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Transitioning to organic farming

It’s not for everyone, but if you’re wondering if going organic might be for you, here are nine tips to get you started down the path

While the number of Canadian farms dwindled by 17 per cent between 2001 and 2011, the Census of Agriculture shows a whopping 66.5 per cent increase in the number of organic farms during the same period. In 2012 farmers planted about 720,000 acres of organic field crops across Canada, 78 per cent of that was on the Prairies. Canada wide, wheat represents more than a quarter of organic production (203,000 acres), followed by oats (127,000 acres) and barley (82,000 acres).

Some opportunities exist domestically, but most organic grain producers grow for the global market. Canada exports approximately $458 million worth of organic products each year. A 2013 study by the Canadian Organic Trade Association reveals that the value of the Canadian organic food market overall has increased 300 per cent since 2006, which “far outpace[es] the growth rate of other agri-food sectors.” Still, certified organic operations represent just 1.8 per cent of all farms in Canada and they are currently unable to keep up with the burgeoning demand.

In November 2014, the Organic Value Chain Roundtable (OVRCT) published “Organic Advantage: Field Crop Production” as part of a broader, multi-commodity campaign to attract new growers. The report outlines the business case for growing organic grain. Several organizations, including Canadian Organic Growers, Organic Federation of Canada, and Organic Alberta’s have published the report on their websites.

If the you’re considering making a switch, here are nine tips for moving your grain farm toward a certified organic operation.

1. Conquer your fears

Many fears prevent farmers from considering going organic including weed issues, transition time, record-keeping and the perception of fellow farmers. Telford believes the psychological reasons cannot be underestimated because moving to organic production requires “a major change in thinking.”

Herbicides are not available to manage weeds; synthetic fertilizers may not be added to increase soil fertility. The shift can be harder for older farmers so it’s no surprise when Telford says, “going organic is often a decision that is made when a new generation takes over the family farm.” Pre-transition fears, though, are quite different from what organic farmers say they actually experience.

2. Make connections

“Talk to other farmers” is the advice organic growers give again and again; that’s what helped them most. Straza also encourages farmers to contact their provincial organic growers organization whose expertise, resources and contacts can help new producers map their way. And don’t forget to get in touch with the provincial organic agriculture experts.

3. Do the math

You can use Manitoba Agriculture’s tool for calculating the organic cost of production for field crops. Saskatchewan Agriculture also publishes an organic crop planning guide. Current versions of both tools are available on their websites. Certifying agencies make economic tools available to their clients as well, including cost-return summaries for each soil type.

Laura Telford is Manitoba’s provincial organic business development specialist. According to Telford’s calculations, on average Manitoba farmers net $158.54 per acre for organic crops versus $83.80 for conventional crops — an 89 per cent increase in profits. According to numbers published by OVCRT, “for every $100 earned per acre an organic farmer keeps $58 while a conventional farmer keeps $31.”

Economics are often the primary motivation for farmers to convert. After years of managing a PMU operation with his father, Alan McKenzie started growing organic grain at his farm south of Nesbitt, Man., in 2002. He wanted to carve out a living on a smaller-scale acreage by certifying organic and earning higher returns, especially since conventional grain prices were low at that time. Even with lower yields and fewer crop acres due to rotations, the math worked for him. For instance, McKenzie says, a 25-bushel per acre spring wheat crop, running every third year at $25 per bushel still makes money in the long term.

After more than 20 years farming conventionally, Gordon Pusch transitioned his southeast Saskatchewan grain farm to organic farming for health reasons. But, he says, “Come October, we did not miss the $150,000 bills we used to have.”

The financial side is what attracted Cody Straza to transition his farm at Wood Mountain, Sask., to organic production, but “after going organic for the financial reasons, you kind of realize the other benefits.”

4. Choose a certifying agency

All organic farms must undergo a process of certification through a third-party agency accredited by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. A complete list of companies operating in Canada can be found on the CFIA’s website. Certifying agencies provide guidance during transition and beyond, including manuals, connections to mentors and connection to buyers. Many organic producers choose an agency recommended to them by other farmers. Information about certifying agencies is also available through provincial associations.

When McKenzie certified his farm, he only knew of one agency. By now, inspectors are available across the prairies though, Frick says, finding an inspector may be harder in Alberta than in Saskatchewan or Manitoba. Certifying agencies are competing for business so they are highly motivated to retain clients. The services they offer can vary, so Frick advises farmers to go with an agency that suits their style. Farmers may create a cluster with nearby growers; if they use the same agency, they save money by splitting the mileage costs when the inspector visits. Certification itself costs about $1,000 per year depending on the number of acres and the complexity of your operation.

Farmers do change agencies if they find they are not getting the service they require.

5. Tackle agronomic challenges

Growers must develop new strategies. Rotation, tillage, soil amendments and crop selection all take on new dimensions in organic farming.

