Start the organic transition on a high note

Martin Entz of the University of Manitoba says future organic farmers should top off their fertility 
and clean out weeds before making the move to transition. Photo: File

A big part of going organic is getting things in shape before starting the transition.

That’s according to Martin Entz, a professor and natural systems agriculture researcher at the University of Manitoba.

Entz has spent years asking organic hopefuls to take a hard look at their management pre-transition and to take advantage of conventional tools to head off as many issues as possible while they still have access to them.

In particular, he argues, new organic farms often reap benefits if perennial weeds and fertility issues are taken care of before they abandon conventional agriculture.

“We’ve observed, over the years, many people transition into organic without having planned for nutrients and without having really appreciated how much their weeds are going to be a problem and then they fail and they step away from organic,” Entz said.

Choosing the right field might be half the battle.

Headlines have made special mention of large farms deciding to jump into organic farming at a rapid pace. Earlier this year, The Western Producer covered the story of Travis Heide, a Saskatchewan producer transitioning his 40,000-acre operation into organic. In Manitoba, a farm south of Brandon committed the entire 5,000-acre operation to organics last year.

Farmers should use good agronomic practice before they transition so they set themselves up for success. – Martin Entz

But for those opting for a more gradual slide into organics, Entz warned that starting with the most marginal fields is a recipe for failure, despite temptation to keep more profitable fields in conventional production.

The Canadian Organic Growers has noted financial risk as one of the greatest hurdles for a transitioning farm. Not only must farmers familiarize themselves with a whole laundry list of regulations and learn a whole new system of production, but the farm must manage those fields organically during transitional years without being able to take advantage of organic prices to offset the risk.

Those issues cropped up during COG’s year-long exploration into transitional farm risk, the feedback from which it plans to incorporate into an online tool.

Given the financial burden, it might be tempting for producers to avoid starting transition with their most profitable fields.

Entz, however, says those are also the fields most likely to have the best results under organic management.

“I think that we have seen two things happen in the past,” he said. “One is farmers have broken up an old hayfield or an old pasture. Often those lands are very nutrient deficient and they grow an organic crop and they’re really disappointed. That’s not an uncommon observation. That’s one thing I can say with some confidence. And the other observation is that sometimes farmers are very reluctant to transition their best fields, the ones with the highest organic matter and the best drainage, but, given the potential profitability of organics, sometimes it is worth considering having some good land in production and not your worst land.”

Farmers may consider transitioning only part of their farm if they have fields that are currently unsuited to make the jump, an idea that Entz admits is controversial in the organic sector, but that some farms may find fiscally viable.

“What we have seen is farmers who are prepared to transition a portion of their farm and create a separate business unit for that organic portion and try that for a while to see how it goes and then they can make the decision whether they want to step out of organic or intensify the organic management over time,” he said.

Farmers are less likely to be fighting with perennial weeds given the scope of weed control products, Entz said, although an established wild oat or Canada thistle population should still give pause when selecting that field for transition.

Farmers who have already addressed nutrition issues, however, will be ahead of the game, he argued, and even more so if the focus has been on phosphorus, which he says is harder to manage organically.

“It’s not a good idea to build up your nitrogen before transition because you can make that nitrogen with legumes,” Entz said.

The situation is better now than it was when Entz first started advising farmers on pre-transition management. Producers now have a better handle on the cost of adding phosphorus in the organic phase, Entz said, and there are generally better price lists for organically acceptable phosphorus sources.

Likewise, farmers have new options for weed control. The Swedish-made CombCut has been a “game changer,” he said, and its technology, which uses its spaced blades to mow down thicker, stiffer-stemmed weeds like thistles while letting crops like cereals pass through unharmed, has been eyed for conventional and organic farmer alike.

Despite that, he says the core lessons have remained the same.

“Farmers should use good agronomic practice before they transition so they set themselves up for success,” he said.