Posted on

Organic Equipment Needs


“You don’t need the most expensive new paint on the block, but you do need reliable access to certain essential pieces,” says Mary-Howell Martens of Lakeview Organic Grain located in Penn Yan, New York.  Mary-Howell and her husband Klaas operate a 1600 acre organic farm and feed mill operation there.

Martens recommends at minimum:

  • A good plow and disc, with a tractor large enough to pull them.
  • A decent corn planter and grain drill.
  • A coil tine harrow, rotary hoe and/or finger weeder.
  • An easily adjustable cultivator or agile cultivation tractor, and
  • Reliable access to a combine and wagon/tractors.

Tom Cassan, an Organic Inspector for over 15 years, and farmer for over 20 agrees.  “You’ll find that you need equipment that was common 50-60 years ago – row crop cultivators, a tine weeder, rotary hoes.  Your plough, disc, and cultivator – although they’ll need to be cleaned, they’ll still see lots of use.”

“During transition or if you are a smaller farm, you may only have 100-200 acres, you’re typically going to look for used equipment and only use it on your farm,” adds Cassan.

“Start out with a basic tool that can work for multiple crops and at multiple stages,” is the advice from Martin Den Dekker, Sales Specialist at Frontlink.  “A tine weeder is where most organic farmers start due to its price point, and because it is very multi-purpose.  It can be used very early at the white hair stage of weed growth, as well as pre & post emergence.  It can be set up in a lot of different ways.”

“Just keep in mind that one piece of equipment is not going to take care of all of your weeds,” cautions Den Dekker.  “Equipment is one important tool of many against weeds.  Seed bed preparation, seeding rates, row spacing and much more need to be considered.”

Equipment in organic field

Farmers will also want to consider hiring custom operators.

When doing so, Martens cautions that farmers need to be aware of two things – cleaning procedures to avoid GMO contamination, and that operators do a careful job to maintain the quality of the crop harvested.

“You have to be sure that the custom operator is doing a careful job to maintain quality,” emphasizes Martens.  “More than one load of food-grade soybeans have been downgraded to feed quality because they were harvested too wet or handled too roughly, resulting in stained or damaged beans,” she notes.

In addition to the combine, you need to make sure other required harvest equipment such as a cleaner, grain dryer, and clean bins are ready adds Martens.  “Realizing at 5pm Friday afternoon, that you have a wet, weedy wagon of oats is not the right time to look for help.  Those oats must be cleaned and dried within the next 6 hours, or they will start to heat and rot, and by Monday they will be compost.”

“Custom operators have huge equipment and may not want to deal with less than a days’ work,” notes Cassan.  “Cleaning is also an issue especially with combines.  You may need to do 1-2 purges, 100 yards at a time.  Documentation of cleaning out and a sanitation affidavit are important to maintain organic status.  Any doubt, call your certifier and check-in with them…. Is what I am doing ok?”

Timing is especially important in organic production.  “When you have the opportunity, you have to be ready to go,” says Cassan.

“We keep a list of needed repairs and use rainy days to work down the list,” says Martens.  Machines need to be ready to roll before the time arrives.  Every year, for example, far too many farmers fail to harvest their crops at peak maturity because the combine is not ready.”

She adds, “more yield is lost to a poorly adjusted and maintained planter and/or combine than will be lost to incomplete weed control.”

Larger scale farmers, or those who are more established should expect to make further investments in equipment.

“Row crop cultivators are also very popular, especially with corn and soybean producers.  It’s a long-term investment but there are so many options to help customize the equipment to your needs.  There are lots of attachments and technology such as camera guidance and GPS section control that can be added on,” says Den Dekker.  “Although row crop cultivators tend to be purchased only by organic producers, we are starting to see some interest from conventional farmers, especially in Western Canada, who are using this as a tool against herbicide resistant weeds,” he notes.

