Scott Beaton, a new Manitoba farmer will harvest his first certified organic crop this fall
By Lorraine Stevenson
Scott Beaton likes to joke that pretty much every organic farmer has more experience than he does, or at least, those who were born into farm families.
“I guess I’m about 120 years behind,” he said. “I’m a first-generation farmer, which maybe questions my intelligence.”
But he says so with a smile.
He’s doing what he wanted to do since he was in his teens. He didn’t grow up on a farm, but worked summer jobs for local farmers around his home town of Rosser.
“I always kind of enjoyed being around the farm and thought that was something I’d like to do,” he said. “But I didn’t necessarily think I’d have the opportunity myself.”
Beaton set out in that direction, however, first earning a agriculture degree at University of Manitoba, then landing a job as an agronomist. He eventually moved back to live in Rosser and in 2007 he had an opportunity to buy 80 acres of land.
I didn’t grow up on a farm but I always kind of enjoyed being around the farm and thought that was something I’d like to do. – Scott Beaton
“I’d bought that little bit of land knowing it would never pay the bills, but I was interested in trying things a little differently,” Beaton said.
In 2016 this new farming entrant will harvest his first certified organic crop, a 92-acre field of hemp. That’s on the Rosser parcel, where he’s also devoted eight acres to producing organically grown squash for Canadian Prairie Garden Pure, a Portage la Prairie-based processing company. This year he has also rented 20 acres of land near Rosser.
Nearby, on more land at Balmoral he has 120 acres of fall rye underseeded to red clover, plus 80 acres of green manure plowdown with a mix of clover, faba beans and oats. The land at Rosser is through transition, and certified organic, while the Balmoral acres are still in years one and two.
Now working as a conservation specialist with Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation (MHHC), Beaton says he knows he’s pretty fortunate to be farming this much land as a relative newcomer on the farm scene.
“I think people think I have some kind of horseshoe hidden somewhere,” he says.
But the real credit goes to neighbouring farmers who’ve been encouraging and supportive since he started at Rosser, he says.
“My neighbours have been there to help me out with labour and equipment and advice every time I needed them,” says Beaton.
“Had I started without their support, I definitely would have quit by now.”
Other farmers he met after taking a job with the Farm Stewardship Association of Manitoba to help co-ordinate the environmental farm plan also helped shape his own ideas about how to farm.
Rent to own
Ultimately, Beaton was able to sign a rent to-to-own agreement with a local landowner too. He met her while working for Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation. She wanted to sign a conservation easement on about 100 acres of a half-section of her land and in discussions with Beaton saw someone she felt confident could manage her land.
Ultimately, they agreed to a long-term lease arrangement and she willed the land to him.
“She is an older landowner who didn’t have anyone to leave the land to and I think she liked the kind of ideas I had in how I managed my own land,” he said.
The arrangement is mutually beneficial. The landowner is satisfied her land will be farmed by someone who shares her desire to see trees left standing and the potholes untouched, while it has given him access to land he could never otherwise afford to buy.
“It’s a very good arrangement,” he said. “It definitely makes it possible for me to make a go of things. It makes the difference between being able to see a future in farming and being a hobbyist indefinitely.”
But transitioning to organic can be difficult for any producer, and he is no exception. It’s a steep learning curve and cash flow is tight, says Beaton who thinks there are ways transition could be eased.
One is to have a market for these ‘near to organic’ grains, or transitional crops. That would provide incentive to more growers who otherwise have to see their way through a period when cash flow can be tight, he said.
“I think that would help people make the decision to go into this.”
An additional support would be an equipment loan program offered to transitioning farmers.
“There’s an opportunity for extension groups to provide equipment that could be passed around on some sort of a rental,” he said. “You’d have access to some of the more specialized equipment that we need to use, even if just for a year or two, but not paying for it until the time you’re seeing some money coming back from your organic sales.”
It’s an idea Conservation Districts might want to consider, he continued.
“They used to own equipment like tree planters, ” he said. “For them to own a roller crimper or two wouldn’t be a huge capital expense.”
“I’d like to see those kinds of organizations own those kinds of things and be able to loan them out at a reasonable price.”