Because land in the Okanagan Valley is vastly overpriced, due to its demand by Alberta oilmen for planting an American idea of French vineyards (a pure example of colonialism, if I’ve ever seen it), food farmers in the Okanagan Valley need to look to previously unvalued land if they are going to coax the earth into providing food. Fortunately, there’s lots of it. All of it can support non-traditional crops that make no demands on the monopolized water resources of the colonial society, which makes good political, environmental and economic sense. Just to clarify: the colonial period spans the years from 1858 to 2013. The colonial homeland has changed from England to Alberta and the colonized people from the Syilx to food farmers, but nothing much else has changed. Look what I’ve found, outside of that society’s interests …
1. Underwater Clouds
Take a look at the above ground clouds here, and the large fir trees at the crest of the slope.
The trees at the hill’s crown are rooted in the water of the lee side of the hill behind it, where the sun is less successful at drawing it from the hill and the trees do so instead. They indicate the place where water enters the subsoil atmosphere, where it reforms as clouds and flows downhill in winds of gravity and stone, subjected by increased atmospheric pull the further they descend. I call it clouds instead of rivers, ponds and lakes, because if you were to dig down into it, your hands would come up with dust. To flow in a depressurized and repressurized landscape is to vanish. The defence against it is to flow through life.
We all know this effect from watching above-ground streams. Here’s what it looks like when the stream is an underground fog…
There is enough land in this one shallow depression to provide a family with food for a year. The trees go up against an underground stone wall at the left, with other plants spaced out according to their water and soil requirements in the differing cloud densities to their right.
Oh, I know that hydrologists don’t talk like this. What I’m trying to do is to create a different story out of their technical wisdom — one that makes space for people, rather than one that fits the procedures of government. I believe that if we tell ourselves better stories, opportunity (and science) will follow. For example, let’s look at the top of this underground water system and the life it supports…
This volcanic outcropping lying atop old seabed is the deep, fortified retreat of some yellow-bellied marmots currently being harassed by some very industrious badgers.
The underground cloud system starts here, and draws fertilizer down from the impressive quantities of dung left behind by the marmots. In conventional agriculture, you lay your manure on top of the soil, or dig it in, and water it from above. In subsoil agriculture, you put it in at source and let it pass downhill, drawn by gravity. Take another look at that outcropping: what it takes to irrigate the whole three acres of this water system is the amount of rain and snow that collects against the face of this rock, plus that which falls on the three acres itself. In other words, the rock provides enough extra moisture to enable the right plants, growing in the right patterns and locations, to thrive, where they would otherwise not. There are several important principles here:
1. If you don’t waste your water on the surface, you only need enough to tip the balance over a threshold; you’re not starting from zero, and what water you put in largely stays in the system. Evaporation is prevented in numerous ways, including the pull of gravity, which keeps the water dilute enough that it attaches to soil particles rather than to itself.
2. Fertilize at the top of a system.
3. Different crops thrive at the centre of the cloud than at its margins. The greatest water users are at the margins, where the underground system strikes stone.
4. The system can be self-fertilizing, if animals that feed upon it are kept at the top of the slope; they must not graze on it directly, as their footsteps will damage the soil profile and allow the water to escape.
2. The Hillsides
300 Metres Above the Lake (700 metres above sea level at this hill’s crest).
This is prime gardening ground for dozens of indigenous plants. The altitude change of 300 metres, plus the variety of harvestable plants over an extended spring harvest season mean that labour costs can be extended over time. A farmer here does not have to hire a big crew, because there is no rush. As a result, storage costs are minimal.
3. Riparian Areas
Some of the cuts in the land are larger than the small trough I showed you above. These riparian areas (with minimal or no flowing water) are home to slow underground streams, where subsurface clouds have condensed against narrowing walls of stone. They are rich farming environments for berries and fruits, and can support rich crops of other streambed plants as well, such as medicinal docks, mallows, high carbohydrate rushes and herbs, such as mint. As well, they are vital wildlife and bird corridors.
Life here goes up and down, like the water. The hillsides of the Okanagan are covered with underground water condensers like this. Plants can take advantage of that water because of the shading effects of the steep sides of the slopes. Often one slope is exposed to the sun at any one time. When that effect happens in above-ground atmospheres, the result is wind. Underground, I expect it works like a lung or a pump.
After its long journey into a highly-pressurized, water hungry atmosphere of the lowlands, the water hits the end of the road and is pulled from the soil by the accumulating pressure of the water descending on it from above and the atmosphere drawing it out of the soil. Here, after its long journey through a rich and complex chain of life down the hills, largely intact, it provides its greatest wealth. This is a large version of the system we saw in place above.
This is an incredibly productive plant, which far outproduces conventional grain crops. All of the nutrient wealth of the hillsides above is concentrated in this environment and these rushes. It is also easily killed by covering it with two metres of gravel and building houses upon it. It’s not the only thing that can thrive in the open water, before it flows into the lake.
That’s the trick. Use your water over and over and over again.
Red Winged Blackbird
With Grub. Mmmm.
5. Roadside Ditch
This small thicket produces a crop year after year, on water running off from the road into the ditch. Before the water evaporates, it is turned into plums. There are tens of thousands of kilometres of road ditches. It is all productive space. The water collection devices (roads) are already in place and operate like the volcanic outcropping that opened this discussion. Entire industries can be built around this crop. Cost to produce? Zero! And not just plums, but …
Grow them for their beans; grow them for their wood. Stands of juvenile trees, regularly mown off, would produce stakes for an agricultural industry, without the need of wood preservatives. Black locust fence posts last in dry soils for 100 years.
And not just the ditches, but …
6. Road Shoulders and Other Gravel
This chamomile has escaped from a garden and is thriving just inches from passing cars, year in and year out, demonstrating that roadside gravel environments are incredibly productive. Purslane likes these environments as well, as well as clovers.
7. Bare Rock
The lack of soil is not a difficulty if you can quickly acquire the water the rock collects and then not let it go. Great for the bees!
8. Dirt Piles
Who Said a Field Has to Be Flat?
1/3 inch of soil over 100 square feet, or three feet of soil over 10 square feet? The latter will produce more, and earlier, to beat the coming heat when the water dries up. Here it’s a collection of weeds, but it could be spinach or lambs’ quarters. The alternating warm and hot sides of the mounds could be cleverly used to maximize cropping, cooling, and water flow.
9. Fence Posts
Fence Posts Provide Productive, Sheltered Environments
And they’re everywhere. Whether it’s herbs, pot greens, or asparagus, there are few better locations. There are millions of posts in the region. Many could support crops. In fact, you could plant them into hedgerows and crop those.
Vast acreages in aggregate, all easily accessible.
With the removal of poisons from public space, dandelions could continually be harvested for most of the year from spaces in which they are currently poisoned. I bet there are other plants willing to give it a try, too.
So, that’s ten spaces. There are many more. Most of them rely in one way or another on the water that passes in clouds through the soil, drawn by winds of gravity rather than the sun’s heating. The water that flows over the surface is largely all spoken for. Fortunately, it’s the minority of the water present here. The water might be hidden, but the potential for social renewal is not.