Row Gaurd

In terms of technology Martens suggests keeping an eye on weed control tools from Europe.  “It’s truly amazing what is being accomplished.  However, fun as it is to watch the You Tube videos, fancy tools are not required as long as the farmer is attentive both to the timing of operations and the equipment settings and maintenance.”  Martens also cautions that before upgrading to modern technology, that farmers make sure they can get a reliable, strong signal on their farm.

For individuals looking for more information on organic crop production, the upcoming Guelph Organic Conference offers a variety of workshops  geared to farmers, as well as a 2 day trade show.

Cassan notes, “when transitioning to organic, producers need to do research.  Get to know the other organic producers in your area.  The Guelph Organic Conference is a very good place to discover contacts and network, network, network. “

The Guelph Organic Conference takes place late January / early February each year and features a variety of workshops and a 2 day free trade show.  Workshops are by paid admission.  Admission to the trade show is free and several equipment suppliers such as Frontlink, as well as input suppliers and certification companies will be exhibiting.

Posted on

Challenges & Opportunities for Large Scale Organic Farming

Konzelmann Farms near Wyoming Ontario

Originally published in the December 2017 issue of Better Farming magazine.

For Dan Konzelmann, who farms 1,800 acres near Wyoming, Ont., the transition to organic was motivated by a troublesome soybean field.

“We sprayed Roundup (glyphosate) before planting but (the field) still had weeds.  To save the soybean crop, we used an in-row cultivator.  At the same time, we were also talking to different guys about organics.  From there we thought, why not try cultivating more, and not spray as much,” Konzelmann explains.

“The money was a big issue in the beginning, but then you start to see all of the other benefits.  You can have your kids with you, chemical storage is no longer an issue.  Pretty much anything I apply to the field I can taste.”

“We became convinced it was the right way to farm.”

Many of the organic farmers Konelmann meets have 200 to 300 acres.  Especially over the last few years, however,  farmers with larger acreages are showing more interest in organics,” he says.

For those organic producers working over 1,000 acres, Konzelmann emphasizes that there are some important factors to consider.

“If you are farming more than 1,000 acres, you need more people and more equipment.  You need to be quick and react – prevent issues rather than let them happen. You don’t have the chemical bill, but those dollars go to equipment and labour.”

In row cultivating, equipment becomes important.

“If you are starting small, you can purchase an old scuffler and then, after a year or two, invest in specialized equipment suited to your farm,” he suggests.

You also need good equipment operators.

“For your hired help, be selective and find someone good… They need to know how to operate and adjust equipment – have a feeling for it,” Konzelmann advises.

And Konzelmann also has recommendations about the transition from conventional to organic production.

First, he notes that soil testing is important.  “If your fertility is low, you want to address that before transition begins.  Go into transition with balanced soil.”

Crop selection is also a key consideration, he says.

“Avoid demanding crops like corn in your transition years.  (Grow) soybeans or grains that can build up the soil.  Then, in the first year of organic, (cultivate) corn or soybeans to have a good payoff.”

“Not being able to use commercial nitrogen fertilizer has an immediate impact for farmers, and it can be one of the largest challenges during transition,” adds Jake Munroe, Soil Fertility Specialist for Field Crops with OMAFRA.

“Legume cover crops, planting corn after alfalfa, using manure effectively, and looking at allowable organic fertilizers are all options farmers will need to explore.  You need to provide enough nitrogen to achieve reasonable yields,” Munroe says.

Konzelmann currently does a five-year crop rotation, with parcels of about 350 acres per crop.

Year one is corn, followed by two years of soybeans.  In years four and five, he grows cereal grains, such as spelt or wheat, with cover crops.

“Red clover helps to build nitrogen for the corn,” notes Konzelmann.  He also uses an oats and peas combination, usually planting the crop the first week of October.

“They freeze out over the winter, the worms eat all of the residue and then you have a clean field in the spring,” he explains.

In terms of crop inputs, Konzelmann’s favourite is compost.

“All of the straw from our fields goes to the neighbour’s into bedding for pigs or mixed with chicken manure.  If I leave the straw in the field, it takes nitrogen from the soil to compost.  By taking (the straw) off the fields to compost I avoid draining nitrogen, then reapply it as compost which delivers nitrogen.”

