Can large organic farms stay true to the spirit of the sector?

“We do feel strongly and passionately that a big part of what we do on this Earth is to show a way to do things without chemicals and fertilizer.” – Travis Heide. Photo: File/Greg Berg

By Gord Gilmour
Glacier FarmMedia staff

Travis Heide knows many look at One Organic Farms in Waldron, Saskatchewan and wonder if it’s really an organic farm.

The question isn’t whether they technically qualify — the farm meets all the required standards and ticks all the right boxes.

It’s whether they hew to the spirit of organic farming, long known as a smaller scale enterprise focused more on doing things the right way, and less on the dollar.

Travis Heide, One Organic Farms. Photo: Robert Arnason

At 42,000 acres the operation is massive, but Heide assured a gathered crowd during a panel discussion at Manitoba Ag Days in Brandon recently, that the business does cherish those values.

“We do feel strongly and passionately that a big part what of we do on this Earth is to show a way to do things without chemicals and fertilizer,” Heide told the crowd.

Why it matters: With organic farms getting larger every year, many wonder if the original spirit of the movement is being lost.

Deep roots

Panelist Stuart McMillan brought a long history in the organic sector to the discussion table. Over the years he has been an organic inspector, a board member of the International Organic Inspector’s Association, and a board member with the Manitoba Organic Alliance.

He recently moved to Kamsack, Saskatchewan to manage Legend Organic Farms, which cultivates 3,500 acres at the foot of the Duck Mountains. While the farm is a relatively new creation, its owners have an organic pedigreed stretching back decades.

“It’s owned by the owners of Nature’s Path, one of the largest organic processors and a significant organic brand,” McMillan said. “There are precious few companies or farms in the organic business approaching their 50th anniversary, but they’re one of them. Purchasing farmland demonstrates their commitment to the industry.”

McMillan noted the organization maintains a ‘triple bottom line’, concentrating on social, environmental and financial outcomes, throughout its operations, including the farm. They grow crops like wheat, peas and flaxseed, what McMillan describes as “straightforward, average crops for the region.”

The final panelist represented one of Manitoba’s largest operations, Winkler’s Kroeker Farms. Jason Peters is an agronomist who’s been working there for the past five years, and he told the group he came into the sector with a lot of curiosity but little experience.

The bigger you get, the harder it gets to keep really good tabs on all the land you have. – Jason Peters

“How do they do these things? How do they grow organic potatoes? That’s what drew me in,” he said.

The large-scale conventional farm took its initial foray into organic production when a group of younger shareholders, in their 20s, spotted what they thought was a good opportunity. They noted there were no organic potatoes readily available in the area and convinced the rest of the company owners to try a small-scale trial.

“We grew with the markets, and that’s led us to where we are today, with about 4,500 acres or so,” Peters said.

Familiar challenges

While these farms might look unusual to the outside observer, they face challenges that would sound familiar to any grower including conventional farmers.

McMillan keyed in on the familiar lament of ongoing human resource challenges that are endemic in Canadian agriculture.

“Sourcing adequate and capable staff is absolutely my greatest challenge,” he said. “I hadn’t anticipated the scope of the challenge getting the right people on the farm.”

Peters spoke of the difficulties of managing that much information, amplified by the complicated reality of producing crops organically.

“The bigger you get, the harder it gets to keep really good tabs on all the land you have,” he said. “There’s more to know, more to scout, it gets harder to know the background of what you’ve done. You need to know all this for good management, but it takes effort.”

Heide acknowledge One Organic Farms has struggled to manage the rapid growth the operation has undergone, going from 17,000 conventionally managed acres in year one to about 42,000 acres today.

“We’ve got pretty much every problem you could ever imagine,” he told the audience with a chuckle. “We went from infancy to being big boys very quickly. We were learning to crawl, walk, fall, and get back up.”

He noted that people were both a success and failure for the farm. They’ve been lucky enough to attract talented and dedicated people, but he conceded he as the manager didn’t always pay attention to matching the availability with the immediate needs of the operation.

“We just kept saying yes to everyone who wanted to join this farm,” Heide said.

Heide also noted some unique-to-organic challenges that the sector needs to figure out. He said there is a need to educate outsiders on the sector so they can understand it is a viable business model.

Lending institutions do not speak the language we’re trying to speak,” he said. “I see that as a huge obstacle.”

As the farms in organic production grow larger, they’ll need access to capital, he said, rather than growing slowly as they might have in the past.

The second big issue relates to the relatively opaque organic markets, as contrasted to the more straightforward conventional ones.

Turning these crops that are worth lots of money into money is one of our biggest challenges,” he said. “There’s a lot of people trying to race into the middle between the farmer and consumer. One of the biggest challenges is liquidity and fair liquidity. Farmers need to stand together and protect the value, the value is there.”

Heide stressed that applied to organic operations of all sizes and said the sector would benefit from producer solidarity.

“We’re not your enemy and we’re not trying to drive your prices down,” he said.

Gord Gilmour is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.