Online tool to help organic hopefuls navigate transition

Ashley St. Hilaire, Canadian Organic Growers director of programs and government relations, discusses the risks facing transitional farms during the Prairie Organics conference in Brandon Feb. 23-24. Photo: Alexis Stockford

The Canadian Organic Growers has spent the last year delving into the risks that come with transition and how to manage them.

By Alexis Stockford
OrganicBiz staff

Organic growers want better risk management for transitioning farms, and the Canadian Organic Growers (COG) hope an online tool will fit the bill.

COG has spent the last year collecting data on the issue, drawing from 40 business case studies, eight producer focus groups, one certifier focus group and evaluations of transitional pilot programs in both Alberta and Ontario.

Initial results were presented at the 2018 Prairie Organics Conference in Brandon Feb. 23-24.

The project noted obstacles ranging from production concerns and crop insurance to stigma. The decision to go organic may be perceived as a political statement or criticism of conventional agriculture, said Ashley St. Hilaire, director of programs and government relations with COG. Supply chains may be immature. Producers must take a new approach to marketing and processing. There might be confusion over organic inputs or certification and the learning curve of organic production often hits producers’ bottom line during transition, the room heard.

Extension support was among the most common themes during farmer focus groups, St. Hilaire said.

Information is lacking. It’s hard to find the right people to give you the right answers and get everything that you need in one place. – Ashley St. Hilaire

“It’s what we’re hearing all across Canada,” she told attendees in Brandon. “Information is lacking. It’s hard to find the right people to give you the right answers and get everything that you need in one place.”

Information lacking

Fellow presenter Markus Weber echoed the statement.

“People considering transitions, or then especially in that last year before the certification year, they just don’t have the information that they need to make decisions,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just to bolster your own decision. Sometimes it’s to come up with a long-term plan. You need production information. You need business information and those really aren’t available to them or at least they don’t know how to access it.”

Prairie Organics COG: Prairie Organics speakers Markus Weber and Ashley St. Hilaire address questions on the Canadian Organic Growers’ fact finding mission on transitional risk Feb. 23 in Brandon. Photo: Alexis Stockford

Transitioning farms have not exactly exploded in Canada, according to 2013-2015 data from the Canada Organic Trade Association and transition remains among the largest hurdles for groups, like COG, who would like to see the number of organic growers increase. With the exception of Quebec, which had 121 farms in transition, and B.C., which reported 54, all other provinces sat well below 50 transitioning farms as of 2015. In Manitoba, those numbers sat in the single digits. Only four farms were in transition, down from six the year before.

In many cases, Weber said, farmers are turning to established organic growers to make up the lack of extension support.

“Beyond everything else that we’ve heard, those that successfully transitioned did that with the help of some, either coaches or mentors or peers, but some other grower that’s either been through it or is going through it and together, find the information that they needed,” he said.

The certification process also needs more clarity, he added. Weber suggested that dealing with certification red tape and production issues are both linked to the need for greater extension.

Paperwork issues are among the main reasons transitioning farms miss out on certification, certifying bodies have told COG.

“You just don’t have the paperwork to prove that you did what you say you did,” Weber said. “Number two on that list is people who have used inputs that aren’t allowed, and that’s not necessarily something that’s unique to transitioners. That also happens to people who have been certified for some time.”

Going online

COG hopes to integrate their findings in an online tool. A prototype is slated release this spring, although the form and features of the tool are still under discussion, St. Hilaire said.

“The tool is still somewhat abstract because we’re just in our final few days of data collection and we demonstrated the tool today at the focus group to the farmers, some of the snapshots of what it might look like,” she said.

St. Hilaire says the tool will walk farmers through risks they may encounter during transition on their farm, how those risks relate to their circumstances and possible actions to manage that risk.

Farmers at the Brandon focus group worried that the tool might be too academic, St. Hilaire said, adding that those same producers would rather see more access to expert advice, connectivity and the ability to search topics through the tool to make it more usable day-to-day.

“We talked a lot today about the tool being, in part, something that directs people to the resources that they should be looking at based on what it is that they’re producing,” she said.

COG is gathering that feedback and will be watching through the prototype to see if the tool performs as intended, St. Hilaire said.

COG plans to offer the tool free of charge.