Munroe emphasizes that, “there are few quick fixes within an organic production system, so it is critical to set a solid foundation with a good crop rotation. The well-planned use of cover crops is essential.”

It’s best to be open minded and want to learn, Konzelmann says.  “Transition 100-200 acres at a time.  Learn as you go.  It’s a lot easier to make mistakes.  You need to be able to say ‘if these acres are a disaster then I can still take the risk.’”

He recalls the farmer who tried transitioning his 1,000 acres in two 500 acre blocks, only to run into problems.  Stressed and frustrated, the farmer pulled his sprayer back out.

In Konzelmann’s case, he did not face challenges with weeds early on in the transition but notes this can always be a possibility.

“On our farm there was not a lot of weed pressure in the first couple of years.  You need to be prepared for that though, and for weeds like burdock and thistle,” he says.

Dan also notes it is important to have a contract before planting – particularly for more speciality crops.  “Beans and corn always sell well.  But you just can’t go to the elevator and dump your spelt,” he cautions.

Even for farmers not interested in transitioning to organic, Munroe notes there are lessons for all.

“Many farmers recognize that principles key to successful organic production, such as sound crop rotation, are beneficial on all farms, organic or not.”

At the Guelph Organic Conference, a number of workshops are presented each year focused on organic crop production.  As well, a 2 day free-entry trade show including exhibitors for small equipment, input providers, certifiers and grain traders also takes place.

Posted on

They’re Not Your Grandfather’s Oats… Oat Production 101

close up of oats

Originally published in the December 2017 issue of Better Farming magazine.

“Historically oats have been the ugly stepsister, planted and then left until harvest, with farmers using the same seed stock year after year,” says Sam Raser, Manager of Organic Procurement at Grain Millers Inc. of Minnesota.

“You’re not going to have the gross revenue from oats.  In 2017, oat prices have generally been between $400-$425 per tonne.  But in your corn the year after, that’s where you see the benefit,” he says.

“They don’t need a lot of nitrogen, that’s the beauty.  As a crop, (oats) can do a lot with a little and it’s not mining a lot of nutrients out of your soil. By far, it is your most fibrous root system in the cereal grains category.”

“It’s an aggressive crop and good at suppressing weeds,” he adds.

farmers hand holding oats with backdrop of oat field

And oats can be planted early.  “Some of the best oats we see have been snowed on.  Oats can take a pretty hard frost until the second or third leaf stage,” Raser says.

Typically, producers don’t have the same disease pressures, such as mycotoxins, with oats.

“They  work well with other cover crops.  A common practice in the Midwestern U.S. is to seed oats, clover and alfalfa together in the spring.  Once you take off your oats, you’re left with a good crop of clover and alfalfa that can be plowed down as a source of nitrogen,” he notes.

But “farmers need to refocus on how to treat oats in their production systems,”

For example, there are new varieties of oats suitable for eastern Canada, such as AC Dieter and CDC Orrin, Raser says.

Producers also have to consider seeding rates.

“Farmers need to think about the plants per acre versus bushels per acre,” he says.

“You really don’t need any special equipment for oat production, but you do need a good storage bin and drying system.  If it’s a wet year, drying (the grain) down right away is really important,” advises Raser.  He also recommends that producers have enough capacity to store the crop for up to 6 months as harvest movement can fill up quickly.

tractor and thrasher in oat field

And how might farmers use their oats after they grow them?

“Organic oats may never leave the farm.  It’s a staple in the crop rotation and can be used for oatlage or baled,” says Raser.

For those looking to sell their crop, “there is nothing much different about the marketing process for oats,” he adds.

For more information you will also find Sam and other grain traders at the two day free-entry trade show at the Guelph Organic Conference that takes place late January / early February each year.

Posted on

Profitability of Organic Farming

Farmers in corn field

Originally published in the December 2017 issue of Better Farming magazine.

