There’s new growth in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley; a passionate group of community leaders are hoping to transition the entire valley to organic practices by 2020.

We wine lovers automatically think of grapes and vineyards, but Organic Okanagan’s vision is much broader, and includes orchards as well as gardens and parks, highways, school playgrounds, and recreational areas.

And it’s a persuasive argument. Summerhill Pyramid Winery founder and proprietor, Stephen Cipes, is very convincing when he speaks about this grassroots movement: “We have a rare combination of being the most northern region in the world that can grow fruit and vegetables. Normally when you’re up to the 50th parallel it’s too cold, but we have protection from the mountains around the lake. The lake itself gives off warm air but we also have the slowest lake retention time (total turnover time) of any lake in Canada. It’s 52.8 years for it to clean itself, and we rely on this water source for drinking.”

It’s worrying indeed to think that more than 40 percent of the water for the entire valley comes from the lake, yet it’s easily ruined by toxic farming chemicals draining into it at an unprecedented rate.

Cipes says that the Okanagan Valley doesn’t have the pests that hot weather areas have, making it easy to achieve organic transition, and that there are excellent economical alternatives. “We can now demonstrate that you can have an organic vineyard at no more cost than a chemical vineyard,” he explains, “and the bonus is that the wines produced are hugely flavourful because you’re tasting the actual earth.”

Summerhill just being awarded 100 points and a double gold medal for its 2013 Small Lot Semillon Icewine, as well as the top chardonnay in the world at the Chardonnay du Monde Competition in France, is grist to the mill, but the jaw dropper is when he reveals that the biggest single polluter are the wineries.

There are over 350 wineries in the Okanagan, and less than two percent – less than seven wineries – are completely organic.

“So we’re doing a whole lot of things to make the whole Okanagan organic by 2020,” Cipes says. “It’s our vision now to get the university, the college and the schools to serve organic food for lunches. We’re working on the schools and, amazingly, while the children are still playing in the playground, they’ll spray with chemicals – this has got to stop.”

Ezra Cipes, Summerhill’s CEO, picks up the argument: “The wineries are leaders – it’s not difficult to be organic here, but it does require a change in your relationship to the land. If you just stop using synthetic inputs into your vineyard that’s a positive thing, but you have to change the way you think. A vineyard should not look like a golf course; you need pesticides and fungicides for that, so it really is a mind-shift.”

He continues that it’s a global trend led by some of the most expensive wines in the world – Romanée-Conti is a biodynamic wine – and the question now is no longer “are you organic,” the question is “why aren’t you organic?”

It’s happening. Okanagan Crush Pad and Rollingdale Winery are both organic. Covert Farms has organic vineyards, and there are a few organic vineyards that don’t have wineries attached to them, but now Mission Hill have confirmed that all their vineyards will be certified organic within five years. Wineries are shifting.

“After all, we’re talking about changing minds,” says Cipes. “And how long does it take to change your mind?”

But for small wineries and farms, organic certification can be a burden as there is a large paperwork component and a transparent audit trail, even to the point where you need the name, signature, and contact information of the truck driver who delivered to your farm. And not everyone can afford the fees; so it’s not a one-size-fits-all certification.

But there is an alternative. “It’s not an organic certification, it’s called Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) and it’s a really great, honourable certification,” explains Cipes. “The agricultural standards are identical to organic, so the way you actually manage your land is the same, but instead of having an audit and a paper trail you have a peer review, you have an organic farmer or another CNG farmer come and do an inspection, and write a report and keep you honest.”

“So not only do you get that validity from your neighbours, but you get a community and you get to share knowledge, and instead of having to pay fees, you just make a small donation to the non-profit organisation that administers it,” he continues. “There’s an alternative to organic and that’s really important, it fills a niche that organic doesn’t fill for small farmers.”

So, organic Okanagan by 2020 – a lofty ideal? Maybe, but as Cipes says, “Albert Einstein has a great quote, ‘The problems we have created for ourselves cannot be solved at the level of thinking that created them.’ This is a call to wake up.”


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