Ontario organic survey looks at barriers to expansion

Photo: stockXchange.com

By John Greig
OrganicBiz staff

A large survey of Ontario organic and conventional farmers, processors and retailers shows that risk and concern about weeds and disease is the largest barrier to greater adoption by conventional farmers.

The results of the survey were presented at the Organic Council of Ontario’s annual meeting in Guelph.

The OCO created five surveys for different parts of the agriculture sector and had 583 responses including from 389 non-organic producers and 97 organic producers, along with processors and retailers.

Carolyn Young, who managed the survey for the Organic Council of Ontario (OCO), also conducted interviews and met with conventional farming organizations to gather information and encourage their members to take the survey.

The survey identified barriers to adoption among conventional farmers, and concerns of organic farmers, processors and retailers.

It also revealed a growing gap between what farmers can produce and the demand growth from processors and retailers.

About two per cent of Ontario agriculture production is organic, compared to 3.5 per cent in Quebec and four per cent in the U.S.

“Both of those jurisdictions offer substantial support for organic agriculture,” said Young.

If retail growth trends continue, retail sales of organic could grow to about 10 per cent of the retail market by 2028, but with stagnating growth in agriculture production at the farm level, the only way to meet that demand will be through imports, a lost opportunity for organic agriculture.

The breakdown of organic producers in the survey also shows one the major challenges in the sector with 55 of the 97 respondents actually certified, with most of the rest of them self-identifying as organic or having dropped their certification.

The survey showed more than half of the conventional farmers who responded indicated they had considered transitioning to organic.

One of the most striking differences between farmers and processors and retailers is their level of optimism about demand. The largest number of processors saw more than 20 per cent year-over-year growth, whereas the largest number of producers anticipated five to 10 per cent growth in the market.

In questions on expanding their organic businesses, many farmers looked to produce more, but processors and retailers were planning even more expansion of their organic production.

Losing tools to manage risks such as weeds and disease was the biggest barrier for conventional farmers in adopting organic practices. Concern about fraud and the integrity of the system was the second. Third was getting through the three-year transition period. For organic producers, barriers to growth include labour, access to capital and infrastructure.

On the processor side, inability to source organic ingredients was the biggest concern from non-organic processors, while concerns about imports was largest for organic processors.

Transition supports is another area lacking. It was clear from the survey that organic and non-organic producers knew little about what supports are available — partially because there are few.

Young says the best example is in Quebec where they have a program that pays up to $20,000 to farmers during their transition phase and reimburses interest on capital loans over $200,000 for a maximum of three years. New Brunswick pays for some of the costs of organic certification. Quebec also offers up to 80 per cent reimbursement for the cost of consultants.

Organic farmers in Quebec also pay a check-off that funds organic organizations and research.

Such a check-off doesn’t exist in Ontario and that factor has been a topic of debate for a while in the Ontario organic sector. Creating a mandatory check-off can take years in Ontario, as it has to go through a Farm Products Marketing Commission process. Creating a check-off in a sector that would cover all organics equitably — ranging from milk to vegetables and fruit to grains and oilseeds — would be challenging. A lot of organic production is sold directly to consumers, which is difficult to track.

In the United States, however, there is currently work being done to create a national check-off for organics called GRO Organic.

Some companies in Ontario, including Homestead Organics and Pfenning’s Organics have implemented a voluntary feed paid by farmers, by themselves and then by their customers. Tom Manley, owner of Homestead Organics says he hasn’t had any pushback from farmers over the 50 cents per tonne fee that he deducts and sends to organic organizations.

Young continues to work on the survey results and will be presenting recommendations from the results to the Organic Council of Ontario board of directors.