“With ever-increasing costs and tight margins for conventional commodities, organic production offers an opportunity for farmers to increase their net returns without having to expand acreage,” says Rob Wallbridge, Organic Specialist with Thompsons Limited.

“Ontario cost of production budgets (from OMAFRA) show an average $200 per acre per year increase in returns for a standard field crop rotation in organic compared to conventional production.”

Current premiums on organic commodities also provide an attractive incentive for progressive farmers looking for a return on intensive management.

“A conventional farmer who can increase his soybean production by three bushels an acre stands to gain $35 to $40 per acre.  An organic farmer who does the same will gain around $90 per acre,” explains Wallbridge.

“Top-notch organic farmers are harvesting 60 bushels/acre of soybeans and 90 bushels/acre of wheat.”

wheat field

A number of influences affect the organic price premiums available.

“Market demand continues to grow  and support organic prices,” says Tom Manley, President of Homestead Organics Ltd near Morrisburg.

“Large food processors and brands such as Costco and Walmart have entered organics.  The  health sector has focused attention on organics as a source of health and healing,” he says.  “The rising demand for organic chicken and pork especially are driving the grain values and creating markets for imports.”

On the other side, there are also negative price pressures.  In particular, Manley points to increasing domestic organic production and growing imports from Asia and Europe.

“Organic production is going mainstream and we live in a global market. Farm gate prices are strongly influenced by the value of the Canadian dollar,” he advises.

Producers also need to carefully monitor costs to ensure a good return on investment.

“You’ll spend less money on nitrogen fertilizer, herbicides, insecticides and genetically modified seed, but other costs will increase,” Manley says.

Specifically, organic farmers need to consider  equipment investments, multiple passes of mechanical weed control, organic fertility inputs, seed and field work for cover crops, potentially trucking longer distance to buyers and reduced economies of scale with longer crop rotations and more crops on the farm.

“Long-term revenue needs to be the focus,” says Sam Raser, Manager of Organic Procurement at Grain Millers Inc. of Minnesota.

“Organic farmers look at a five-year plan versus ‘what am I going to make this year?’  For example, organic farmers understand the importance of that cereal crop year to the yields of their other crops,” he adds.

And producers need to closely monitor their soil tests.

“Successful organic farmers are soil testing every  year, balancing and building their soils, and managing their crops intensively. The good news is a well-managed organic cycle builds on itself.   It generally gets easier and less expensive to grow great crops each year,” says Wallbridge.

And the benefits from such practices can also be realized on conventional farms.

“I’m seeing conventional growers, who put a strong focus on building soil health, are able to grow corn crops with a fraction of the synthetic nitrogen that’s typically recommended,” he says.

For those looking to learn more the Guelph Organic Conference runs late January each year and offers a variety of workshops on organic crop production as well as 2 day free-entry trade show.  Grain traders, equipment suppliers and certifiers exhibit.

“The Guelph Organic Conference is a good place to ask questions of organic grain traders.  Questions about quality expectations, opting out of contracts in case of crop or quality failure, consequences of a quality problem at delivery, sample requirements, storage requirements, who pays for transport and the consequence of a truck being less than full,” says Manley.

Posted on

Mastering Market Gardening – Two Takes on Small Scale Agriculture

Attendees listen to a workshop presentation

By Cameron Bell, 2018 Guelph Organic Conference Attendee and Volunteer

“Baler twine, like duct tape, is your friend”, grins Kristine Hammel of Persephone Market Garden.

She’s describing her approach to bed layout in the spring, measuring and marking out rows to create corridors of crops as the season progresses.

Over a hundred workshop attendees are eagerly listening to her and co-presenter Hanna Jacobs of Matchbox Garden and Seed Company explain their month-by-month workload as small-scale farmers.

Photo of workshop in progress about market gardening

Exploring Options for Your Business (and your life)

Cameron Bell and other attendeesLike many of my fellow workshop participants, I have a few years of gardening and farming experience, and big dreams of running a business growing and selling food.  (That’s me in the green jacket.)

