Organic crops in Western Canada struggle in drought

Photo: Thinkstock

By Adam Peleshaty
Glacier FarmMedia staff

The historic hot and dry summer in the Prairies has left many crops, conventional and organic, stunted and damaged, in turn raising prices and hastening harvests.

“Some of the farmers have already started combining peas and lentils…yields are going to be down,” said Jason Freeman, general manager of Farmer Direct Organic Foods near Moose Jaw, Sask. “What I’m really concerned about is next year, if we don’t get moisture (back to normal levels).”

Freeman also called himself “lucky” because his crops benefitted from rainfall before seeding, a brief period between long dry spells. He said science suggests organically-managed soil can retain more moisture than its conventional counterpart and organic crops are typically more drought-resistant. However, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer can’t be used on organic crops.

“There are some benefits, some drawbacks, but it should perform better in drought conditions,” Freeman added.

Foreign organic imports are keeping prices steady for now, according to Freeman, but reduced yields in organic crops could raise prices in the coming months.

“We’ll see what happens, especially for wheat because it looks like organic wheat is going to be short,” he said. “It’s going to be an interesting next 24 months. We’re anticipating volatility, for sure.”

(Some crops) won’t even pollinate in some areas. There are some that are okay; none are good. – Jason Breault

Jason Breault, elevator manager and grain buyer for RW Organic in Mossbank, Sask., predicts this year’s organic crop production will be cut in half compared to a typical year.

“(Some crops) won’t even pollinate in some areas. There are some that are okay; none are good,” he said. “Production is way down, but there was good carryover in the hard red spring wheat. People were holding off for better prices and they might get them now…I think we’ll have enough grain out there, but I don’t know where we’re going to end up.”

Breault added that mills are forward contracting more often now, meaning many of them already have grain covered. With the volatility in conventional crop prices, he believes the organic crop premium may be narrowing.

“I don’t see organic being much more than conventional. Conventional is going to spike and organic’s a little more, but definitely don’t see a double,” he said. “The demand isn’t quite there (for organic).”

“I think prices are going to strengthen, but by how much is anyone’s guess,” said Freeman.

Minnesota-based company Pipeline Foods, whose focus was creating supply chain solutions for organic, non-GMO and regenerative food and feed, announced July 9 it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, according to Food Business News.

The company said in a statement its secure debt obligations and the COVID-19 pandemic caused “significant financial stress” on the business. Because the bankruptcy was filed in Delaware where the company is incorporated, some grain sellers and growers were wondering how to recoup their funds.

“At this point, it makes things a little more difficult for us,” Minnesota Department of Agriculture attorney Doug Spanier told the StarTribune. “We can’t represent farmers out in Delaware, that’s not our job, but we can give them the information they need.”

Pipeline’s first court hearing on its bankruptcy case was held on July 14 and a judge approved the company’s request to complete its payroll obligations to 85 employees, 17 outside the United States. The Department of Agriculture hosted an online informational meeting for producers on July 21.