenny.
“What we’re doing is small, quite small, but the idea of regenerative agriculture could be a huge benefit to our climate or climate change,” added James.
“If everybody was doing this, it would be great. I mean, we’re just trying, we’re starting that journey. We’re learning, you know, jumping in.”