Having never attended the Guelph Organic Conference before, I was eager to absorb as much information as possible, starting with a full-day workshop on market gardening.

The two presenters each provided unique business models to consider.

Seed production generates most of the revenue for Hanna’s business, and surplus vegetables are sold through a 15-member CSA.

On a slightly larger scale, Kristine’s 1.5-acre market garden pumps out fresh produce for more than 50 CSA members, multiple restaurants, and a local distribution co-op.

Starting with some tips on designing your lifestyle and setting long term goals, the presenters covered a wide range of topics in both business planning and farm operations.

While a great deal of advice on these topics is easily available online, there is no substitute for knowledge gained from practical experience in farm-based problem-solving.

For example, as a mother, Kristine extolled the benefits of a “wrap” to keep a newborn safely secured to your back while working in the fields. This is not an immediate concern for me personally, but an important consideration for many young farmers.

Choosing an Appropriate Planning Process

Amidst a slew of technical questions ranging from “bag and tag” cultivar isolation to installing row cover on brassicas, Hanna and Kristine ran us through their respective crop planning processes.

Using graph paper, pencils, and a few DIY Excel spreadsheets, Hanna takes a low-tech approach to annual planning. Maintaining separation between seed crops, reducing the impact of juglone from a black walnut on the property, and maintaining soil fertility are a few of the factors that affect her annual planting plan.

Kristine, on the other hand, uses digital platforms like AgSquared and Small Farm Central to create her crop plan, manage the CSA program, and track tasks throughout the season. While the automation of this approach (excluding technical difficulties) appeals to me, either method can successfully manage productive and profitable farms when used consistently.

Collage of equipment and equipment tables at workshop.

Share the (work)load – The Seasonal Rhythm

Following a lunch break spent investigating Kristine’s collection of tools and BCS attachments, we spent the afternoon exploring the typical monthly work plan for each farm.

While our local growing season typically runs from April till November, a farm’s to-do list is dictated by the products they sell. In the spring, most farmers are busy seeding and transplanting. Kristine, however, advises us to “plan day trips” off the farm in April to reduce the temptation to cultivate wet fields and risk soil compaction.

Selling seedlings keeps Hanna busy in the spring, but her workload decreases in mid-summer while her seed crops grow. A few months later, while Kristine’s vegetable production is finally slowing down, Hanna’s crops need to be harvested, and seeds must be cleaned and packaged for sales throughout the winter.

Keeping these examples in mind, new farmers can pick the enterprises that suit their preferences. For example, reducing the winter workload to allow for skiing!

Adopting the Agricultural Lifestyle

After the workshop “officially” ends, eager attendees crowd around the presenters to ask more questions, while others mill about the tools and books at the side of the room, sharing stories and advice.

Hannah speaking with workshop participants
It’s only the first day of the conference, and we’re already energized (and slightly overwhelmed) with new information about planning and running a market garden. It’s a journey fraught with challenges from financial to fungal, but also an attainable goal.

Success is predicated on having a detailed yet flexible plan, and a realistic understanding of the career and lifestyle we are adopting.

Hanna described it best while gazing at a picture of her seed-producing garden on the projector screen; amidst bushy plants, a few weeds, and overgrown pathways and trellises, her seed stalks emerged proudly.

Despite our best efforts to organize our lives and businesses, there are times when farmers must simply embrace the chaotic beauty of nature. “It’s a mess and it’s glorious,” she smiled.


Posted on

Climate Change & The Garden – Lessons Learned from the 2018 Guelph Organic Conference

Workshop with Kimberly Bell presenting

By Heather Reid, 2018 Guelph Organic Conference Attendee and Volunteer

Climate change was a pervasive theme throughout the 2018 conference. Farmers, gardeners, and consumers are increasingly having discussions about what a changing climate could mean for food production and farm/garden management.

