By Jennifer Blair and Glenn Cheater
Glacier FarmMedia staff
A surge in the number of organic crop producers in Alberta has boosted organic production on the Prairies to a level not seen since the 2008 financial crisis.
That’s a key highlight of a new report from the Prairie Organic Grain Initiative, an alliance of Organic Alberta and its counterparts in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
“The number of certified operations in the Prairies reached a new milestone of 1,632 in 2016 (and) organic acreage expanded from 1.4 million to 1.6 million between 2015 and 2016,” the report states.
Economics are the reason I joined the industry, but there are a dozen reasons why I stay. – Ward Middleton
The lion’s share are crop or mixed operations and while Saskatchewan and Manitoba numbers are only slightly higher than in 2015, Alberta saw a big jump — to 450 organic farms in 2016 versus 380 a year earlier.
Cereals dominate the organic field sector (with pulses and oilseeds far behind) in Alberta, accounting for nearly 80 per cent of production. Oats accounted for 54 per cent of Alberta’s 147,000 cereal acres in 2016 with wheat (30 per cent) and barley (11 per cent) making up most of the rest.
That’s pretty close to what you’d find in the days of horse-powered agriculture, but there’s money in those crops when grown organically, said Ward Middleton.
“Twenty years ago, the organic industry offered us a chance to make a small-market grain farm economically viable,” said Middleton. “It was strictly a business decision to make that change.”
Middleton is one of the veterans of the province’s organic scene. He took over the family farm in Sturgeon County in 1994 and became organically certified in 1998. And much has changed in the organic industry since then.
“It’s gone from being a fringe, niche market to something that’s starting to gain traction and recognition with consumers, as well as within agriculture,” said Middleton. “The whole industry has started to mature.”
Still, his and wife Joanne’s 750-acre operation hasn’t been enough to allow Middleton to give up his day job (at a pipeline control centre) even though they also have a woodlot, custom grazing business, and grow herbal and nutraceutical products such as borage and sea buckthorn berries.
“Honestly, the economics are only a small part of what I enjoy about organic farming,” he said. “Economics are the reason I joined the industry, but there are a dozen reasons why I stay.”
The growth in the industry is a reflection of that shifting mindset, he added.
“There’s a lot more support now for people to begin to farm organically than when I started,” said Middleton. “It’s a huge hurdle to give up some of the tools and management practices you’re used to as a farmer to farm organically, but the consumer is willing to pay a premium for that product.”
In Alberta, most of the new organic operations came in the north, specifically in Mackenzie County, said the Prairie Organic Grain Initiative report.
“The increase may be the result of a growing critical mass of organic producers; they tend to occur in clusters, which facilitates knowledge transfer amongst neighbours,” the report states. “Investment in logistics infrastructure by a large organic grain buyer is also likely a factor in the rapid adoption of organic agriculture around the Mackenzie County region.”
Despite the jump in the number of certified organic operations in Alberta in 2016, acreage only increased by three per cent from 2015.
But organic production is trickier to estimate as long rotations are the norm, both for weed control and fertility, and that can dramatically affect year-over-year numbers. For example, green manure (legumes grown and then plowed down to add nitrogen) is counted in the ‘pasture, forage, and natural areas’ category, which fell 12 per cent in Alberta in 2016. Meanwhile, virtually all of the increase in the province’s cereal acres came from oats, which was running even with wheat the year before.
There is also a lot of fluctuation in organic production of livestock.
The annual survey counted 64 organic livestock operations in Alberta in 2014. That fell to 55 in 2015 and then bounced back to 67 a year later. But the data is skimpy.
“No reliable estimates of livestock operation type or livestock populations are available,” states the report.
Moreover, since these operations are defined as “those with organic livestock on farm,” they are not necessarily exclusively organic.
Organic production in Alberta may also get a boost from newly passed provincial legislation that comes into effect next year. The legislation requires that any food product must be certified according to federal standards before it can be sold as organic.
“It’s paramount to the consumer that, as a producer, I’m doing my part to provide them the assurance that my products are produced according to Canadian standards,” said Middleton.
“The consumer is ultimately willing to pay a premium for that.”
A link to the report can be found at the Organic Alberta website.