Farming organically “does take a lot more management,” says Cody Straza. McKenzie believes that by shifting to organic, he had to “get biology working better. Lots of cover crops and plough downs. Grazing, getting cattle back into it.” When the Pusch brothers, became organic, they also moved from growing only grain to raising livestock because “it works so well for the manure, hay and pasture land.” But Pusch recognizes “a lot of farmers don’t want increased labour and time and that’s understandable.”

Telford says “It’s a major change in mindset to have to learn how to manage green manures and most producers don’t like the idea of plough-downs. Having land that does not produce a crop for sale is just not something farmers like to do.” Organic agriculture requires a focus on soil health.

6. Consider fertility

The key limiting factor in prairie organic agriculture is soil fertility, primarily the long-term depletion of phosphorus. When McKenzie first started farming organically, he planted into hayland that had had no inputs on it for years; “Five years of hay sucked everything out.”

His crops suffered. “There was no seed set and no bushels in the bin.” He even struggled to grow good plough-down crops to build it up. Under organic regulations, he could apply rock phosphorus but the release is very slow. If he could do it over again, he would load up on phosphorus before transitioning and employ shorter hay rotations.

For many soils on the Prairies, Frick says, “it’s a long road back to health.” The solutions aren’t fast and producers must be prepared to re-orient their thinking towards the soil.

7. Select crops carefully

Different crops present different challenges for organic growers. Frick identifies some problems: canola is at risk for contamination; lentils get weedy easily; chickpeas have a high potential for disease; flax has a long season. Organic producers can do very well financially, though, if they can overcome the obstacles with any of these crops.

Frick suggests starting with alfalfa because “you can go there fast.” Oats is also a good choice because there are lots of oat buyers and lots of vigorous, competitive varieties are available. Surveys carried out by OAC show that organic producers tend to choose crops that offer “good competition in the early growth stages, taller varieties with lots of straw, disease resistance and seed that can be saved on farm.”

Since organic seed is not widely available yet, growers often purchase conventional untreated seed or save their own to start.

8. Be prepared for tricky marketing

Marketing an organic crop isn’t as easy as hauling your conventional grain to the local elevator. For Straza, marketing was his steepest learning curve. “I felt I could use my prior farming experience to handle the soil health and weed management. But the marketing was new.” Now he had to track down the buyers and send them samples. Since the Canadian Wheat Board changes, Pusch points out, conventional farmers have had to hone their marketing skills too, so it might not be “as great a difference any more.”

Certifying agencies provide their clients with lists of buyers. Companies such as Grain Millers, Growers International, and F.W. Cobbs advertise with the provincial associations. Most farmers overcome the challenges of marketing by talking to other producers. Straza says, “You learn about the buyers who have a good reputation and those who don’t.” He has heard of growers who didn’t get paid. Organic buyers are not all licensed by Canadian Grains Commission, so farmers don’t always have delivery insurance.

Finding organic prices is not as easy finding conventional prices. Telford prepares a monthly list of organic grain prices that is circulated through the provincial organic networks. An archive of these price lists can be found on Organic Alberta’s website. Examples from September 2014 include $6/bu. for milling oats, $11.38/bu. for feed wheat HRW, $17.69/bu. for feed peas, just to name three. Telford uses the highest organic and conventional prices to calculate the organic premium for the month. Organic premiums for September 2014 included durum wheat 300 per cent; feed peas 309 per cent; feed barley 296 per cent; feed oats 233 per cent; and feed wheat 291 per cent.

Trucking isn’t usually a problem; most organic grain is picked up in the yard. As long as the truck has been cleaned, the grain is good to go. Some organic grain goes out on rail cars at designated sidings but rail transport is more of a challenge because the cars have to be cleaned before they are loaded.

The Pusch brothers have held flax up to four years. In the end, they sold it for $36/bu. instead of $21/bu., so they could afford to hold it. That’s an abnormally long time, according to Graham Pusch, but, he says, holding organic grains for two to three years is not unusual.

Because it’s a smaller market, Frick says, market volatility is more of problem. Prices really went down in 2008-09. Lately though, organic prices have been better so you can move them. Frick says, “When things are good, the buyers are very motivated.”

9. Start small

Brenda Frick advises farmers to “be cautious but not afraid.” Telford says “Start off small; don’t do the whole farm.” McKenzie urges farmers to start with good plough down crops to make sure the fertility Is there. Pusch encourages organic grain farmers to grow alfalfa and to bring livestock into the picture.

After years of working with organic grain farmers across the Prairies, Brenda Frick offers up this assessment: “They all have their own skill sets and worries. But they’ve never had so much fun as they’ve had since they started doing it. They get to be proactive and forward thinking.” Organic farming can be profitable. It also can be family-friendly and intellectually stimulating.

