Organic crop production initially made good business sense, but Mark and Sally Bernard, have now also come to appreciate the philosophy of working more closely with nature as they continue to expand their Prince Edward Island farming operation.
Both grew up on conventional farms — Mark’s family was involved in dairy and then potato production, while Sally grew up on a mixed farm. But over the past 10 years they’ve geared their 550 acres of crop and limited livestock operation towards a fully certified organic farm.
“When I went back to college, I studied business opportunities in agriculture, and organic crop production was one that caught my attention,” says Mark, who along with Sally, today operates Barnyard Organics Ltd. at Freetown, P.E.I. “I started with 50 acres as part of a class business plan project, but soon began to appreciate the philosophy behind organic crop and livestock production.”
The Bernard’s successful farm and sound business management approach earned them the honor of being named Atlantic Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmer regional nominees for 2012.
Mark had been involved with his father in a conventional potato farming operation. In 2000, Mark went back to school at Nova Scotia Agricultural College, where he came across the business potential of organic crop production. He also met Sally, who shared a similar interest. Together they set out to develop Barnyard Organics.
The focus of their farming operation today is 550 acres of organic soybeans, wheat, barley, oats, fields peas and some buckwheat, all primarily produced for livestock feed. Sally takes the lead on producing organic livestock that includes 450 head of pasture-raised poultry, organic eggs from 70 laying hens, and about 20 head of sheep for lamb production, all marketed in direct sales off the farm.
The Bernards began the organic certification process in 2003 and had the whole farm fully certified by 2010.
In 2012 they will be marketing some of their organic feed production to a newly established organic feed mill on P.E.I. Some of their crop will also be shipped to Ontario.
Mark says learning organic crop production techniques is an ongoing process. Different management is needed to improve weed control and to supply proper crop nutrients.
Following a proper crop rotation is important in the process. Mark follows a five-year rotation and uses clover as a green manure plow down. When it’s available he also applies organic livestock manure. He obtains seafood waste from a nearby mussel shell farm that can be mixed with manure, and he also uses conventional livestock manure on his land, provided it is composted properly first.
He’s also developed a system that combines narrower row crop spacing and cultivation to improve weed control in soybeans. While in some parts of Canada soybeans are grown on 30-inch seed rows, Mark seeds his on 18-inch centres.
“I had to modify the cultivator to work within these narrower rows,” he says. “But it seems to work well. Most years I can cultivate fields once or twice early in the season to control weeds, before the crop canopy closes. Once the canopy closes the soybeans look after weeds themselves.”
Mark says while organic crop yields can be somewhat lower than conventional crop production, the organics generally have higher market value. “As with any production system some years are better than others, but on average we are seeing one ton (about 37 bushels) per acre yield on soybeans,” he says. “And barley is coming in at three-quarter ton (about 34 to 35 bushels) per acre.” He usually seeds wheat immediately after two years of green manure clover, followed by soybeans and then barley in rotation.
“There is still very good potential for organic crop production, but we also always encourage farmers to consider organic livestock production, as the two go hand in hand,” says Mark. “Ideally it almost creates a closed loop production system — the organic livestock operations have a need for organic feed, and then in turn the manure from the organic livestock can go back to the organic cropping operation. We just need more growers to see how the two operations compliment each other.” †