Or­ganic farm­ers ask ‘now what?’ fol­low­ing big sup­port


THE UN­PRECE­DENTED $12-MIL­LION COM­MIT­MENT to or­ganic agri­cul­ture re­search and de­vel­op­ment ear­lier this sum­mer has pro­duc­ers ask­ing “now what”? The ques­tion has a dis­tinct con­sumer ring to it.

The sup­port, from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and in­dus­try, is ex­pected to help pro­duc­ers ramp up on-farm man­age­ment for the grow­ing do­mes­tic and ex­port in­ter­est in homegrown or­ganic food.

That’s now prompt­ing ques­tions from pro­duc­ers who want to know how they can get ready to take part in a more ro­bust, re­search-based sec­tor.

Or­ganic con­sul­tant Joel Aitken says that starts with un­der­stand­ing the cur­rent mar­ket, and growth ar­eas, both of which are vi­brant.

“Mil­len­ni­als are buy­ing a lot of or­ganic prod­ucts as are peo­ple across all in­come and ed­u­ca­tion brack­ets, so the de­mand looks to only be grow­ing at this point,” he says. “As our Cana­dian or­ganic sec­tor ma­tures there is plenty of do­mes­tic de­mand and not enough do­mes­tic sup­ply of just about ev­ery­thing.”

That’s borne out by prices. Pre­mi­ums for or­ganic com­modi­ties can be sub­stan­tial.

For ex­am­ple, in Septem­ber, pre­mi­ums for all but one of the two-dozen or­ganic grains grown on the Cana­dian prairies ex­ceeded at least 100 per cent of the con­ven­tional equiv­a­lent price.

For some crops, the dif­fer­ence was ex­cep­tional. At 98 cents/lb., black lentils were fetch­ing a 582 per cent pre­mium over their con­ven­tional coun­ter­part.

Gold flax, at $38/bushel, was com­mand­ing a 304 per cent pre­mium. The price for du­rum wheat was $19.25/ bushel, a 335 per cent pre­mium over con­ven­tional. And or­ganic soy­beans, de­pend­ing on whether they were feed grade or food grade, were sell­ing for a 200-300 per cent pre­mium on the prairies and in On­tario.

“The busi­ness case in terms of strong de­mand and prof­itabil­ity has been pretty con­sis­tent,” says Rob Wall­bridge, or­ganic spe­cial­ist at Thomp­sons Limited.

Eastern Canada is see­ing sig­nif­i­cant ex­pan­sion too, in im­port re­place­ment such as corn and soy, as well as in or­ganic pro­cess­ing vegeta­bles.

Wall­bridge says ad­vances in me­chan­i­cal weed con­trol and re­duced tillage tech­nolo­gies, along with the in­tro­duc­tion of new soil amend­ments and bi­o­log­i­cal in­puts, are giv­ing or­ganic grow­ers more ef­fec­tive man­age­ment op­tions than ever be­fore.

On a smaller scale, he points to grow­ers ex­per­i­ment­ing with niche crops like sun­flow­ers, flax, and camelina, along with malt­ing bar­ley and hops.

Or­ganic con­sul­tant Aitken like­wise sees in­creased mar­kets for or­ganic vegeta­bles for pro­cess­ing, as well as wine grapes, hogs and poul­try.

“With the in­crease in live­stock there is a huge need for feed grains, and not just corn and soy­beans,” he says. “I’m see­ing peo­ple screen their crops to sell the best por­tion for the hu­man mar­ket, and then still get very good prices for the screen­ings into the feed mar­ket.”

So what should pro­duc­ers con­sid­er­ing or­ganic pro­duc­tion ex­pect?

Ac­cord­ing to Wall­bridge, plan to be more “hands on” in al­most ev­ery as­pect of your op­er­a­tion.

For ex­am­ple, tim­ing in or­ganic pro­duc­tion is more im­por­tant for ev­ery­thing from plant­ing through weed con­trol and har­vest, he says, so mon­i­tor­ing field con­di­tions is crit­i­cal.

And un­for­tu­nately, good data and price dis­cov­ery mech­a­nisms are rare. That means mar­ket­ing is more work. Wall­bridge ad­vises work­ing out a plan that ad­dresses equip­ment re­quire­ments and fer­til­ity needs over a three- or four-year ro­ta­tion as a good first step in the tran­si­tion process.

Laura Northey, com­mu­ni­ca­tions and mem­ber­ship man­ager for the Or­ganic Coun­cil of On­tario, urges pro­duc­ers to read and un­der­stand the Cana­dian Or­ganic Stan­dard as it ap­plies to their op­er­a­tion, or hire a con­sul­tant to make sure they’re com­pli­ant.

Be­cause there are a lot of con­sumers out there hun­gry for or­ganic food, and the op­por­tu­ni­ties are huge.

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