Organic experts offer tips to get into robust sector

A new era of opportunity dawned for organic producers in the late summer, when the federal government and industry announced an unprecedented $12-million commitment to organic agriculture research and development.

Considering going organic? New funding for research has the industry excited for the future. Plus, production tips from organic farm experts.

The support 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,” Aitken says. “As our Canadian organic sector matures there is plenty of domestic demand and not enough domestic supply of just about everything.”

Commodity prices are significantly higher

According to Pivot and Grow, a program of the Prairie Organic Grain Initiative, 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 per pound, black lentils were fetching a 582 per cent premium over their conventional counterpart.

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

Strong business case for organic crops

“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. 

Demand for organic livestock driving feed sector

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,” Aitken 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?

Organic production is more ‘hands on’

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. 

Organic compliance requires homework

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.

An unexpected non-compliance - the term used to indicate that an operation has departed from the organic standard - can be hard to recover from, she adds, but is usually completely avoidable.

She suggests producers check in regularly with organic grower organizations in their province or region, as well as the national Canadian Organic Growers. Most groups offer courses and webinars to help organic producers succeed.

And, she says, keep diversity in mind.

“Diversity is not only a principle of ecology that makes for healthier ecosystems; it's also a smart business move,” she says. “Diversifying the crops you cultivate can mean the difference between survival and overwhelming loss when you are faced with crop failure.”

Bottom line

Supply, demand and knowledge mobilization is working in favour of producers interested in delving into organic. 

Article by: Owen Roberts