Organic conference draws a crowd

Donovan Hickson (l), Brandon-area organic farmer, listens to speakers at the Prairie Organic Think Whole Farm conference in Winnipeg. Also pictured (middle to right) are Jonathon Bouw of Anola and Ryan Boyd of Forrest. Photo: Lorraine Stevenson

By Lorraine Stevenson
OrganicBiz staff

The game of chess isn’t learned easily, requires forward thinking, and you have to like playing it. That’s why University of Manitoba plant scientist Martin Entz compares it to organic farming.

“It takes a long time to learn to do this well,” he said during his opening address to last week’s Prairie Organic Think Whole Farm conference in Winnipeg.

Researchers in Manitoba have puzzled over organic’s next move for literally decades, said Entz, who described work done in the 1930s on plots where the present-day Investor’s Group stadium now stands on the university campus.

It just shows that there is value to looking backwards to see what people discovered in the past in an agricultural system that didn’t have the inputs that many of our systems have now. – Martin Entz, University of Manitoba plant scientist.

“They were asking how to manage the rotation,” he said, adding the records they kept on what they called ‘the fertility fields’ showed discoveries of how yield increased when peas or sweet clover or manure followed summerfallow.

That work ceased in the 1950s. However, ongoing work at Western Canada’s oldest organic cropping system at Glenlea, and at the Ian N. Morrison Research Farm at Carman have significantly increased understanding of how to grow crops that create their own nutrient cycle.

There are now green manure legume species suited to pretty well every soil and moisture condition on the Prairies, said Entz.

“It just shows that there is value to looking backwards to see what people discovered in the past in an agricultural system that didn’t have the inputs that many of our systems do have now,” he said.

That research is becoming more relevant now than ever.

Patty and Andrew Harris were among more than 250 attendees at the conference, which offered farmers a chance to listen and link up with other organic producers. Organic’s comparison to chess gets a knowing nod from this couple whose gradual transition of the family mixed grain and livestock farm near Stonewall now includes 400 certified acres, 200 in transition and 1,000 conventional.

“We really like the challenge of it. You have to think ahead and plan,” Patty said.

The chance to hear other farmers talk about their own organic field management was helpful, she added.

“Everyone does what they do and they do it for a reason. It’s nice to learn from them so you don’t make the same mistakes.”

The conference was held in a partnership between the western Canadian industry initiative Prairie Organic Grain Initiative (POGI), University of Manitoba and the provincial and federal governments.

There is a lack of knowledge about production on the organic front, said MAFRD organic specialist and conference organizer Laura Telford, adding the conference featured researchers talking about the science, but also farmers to talk about how things actually work.

“If you’re kicking the tires you need to hear about this from other producers,” she said.

“Our first goal was to deliver a lot of in-depth production information. Secondly, we just wanted to make sure that all of the science was tempered by practical farmer knowledge.”

The event was oversold, with 250 pre-registered plus an estimated additional 30 to 40 who joined in. Shows of hands in audiences revealed farmers in transition, already certified, or still farming conventionally.

“What was just really rewarding was that there were a lot of farmers,” added Telford.

It’s the business case and the increasing price advantage of an organic production system over conventional that’s causing all the buzz.

More than 60 per cent of Canadians are now buying organic products on a weekly basis, and consumer demand for organic food products is far outpacing Canadian supply, said other speakers at the conference.

Farmers also want to know more about a system of farming that increases the farmers’ margins. According to the Organic Value Chain Roundtable, an industry-led partnership with the Canadian government, for every $100 earned per acre, an organic farmer keeps $58 while a conventional farmer keeps $31.

But as Iowa farmer Tom Frantzen pointed out, this was also a conference for people to ask questions of themselves, not just about how they farm but why they do what they do.

Frantzen and his wife Irene have a 300-acre diversified rotation of corn, beans, small grains and hay and raise pigs and cattle on pasture.

Know your end game very well, said Frantzen, who described organic farming as “keeping a complicated, integrated package together.”

“Your goal is really important,” he said, describing how he spent several years trying, without much luck, to boost soil health on one particular field, while he watched a neighbour, also farming organically, push to get the biggest bang from his own certification buck. Frantzen eventually got his desired result. But his neighbour eventually quit and switched back to an inputs-based system.

“My goal was soil improvement, and I actually was able to significantly improve the productivity of that land,” he said.

“His goal was to maximize his profitability on every acre every year. That doesn’t work.”

Organic farming has continued to pay his bills “very, very well,” Frantzen also said, adding, “and yes, I like very much what I’m doing. Would I give up on that? No.”

So does Larry Marshall, who has a 3,000-acre organic farm in the Parkland region of Saskatchewan where he’s grown industrial hemp for a dozen years, and Chris Boettcher, whose 800-acre biodynamically managed crop and livestock farm near the shore of Lake Huron in Ontario has been carefully planned to ensure there’s room for family members to start future enterprises one day.

Many more farmers shared their production knowledge, what’s worked and what hasn’t, during the two-day event.

Listening in the audience were farmers like Wayne Williment of Miami who has an organic grain farm and raises cattle and free-range pigs.

“I picked up some really useful techniques on keeping track of your carbon content in the soil and how we can increase the carbon content in the soil,” said Williment.

Likewise, St. Pierre-Jolys farmers Murielle and Larry Bugera said the event boosted knowledge of fundamental production practices such as using green manures. The couple began to transition to organic in 2005 and today has 265 certified acres of their grain land, mainly on the urging of their son Ivan, says Murielle. They plan to certify more as they familiarize with an organic production system,

It’s all about making that first move.

Telford says there are probably about 100,000 certified acres in Manitoba and 150 organic farmers, of which about 120 are strictly grain producers. The remainder is either mixed crop and livestock operations or vegetable producers.

The conference had a separate stream dedicated to helping conventional vegetable growers learn more about switching a few acres to organic. Currently, only about 25 per cent of the organic vegetables consumed in Canada are Canadian grown, said Gunta Vitins, an organic market sector consultant.

“We import the rest. There’s huge opportunity for import replacement for operators on a commercial scale.”