By Lorraine Stevenson
Owners of a Pipestone-area farm that has more than tripled its cropped acres in less than a decade say its all due to switching from conventional to organic.
Bryce Lobreau, who farms with his parents Danny and Robin, said they decided to transition their farm in 2009 to add more value to their small livestock operation.
“We were just trying to create some extra income out of the cattle,” said Lobreau. “Times were gruelling through the recession.”
It might have seemed like a gamble at a time when consumers of organics were also feeling the pinch of a downturned economy.
For young farmers who don’t have the capital to pay for the inputs, organic is a good way to get started. – Bryce Lobreau
But the timing proved just right, said Lobreau. By the time they’d completed their transition and were ready to sell organic fat cattle, there were buyers more than ready to buy. By 2012, the sector had bounced back and consumer demand for organic food was higher than ever.
“We got into this at the right time,” said Lobreau. “We were in the right spot to grow with the market.”
Today Pristine Prairie Organics is Manitoba’s largest organic livestock feeder, with a land base of 5,000 acres. The land is in mostly hay land and improved pasture, but there is 1,000 cropped acres. Their herd of beef cows now numbers 250 animals and they also raise and sell between 1,000 and 1,500 cattle a year.
Adding an additional 800 cropped acres to what was previously just 200 all happened after 2009. That expansion is all due to increased farm profitability in a market where demand for what they had to sell far outstripped supply.
“It (the transition to organic) is the single reason we’ve been able to expand this quick,” he said.
They sell live cattle to buyers representing meat companies in the U.S., Ontario and B.C., earning a premium of anywhere from 30 to 50 per cent.
The price paid for organically raised beef has consistently remained higher than conventional, usually hovering around whatever the cash market is paying plus a dollar on the hot hanging weight, Lobreau said.
And while many farmers are wary of the transition process and time it takes, Lobreau said it was a fairly straightforward procedure for their farm, which was mostly forage and hay land.
“We were practically organic anyways,” said Lobreau. “We just weren’t certified. We had to make only minor changes to our operation.”
As for day-to-day operational management of an organic operation, Lobreau said there is more paperwork involved and the regime requires more forward planning.
“Keeping track of everything and keeping better records would probably be the biggest changes,” he said.
Organic cattle can only be fed organically grown grains, so a producer must continually have feed supplies lined up well in advance.
“It’s supply chain management,” he said. “We’re buying grain because we don’t grow all of our own feed. So relationships with other farmers and your feed suppliers… you have to look after that. You can’t find that kind of grain everywhere.”
Capturing the premiums for organically raised cattle also requires a commitment to marketing. Timing is everything if you’re going to capture the full organic premium.
“You’re marketing your cattle in advance,” he said. “You can’t afford to put all this expensive grain in them and then all of sudden have to send them to an auction mart.”
But he has no problem finding buyers. On the contrary, it’s more a matter of taking his pick.
“On the organic side there’s not enough to even meet the demand for it right now,” he said.
Lobreau said organic production is definitely something he’d urge other farmers to consider. “For young farmers who don’t have the capital to pay for the inputs, organic is a good way to get started,” he said.
“It’s 100 per cent the reason we were able to get to the size we did in the amount of time we did.”