Organic grain initiative runs out of steam

A government support program for expanding organic grain production on the Prairies has come to an end. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Funding to continue a program designed to increase organic production has been turned down

By Laura Rance
Glacier FarmMedia editorial director

Prairie organic groups are looking for alternative finances after learning government support for a program promoting expansion of organic grain production would not be renewed.

The Prairie Organic Grains Initiative (POGI) received $1.2 million from Western Economic Diversification (WED) in 2015 as part of a $2.2 million industry initiative to increase the quantity and the quality of organic grain production through agronomic extension support as well as to help the sector reach into international markets.

However, industry officials say that when a coalition representing producer groups applied for $1.75 million in federal funds this year to renew and expand the program, it was told that the WED’s funding mandate had changed.

Subsequent efforts to apply through the federal-provincial Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP) were rebuffed because the application did not fit with the funding criteria.

Becky Lipton, executive director of Organic Alberta, which administered the POGI programs, said the CAP administrators categorized organic grains as a single commodity and said the program is not designed to support commodity organizations.

I’m still optimistic. It’s a really good program and we know it met a need. – Becky Lipton

“My response that is that organic grain is all cereals, plus pulses and oilseeds,” Lipton said. “It’s not a single commodity.”

The groups are regrouping and continuing talks with federal officials in hopes they can reapply. “I’m still optimistic,” Lipton said. “It’s a really good program and we know it met a need.”

The Prairies are home to 29 per cent of certified organic operations in Canada and 58 per cent of the certified organic acreage. Acreage grew 28 per cent between 2015 and 2017. The number of operations grew from 1,625 to 1,840, report released by the POGI last year said.

The coalition had hoped to expand the extension focus of the previous POGI to providing on-farm support to growers. The first initiative focused on developing resources and hosting field days to help producers convert their farms to organic and improve productivity.

“But sometimes it was hard to apply that when they got back to their farms,” she said.

They also wanted to take the program national, changing its name to the Canadian Organic Grain Initiative and provide more data collection and analysis for the sector.

“We had strong industry support,” Lipton said. “A good number of companies came to the table with industry funds to support this.”

However, even if the sector does get approval later this year, it faces an interim funding gap as the four-year-old POGI runs its course.

Hardest hit will be Saskatchewan, which has the largest group of organic producers on the Prairies and which received 60 per cent of the funding.

SaskOrganic board member Jim Robbins told that group’s annual meeting in late March, it has run “small deficits” most years and has all but used up a $45,000 buffer it received from its predecessor the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate.

That’s despite the annual fee-for-services it has received to offer POGI programs in the province. Last year, those fees amounted to $63,000.

While he too is optimistic the federal funding will eventually come through, in the meantime, “we are facing a budgetary crunch here,” he said.

Robbins said the organization, which has no membership fees, has started a voluntary checkoff program, with two buyers in the province agreeing to deduct a 50-cent per tonne from loads delivered to their facilities. Organic producers who oppose supporting the organization can apply to have it refunded.

Alberta is not considering a checkoff at this time, Lipton said.

Manitoba, which has only six per cent of the organic acreage on the Prairies and 12 per cent of the certified growers, is least affected by the funding shortfall.

The Manitoba Organic Alliance is holding consultations with its members to assess support for a checkoff under the Manitoba Agricultural Producers Organization Funding Act, said co-ordinator Dana Penrice.

That process usually requires a referendum with 60 per cent voting in favour.