Following this theme, below is a quick summary of some of my key take-aways from the following Saturday workshops:

  • “Climate Change, Soil Health, & The Home Gardener” presented by Glenn Munroe
  • “Water Farming – Management Strategies for a Changing Climate” presented by Jeff Thompson
  • “How Will Climate Change Affect My Garden? A Risk Management Approach” presented by Kimberly Bell


Variability is a key theme for climate change in Ontario.

Almost all projections into the future agree that Ontario’s weather will become more unpredictable from year to year and season to season.

While increasing heat can present opportunities for agriculture, water availability and extreme events may pose substantial challenges.

Think too much water when we don’t need it (planting & harvesting) and too little water when we do (growing).

What Can We Do?

Both Glenn and Kimberly drove home that healthy soils can contribute to water management during dry and wet periods by allowing soil to retain moisture and drain when it needs to.

Glenn suggested 4 actions that should be used together to see healthier soils:

Stop Digging

This helps maintain soil structure and keeps roots and helpful fungi intact

Pay Attention to Roots

Roots help with soil structure and also attract microbes that help keep the soil healthy.

Keep It Covered

Glenn suggested adding a layer of compost on top to help keep the soil moist and Kimberly shared that she uses a layer of leaves after the fall harvest.

Encourage Plant and Microbial Diversity

Healthy soils have a whole world of beneficial bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and protozoa that help plants access nutrients and build soil structure.

Rain Water Collection

Jeff touted the benefits of collecting rain water as a quick, easy, and cheap method of accessing clean water when you need it. Above ground tanks are easy to install and easy to access, while below ground tanks don’t need draining during the winter and can hold a substantial amount of water.

Posted on

Farmers & Fashionistas?

Models on country road

Farmers + Fashionistas?

“It’s time to talk”… says Guelph Organic Conference


For Immediate Release – January 8, 2018

Guelph, Ontario – On January 25, 2018 farmers and fashionistas, an unlikely combination, will get together to mingle, to talk fashion and to brainstorm sustainability and farming.

Hosted by the Guelph Organic Conference, a popular annual trade show and conference focusing on organic foods & farming in Canada, The Field to Fashion Runway aims to bring together organic farmers with sustainable fashion insiders, asking them the question “how do we connect organic farmers with sustainably-minded fashion designers?”  The conference is in its 37th year on the Guelph campus.

And a timely question it is. After Meghan Markle was photographed wearing a Canadian designed wool coat by LINE during her engagement announcement to Prince Harry, the coat sold out in minutes. The coat has since been renamed The Meghan. Canadian fashion is having a moment and sustainable designers want to capture the momentum.

According to Peggy Sue Deaven-Smiltnieks of Peggy Sue Collection finding local materials with which to design is challenging. “I’m approached every month by a designer who wants to work with local fabrics and textiles. And I tell them it’s not easy. You can’t just stop by a shop and buy however many yards you want. You have to go meet the farmers, find the producers, discover who is producing the fibre.”

Accessing local materials and discovering those farmers continues to hamper the progress of sustainable designers. Connecting the producers of raw natural materials, such as wool, alpaca, flax and hemp, to fashion designers is an issue that needs addressing. This is where, Tomás Nimmo, the coordinator of the Guelph Organic Conference, hopes to begin the conversation.

“We know that our organic farming community is ready to reach out to find new markets,” says Tomás. “And sustainable fashion has quickly become a topic of interest in environmental circles. After seeing Peggy Sue Collection win the Toronto New Labels Award with an entirely locally sourced collection, we knew it was time to bring local/Ontario farmers into the conversation.”

The panel discussion will try to carefully track the supply chain from field to fashion with panelists representing farmers, organizers, artisans and designers. The evening will include table displays by the panelists, as well as ample time for networking. Organic wine and light refreshments will be served at the mid-way point of the evening.

Tickets are $35 + HST up to January 8th, then $45 after that or paid at the door –

Tweet it – Unlikely conversations make for interesting results. Farmers & Fashionistas talking sustainable fashion at #goc18 @GuelphOrganic

Media Contact

Sarah Jean Harrison
Peace Flag House