Conservation of the natural world is at the foundation of Elk Root Conservation Farm Society (ERC), located in Vallican where the Little Slocan River flows into the Slocan River. When Kate Mizenka and her partner moved to the confluence, they spent their first year observing the land and the abundant diversity of life before making any plans for the land. They noted the seasonal and daily movements of many species, including the herds of elk which were the inspiration for the name of the non-profit that Kate officially founded as a BC Society in 2020.

After a career as a lawyer and multinational business advisor, Kate decided to pursue her original passion for plants and conservation. Her undergraduate studies included applied scientific research, which supported her lifelong interest in beekeeping, permaculture, and developing innovations in organic agriculture, all while mentoring and teaching. “So, while it may seem like a disconnected background, all of these experiences culminated into what I am doing here and I would not be able to do what I do to support the vision and mission of ERC without them,” she affirms.

The land and waterways are rich in biodiversity, and Kate shares that “it really is a perfect place to show how food security and environment can go hand in hand, how you can actually improve and enhance the environment while growing organic food.” This is evident in the planning of the educational demonstration gardens which include pollinator and native plant gardens, food gardens, and fruit and nut orchards, and only fencing what is necessary, leaving ample space for the elk and other wildlife to move through the land. Of the 15 acre property, only 5 are fenced, mostly where there had already been considerable disturbance.

Kate is the Director of Farm, Orchard & Apiary at ERC. She admits that her vision of working to alleviate food insecurity while inspiring ecological stewardship is a lofty goal, but it’s this grand vision that has kept her going through the inevitable challenges and hard work of managing a non-profit organization.

In the seven years since ERC was conceived, there have already been significant restoration efforts, including transforming a giant field of invasive thistle into gorgeous pollinator gardens. During a visit to ERC, you will see an amazing diversity of flowers blooming, attracting pollinators throughout the seasons, and hear a buzz of activity in the gardens, as pollinators zoom around from flower to flower.

As a beekeeper, Kate is of the view that non-native honey bees are livestock, which can put significant pressure on wild forage plants, so she advocates for careful selection of plants to provide ample pollen and nectar for the protection of native bees and pollinators first, before honey bees are brought in.

“For the 4th year in a row, we have had 100% overwinter honey bee survival rates! We attribute this to the abundant nutritional buffet of forage that is part of the Sustainable Apiary Model that has been developed here. And we don’t use any chemicals of any kind – our apiary is certified organic, which is a rarity.”

Supporting and enhancing the natural environment always comes first, and then creating synergies which benefit agricultural practices. A great example of this is a collaborative project coming up this year, where ERC is supporting the Kootenay Community Bat Project to build and install a ‘bat condo’ at ERC, as a home for the population of migratory bats that arrives in the spring.

“Because they are out at night, bats won’t eat our native insect pollinators and our honey bees. The educational opportunities for all the children and adult students who come here to learn will be enhanced by the bat component, and our food gardens will greatly benefit from the organic bat guano! We have interns here who can support the collection of the guano for research. We are always thinking of the synergies of the natural environment with what we are doing.”

Kate is thrilled that what they are doing on the land is beginning to get further out into the community and beyond, which was always part of the vision for ERC. She was recently invited to VanDusen Botanical Gardens in Vancouver to offer her insight and perspective on native plant gardening and educational programming, and she also wrote an editorial for West Coast Seeds this year, on pollinator plant companions.

The Pollinator Highway Project, a new initiative that is partially funded through the Regional District of Central Kootenay Local Conservation Fund (RDCK LCF), will be starting up this spring. Because ERC has a healthy population of native pollinators now, the aim is to start creating more habitat for them and a connectivity corridor, by using local ecotype native plants that are propagated from the ERC gardens. Phase 1 will be on the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI)’s right-of-way from Indian Point Road to the Little Slocan Bridge on Passmore Lower Road.

“The idea is to create connectivity based on scientific analysis of species and populations of native plants and drought tolerance. Initially as the new populations of native plants are getting established, they will need to be irrigated, but the goal over time is to let the plants be wild,” Kate explains. “Based on our analysis of that first site, it will dictate how we move forward on the larger ecosystem scale.” 

This month, ERC is launching their Native Plant Garden Educational Field Guide, which has been four years in the making, and contains original detailed botanical drawings to scale. The format of the field guide is such that it can be used by everyone from children to novice gardeners to researchers and botanists. The guides contain Indigenous knowledge and cultural uses of the plants, as well as scientific information from the BC government. The field guides can also act as a catalog, as ERC has local ecotype seeds and plants available, by donation.

ERC is expanding their seed library out into communities this month, with Trail Library hosting and sponsoring their first satellite seed library. The library will initially contain seeds of twelve local ecotype native plants, including Goldenrod (Solidago lepida), Pink Fairies (Clarkia pulchella), and Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). Kate is hopeful that they will continue to have the sponsorship to stock seeds so the public can access them going forward, and will seek out further collaborations to expand the reach of ERC’s seed library. 

Kate credits her grandmother for instilling in her a love of plants and of the land, and to this day she sees no better way to learn than directly from our elders and from the land.

“My grandmother passed on her local knowledge, and a lifetime of understanding. Now I am so humbled and honoured to have the opportunity to collaborate and learn from Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Keepers, because you never stop learning.”

ERC is located on the unceded traditional territory of the Sinixt Peoples, and Kate emphasizes that “we recognize the cultural and geographical significance of this land to the Sinixt. It is a very sacred space, so we are welcoming Sinixt home here.”  

She enthuses, “When we first arrived at the confluence, we felt an instant connection. And building a relationship with the land, stewarding and holding this space is an honour and a privilege. It is quite incredible, and seeing the people that it has touched and impacted and will continue to, gives me hope for our future and keeps me moving forward.”

Photos: Elk at Elk Root Conservation Farm Society, by Jamie Duncanson, a past intern; Cover of ERC’s soon to be released Native Plant Garden Educational Field Guide; Photos of Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) and Pale Swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon) butterflies; native Bumble Bee on Silverleaf Phacelia (Phacelia hastata); Brown-eyed Susans (Gaillardia aristata); a mix of flowers in the Native Plant Educational Demonstration Gardens, including Silverleaf Phacelia (Phacelia hastata) and Brown-eyed Susans (Gaillardia aristata), all by Kate Mizenka.