Organic farming comes with its share of challenges. Advice in a survey by the Organic Agriculture Centre offers a hearty dose of realism in its advice: “Don’t expect big yields and don’t feel bad about your weeds.” Despite the difficulties, Cody Straza is encouraging: “Once you get some practice, farming organically just comes second nature.”


Pre-organic-transition fears

Conventional farmers considering making the switch to organic often have a similar set of pre-transition common fears. Meet three Prairie farmers who have gone through this process and are happy on the other side.

Pre-transition Fear 1: Uncontrollable Weeds
“Weeds are the main thing that keep people from transitioning,” says Brenda Frick editor of Organic Farming on the Prairies, a production manual published by the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate in 2013, “but they are not necessarily the main problem of organic farmers.”

Alan McKenzie runs a mixed cattle and grain operation on 3,500 acres of land south of Nesbitt, Man. He keeps 2,000 acres in grain including winter wheat, spring wheat, peas, oats, yellow mustard, flax and hairy vetch. He knows farmers who “would go down before switching to organic. The thought of two weeds for these guys — they would never convert.”

Because herbicide use is not permitted on organic farms, managing weeds can be intimidating for new organic growers. According to the Canadian Organic Agriculture Centre at Dalhousie University, wild oats, wild mustard, thistles and quack grass cause the most difficulties. McKenzie admits, “I’ve had wrecks some years — thistle fluff blowing all over the place.”

Cody Straza farms 2,200 acres of cereals, pulses, and oilseeds near Wood Mountain, Sask. He doesn’t stress out about weeds because he knows “they can be managed.” He uses “many little hammers” to control them, including narrow row spacing, staggered planting dates, long crop rotations, and tillage. Seeding rates tend to be higher depending on weed pressures too.

Graham Pusch and his brother farm 4,000 organic acres near Windthorst in southeastern Saskatchewan. In addition to growing wheat, oats, flax, peas, rye and barley, they keep about 700 acres in alfalfa and 500 acres in pasture. To control weeds, Pusch puts cereal crops onto land that has been in alfalfa. Not only is weed control effective, but “alfalfa is a profitable crop on its own.” Frick notes that weed control is easier in areas with less moisture; unfortunately, incorporating alfalfas and green manures into the rotation is easier in areas where there is more moisture. Organic farmers must watch and manage weeds differently, but most don’t feel daunted by it.

Pre-transition Fear 2: Endless paperwork
Record keeping is crucial to organic certification. Farms can lose their organic status by not documenting their activities. But according to Graham Pusch, “record keeping isn’t as onerous as it is made out to be. Good conventional farmers do it anyway.” Frick agrees: “If you have ever grown certified seed, it’s nowhere near that hard.” Farmers must number bins and track what is in them. They keep accurate field histories and maps as well as an up-to-date audit trail.

For Straza having a system is key to managing the paperwork and he’s using information technology to help him. He’s downloaded Dropbox onto his smart phone which allows him to access his farm records. As he finishes a task, like harrowing a particular field, he updates his records via his phone before he’s even off the tractor. That way “there’s no big panic the day before the inspector is supposed to come.”

Pre-transition Fear 3: Unstable transition period
Grain operations must undergo a three-year transition period during which the fields cannot be farmed using conventional agronomic practices but the crops may not yet be sold as certified organic. During this time, farms may be financially vulnerable because organic premiums are not yet coming in to compensate for the lower yields. During transition, farmers usually concentrate on soil fertility and weed control, and launch their new record keeping systems.

Instability makes any farmer nervous, but Graham Pusch says, “Transition wasn’t a major issue for us.” The Pusch brothers transitioned over several years, from 2004 to 2012. Every field was in alfalfa or pasture for a couple of years so they still earned an income. Because they used conventional and organic farming systems side by side, they had to be extra careful — for instance, they could not grow the same crop under both systems in the same year. Perhaps because of this staggered approach, Pusch didn’t find the variation in income any greater than the usual year-to-year variations in farming revenues.

With support from mentors and organic organizations, farmers can effectively navigate transition both financially and agronomically. The main thing, says Straza, is that each farm builds its own roadmap.

Pre-transition Fear 4: Lower yields
Yields on organic farms generally do drop but Straza says it all balances out: “The yield is less than our conventional neighbours, but it’s not exponentially less and the premium makes up for that. Plus the offset inputs are a bonus.”

The Pusch brothers’ yields are within 25 per cent of conventional yields; at times their oats and wheat have done as well as conventional crops. One of Alan McKenzie’s biggest successes was growing a 50-bushel per acre wheat crop. The yields are smaller, but, as these farmers indicate, not to the economic detriment of the farm. As producers becomes more experienced growing organically, the yields tend to rise.


Resources for organic farmers

There are many places to find more information about transitioning to organic farming.

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About the author

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Patty Milligan is a freelance writer based at Bon Accord, Alta.

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