Ontario crop retailer takes deeper jump into organics

Rob Wallbridge, certified crop advisor with Thompsons Limited.

By John Greig
OrganicBiz staff

One of the biggest challenges for organic crop farmers is to find solid agronomic information and markets that are reliable.

Larger conventional farm retailers have only made cautious steps into the organic market.

Thompsons Limited, however, has been putting more resources and focus on organic crops since July. The Ontario-based crop supply and marketing company has seen potential in the organic market, which makes some sense as it has a long history in marketing specialty crops.

The company hired Rob Wallbridge, a well-known organic consultant and former certifier to lead its greater push into organics. He’s also a Certified Crop Advisor.

“Thompsons has been in the organic grain markets for a number of years,” he says, including sourcing organic soybeans as part of its identity preserved and non-GMO soybean purchasing. “They found a growing demand for other organic crops.”

Thompsons is now buying organic corn, wheat, soybeans and some rye.

In the past Thompsons would have bought organic soybeans from a farmer, but the farmer would have had to find markets for his or her other crops. A more diverse crop rotation is necessary for organic production, and finding reliable markets for all of their organic production has proved challenging and a barrier for some farmers.

He’s very very knowledgeable. He’s farmed, he’s done the whole gammit. – Steve Hartman, organic crops and milk seller

Steve Hartman sells crops and milk organically, including some soybeans in the past to Thompsons in Granton. He says the hiring of Wallbridge shows that Thompson is serious about organics.

“He’s very very knowledgeable. He’s farmed, he’s done the whole gammit.”

He also said having local elevator capacity is important. “Proximity is a nice thing in the fall if you have to move crop.

They are big enough that they can provide storage in the fall at harvest time.”

How to market a crop is one of the main questions Wallbridge has received from farmers looking to transition to organic farming. Instead of having to look to multiple markets for row crops, many of which have been small and unpredictable year-to-year, Thompsons aims to provide a long-term partner for farmers for crop advice and marketing.

“We had a nice email from someone last week, saying thank you so much, they appreciated delivering their grain and being paid promptly,” says Gert McClure, sales and operations manager with Thompsons. “We can bring that same capacity of service we have with all of our growers to the organic side. It’s much appreciated from we have gathered so far.”

The company, founded by the Thompson family, has been part of Ontario agriculture for more than 90 years. The company is now owned half by The Andersons, the American crop retail and marketing company and half by the Lansing Trade Group.

McClure says The Lansing Trade Group also brought significant capacity in organic trading to Thompsons.

Thompsons already had people at most of its outlets that dealt with organic farmers, whether from an agronomic or marketing perspective. The company employs about 300 people, with nine who are trained in organic production.

Wallbridge says they are currently working to train staff in organic agronomics. Thompsons has invested in precision agriculture capacity and Wallbridge looks forward to bringing that potential to more organic farmers.

“I’m excited to take some of those resources Thompsons has and put them to use for organic growers,” he says.

Thompsons will also have available more organic seed and inputs going forward.

Thompsons’ elevator system is mostly focused in southern and central Ontario, but is working to increase its organic supply from eastern Ontario. Many of its elevators have capacity for segregated supply for organic, but not all of them will handle all organic crops.

Despite its history in organic crops, most people see Thompsons as a retailer of conventional crop inputs.

“Someone called and asked why we would be doing more organic when we sell crop protection products and commercial fertilizer,” says McClure. “But we believe producers should have choice whether they are organic or producers. They should have choice in how they bring products to the marketplace. The consumer also should have a choice.”