Organic farming gaining street cred

Hand over wheat field in early summer evening. Photo: Thinkstock

By Karen Briere
OrganicBiz staff

Denis Brisebois liked the economic edge that organic farming could give him.

So when he left a career in the oil patch three years ago and began farming near McCord, Sask., he decided to go that route.

“In less than two years the shift has gone from ‘you’re one of those’ to ‘Denis, what’s that wheat worth?’” he said referring to the perception some have of organic farmers.

He said conventional farmers are starting to see the opportunities, particularly when he could, for example, sell organic feed wheat for $8 a bushel and Number One non-organic wheat was worth $6.75.

The paperwork and cost to start up in organics is a pain, Brisebois told an organic producers’ workshop, but organic farming is the way to go.

According to SaskOrganics, there are 842 certified producers in the province, 28 certified livestock producers and 89 certified processors. Those numbers are likely to change with the release of the 2016 census data.

They farm 500,000 acres of field crops, 361,000 acres of pasture and forage, 700 acres of fruits and vegetables and 11,700 acres of wild rice.

The total organic field crop acreage in Canada is about 789,000 acres.

Mark Gimby has worked in the organic industry for 40 years and is a buyer for Growers International Organic Sales.

He told the workshop that when he was first hired as a research technologist to compare energy use on Saskatchewan organic farms with non-organic farms, he could only find six self-declared producers.

First and foremost, you have to have a strong rotation. – Dwayne Smith

That was before premiums prices were offered for organic products. Farmers operating organically were philosophically opposed to using chemicals, he said.

“The concept of growing crops without chemical inputs was intriguing, but most of all I was immediately struck by the courage and the creativity and the delightful eccentricity, in some cases, of these people,” Gimby said.

They put up with scorn and were ignored by researchers, he said.

Organic agriculture is now much more mainstream, with strong demand and potential, he said.

Farmers like Brisebois say they are able to take advantage of work by the early adopters.

Dwayne Smith began farming organically in Alberta in 1987, expanded into processing and moved to Saskatchewan in 2001. He said there is no single prescription for success. Risk tolerance, soil, weeds and weather patterns differ too much for a one-size-fits-all plan, he said.

But he did offer advice.

“First and foremost, you have to have a strong rotation,” Smith said.

Early-seeded, late-seeded, fall-seeded, broad-leaved and grassy-leaved crops with different root structures are all important.

Seeding rates should be not less than 125 percent of conventional and as much as 200 percent.

“You want to have some strategic tillage,” he said. “Make sure you have some purpose and know what it is you’re doing out there.”

Strong soil building programs, including legume plow downs, are critical, and Smith said weeds that get out of control should not be considered a plow down.

“Don’t deceive yourself.”

Smith said farmers should have a good idea of where they will sell their crops before they seed them because it isn’t as easy as loading the truck and dumping it at the elevator.

He also said producers should be aware of the differences in certifiers because services and prices vary. He found that some certifiers charge four times as much as others.

Finally, he encouraged farmers to stay informed, learn as much as possible and pursue quality.

“Organic farming will not make poor farmers out of good farmers and vice versa,” he said. “Up your game as much as you can.”