What’s holding back organic growth in Saskatchewan?

Farming Couple Walking in a Field Holding Bucket, Spade and Vegetables Photo: Thinkstock

By Karen Briere
OrganicBiz staff

Michael Gertler wants to know why there aren’t more organic producers in Saskatchewan.

The University of Saskatchewan sociologist, along with colleagues JoAnn Jaffe from the University of Regina and Mary Beckie at the University of Alberta, has questions about restructuring in the farm sector, particularly what could be inhibiting growth in the organic sector.

“As social scientists deeply interested in agriculture, we asked ourselves, ‘what’s been holding it back?’ ” he said.

It’s harder, because you have to convince everybody around you that you’re not nuts. – Michael Gertler

Although they are just beginning their work and are looking for funding to continue, Gertler said they have identified six factors that limit organic farming in Saskatchewan.

Agronomics and related economic issues

“We are historically ‘next year country’ for a reason,” he said, referring to the boom-or-bust nature of farming.

“Within organic, those ups and downs are amplified,” he said. “We’re dealing with an even more volatile set of markets and a more volatile set of production conditions.”

Yield and price uncertainty make economic decisions more difficult.

The “other” culture

“You have to make a living but you also have to make a life in rural Saskatchewan,” Gertler said at an organic spring workshop. “And it’s harder, because you have to convince everybody around you that you’re not nuts.”

He said organic farmers often feel as if they are the “other” or “on stage” because there is an expectation of high yields and tidy fields that they can’t necessarily uphold.

This situation is improving, however, as the environment dominates more discussions and organic is recognized as a market niche.

“Conventional producers are more aware that in nature there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and everything is connected to everything else, and so they too are worried about spraying and about the high cost of inputs.”

Institutional and organizational support

Research money for organic projects can be hard to come by. Corporate partners are increasingly necessary.

Gertler said some governments might be willing to pay for organic research because there are associated benefits, for example more wildlife.

“There’s a lot of talk about greening. There’s a lot of talk about sustainability, but a lot of that talk is negative.”

One example is the notion that organic systems can’t supply enough to feed people.

“There are international studies that say organic is not necessarily a prescription for hunger,” Gertler said. “Much of (production) is not feeding hungry people anyway. It’s going to high fructose corn syrup, or ethanol.”

Peasant is still the number one occupation in the world and peasants are still feeding most people, he said.

Governments and organizations will pour money into projects such as the License to Farm video to portray a certain type of agriculture, Gertler said.

“Don’t watch it if you want to sleep well,” he said. “This is your Canola Council and your provincial government dollars at work, trashing your way of thinking about farming.”

Financing and land access

Farmland values that have increased by double digits each year, plus increasing canola acreage, add up to limited land access for organic farmers.

“You’re competing in a land market with people who are wanting to make fast money in other ways.”

Markets and marketing

Saskatchewan organic growers are far from the urban markets of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal where the demand for their products is found. Organic producers have mixed feelings about marketing co-operatively or hanging on to their own markets. They are likely to become more reliant on intermediaries, Gertler said.

Succession

The net number of organic farms appears every five years in the census, but Gertler says those statistics don’t show how many entered the business and how many left.

It’s easier to leave than to enter and producers ready to retire or move on have a problem: the chances the farm stays organic are iffy.

Their children, should they be interested in farming, might not share the organic philosophy. Outside buyers are likely to be conventional.

“One of the problems that organic farmers have is they’re really part of the disappearing middle,” he said. “The pressure is on the mid-sized farm.