Organic farms thrive thanks to growing demand
News Staff “Right now is a very good time to be organic,” says Glengarry organic dairy producer Michael Krol who milks 85 cows on his farm outside Williamstown.
This at a time when the whole of Canada’s protected dairy industry is under fire from President Donald Trump’s trade threats supporting the U.S. dairy industry’s call to eliminate Canada’s supply management system.
Canada's supply management system is based on planned domestic production, providing balance in the dairy sector by enabling Canadian dairy farmers to collectively negotiate price and adjust their production to meet consumer demand.
Michael Krol and his wife Heidi are celebrating 20 years as certified organic milk producers, and are one of four organic dairy operations in Glengarry with Hagen Farms in North Lancaster, and Myriam and Cyril Schneider of Dameya Holsteins and Albert Bot in Glen Robertson.
“Twenty years ago, 1998, is when we officially went into transition,” says Mr. Krol as he finishes up morning milking in the barn’s elevated parlour.
“But, March 5, 2002 is the anniversary I keep in mind which is when our first shipment of organic milk was shipped out.”
Organic dairy makes up 11 per cent of all organic sales in Canada.
Numbers from 2011/12 report that there were 218 organic farms, a number that has certainly gone up with four dairy operations currently in transition in Ontario alone.
Studies show that consumers are willing to pay 15 to 20 per cent more more for organic products, which is equal to the premium paid by processors for rare organic milk.
After working on several dairy farms including the organic Krol farm, in 2005, Michael Hagen persuaded his father Josef of Glengarry County Farm in North Lancaster to make the switch.
Michael, now in his mid-30s and a partner in the operation, worked a high school summer co-op program in the Krols’ barn before attending Kemptville College for agriculture. When he returned he resumed working for the Krols.
“When I compared operations, I liked what I saw at Michael Krol’s,” says Mr. Hagen. “There, just everything worked well -the cows were healthy and there was no mixing of chemicals which I didn’t like.”
“It’s starting to grow,” says Mr. Hagen about the organic sector. He was was in France earlier this year where he noticed that almost every grocery store is organic.
“Here we have organic sections, but the entire stores were organic there,” he says.
“In the cities in Canada, many people are conscious about it,” says Mr. Hagen whose mother Christine gardens organically in the family’s vegetable garden.
“It’s a niche market, so even if quota goes, we already have something,” says Mr. Hagen.
Asked what he looks for in a cow, he says he likes smaller cows for handling and health. ”If they go down, they handle it, a big cow has a harder time even with a small injury.”
Going organic at first required changes transitioning to meet the requirements of Organic Crop Producers & Processors (OCPP) of Ontario certification.
Transitioning is the period of time it takes to switch a dairy operation from conventional dairy production to organic dairy production.
Steps included crop rotations and buffer strips with windbreaks to prevent blow-over from non-organic farming neighbours.
To control weeds, the fields are blind-weeded with a harrow to get the initial flushes of weeds and take advantage of the difference in size and sprouting depth between between crop and weed seeds.
Annual weeds are most sensitive to disturbance from the moment they germinate until emergence.
Getting in and breaking contact between the tiny roots and the soil are effective at killing most weed seedlings.
Last year’s wet season was a challenge for all local farmers.
Blind cultivation works best in loose soil in good condition and after the crop has emerged.
Josef Hagen, who understood what the challenge was, recalls worrying while the farm was first transitioning how the operation would deal with weeds.
“It’s not so much not using fer- tilizers at first, but the weeds. But now that we have the equipment and we understand how to go at it, we can kill a lot of seeds before we plant,” he says.
At the Krol farm, there is little conformity in the herd where several small bossy Jerseys are blended into the Holstein herd and cows differ marginally in height and weight.
“We breed for health, productivity and butter fat,” says Peter Krol, Michael’s 25-year-old son who graduated in agriculture from Kemptville.
“And definitely the components are higher with organic including the Omega 6s and 3s,” he says.
“In the winter we were averaging a 4-6% butterfat and now that they are out on pasture, we average 2.5 % which is still quite high.” Asked if they breed for temperament, Peter says he can’t say that they breed specifically for biddability. “We have pretty calm animals,” he says.
Asked about foot health, Peter says the farm has “almost zero per cent hoof problems."
“And we don’t have to hoof trim at all, except for the very rare one with an issue, because of the amount of walking they do in the pasture.”
There is one milking cow that the Krols point out, Manifold Andrée who averages over two kilograms of butterfat a day.
Helping with the milking in the Krol barn the day we visited was herdsman Tom Hagen, another of Josef and Christine’s sons.
Consumers are supportive
This year, the Hagen farm celebrates 10 years as certified organic. He mentions the new camera-directed row crop cultivator that weeds with absolute precision, even at high speeds.
The dairy industry in Canada is undergoing more investment than in over a decade thanks to in part the rising demand for butter which consumers increasingly view as a healthy part of their diet.
Despite the thorny NAFTA renegotiations, organic dairy producers (and processors) are part of an expansion in the Canadian dairy industry.
And according to a recent independent Abacus Data poll, the large majority of Canadians (92%) are happy with the range and quality of dairy products available in Canada, and two thirds are satisfied with prices.
CALM CATTLE: “This way girl,” Michael Krol repeats in a calm, low voice, sometimes placing his hand on a cow’s back to point her to which side of the milking stalls to enter. Michael and Heidi Krol, and family, milk 85 cows on their certified organic dairy farm outside Williamstown. “We have pretty calm cows,” says son Peter.
PROMISING FIELD: Michael and and his father Josef Hagen stop at the calf pen at their organic dairy farm in North Lancaster after the morning milking. Michael did a co-op program at the Krols' organic dairy operation outside Williamstown during high school and returned to work there after studying at Kemptville. He was impressed by cow health on the farm, suggested going organic to his father, and in 2008 following transition, the Hagen farm was certified organic. Right: Inside the ventilated 108-foot by 196-foot dairy barn at the Krol farm, cows wait to enter the milking parlour. In the background calves and dry cows have pasture access; milking cows are also released to pasture.