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My Experiences at the 2016 Conference

Eco Scholars with Sponsors 2016

by Justin Maddalena – 2016 Eco-Scholar

When you start your conference off with locally brewed beer, eating an array of delicately prepared entrees, dishes and desserts all of local or organic origin there is not much to be said in the way of a dissatisfying weekend.

Now introduce a Nutfell Scholar recipient who studied rural Transalvanians relationship with agriculture, a Barley Genetics researcher at University of Guelph, and an up and coming Beekeeper  named Mike and you have got yourself an amazing Friday night (in my opinion).

2016 Eco-Scholars at Dinner


The 2016 Guelph Organic conference was a place where I reconnected with familiar faces and was able to network and interact with many new people. 

On Friday night I met my fellow eco-scholars who came from varying backgrounds in Guelph and Waterloo.  Graduating from high school, spending some dedicated time travelling and varying University experiences we were able to share our unique thoughts, ideas and aspirations in organic agriculture.

Eco Scholars 2016 at Trade Show talkingComing from a background of urban agriculture and market gardening, and being a young Canadian interested in agriculture I was drawn towards the workshops oriented around the viability of young farmers in starting their own operations, the challenges they faced and opportunities for collaboration.

It was interesting to see concerns about youth engagement, new land ownership and start-up viability being so widely discussed in the keynote speakers forum, and in workshops on “Perspectives from Young Canadians in Agriculture”.

Along with these issues the forum itself introduced to me dedicated professionals working here in Creemore, St. Agatha, Toronto and the United States and I was able to listen in as audience members shared their backgrounds, from PEI farmers to Montana horse burden advocates there was no shortage of representations.

Taking discussions a step further, on Saturday afternoon I was able to sit in along with some of the eco-scholars on a meeting discussing “Farming for a Future”, it was fascinating to see how Gayl, along with many other attending farmers were discussing how our youth can be engaged to help transform our relationship with agriculture back to “reconnecting  the sacred relationship with food and farming”, a goal that seems to redeem all the encompassing issues around industrial and non-ecological agriculture.

University of Guelph Masters studentsOn the final day I was able to talk with a Masters student at the University of Guelph working with Organic Soy. I was impressed to see his research being conducted in a field where we both agreed organic research was the minority.

Speaking with his counterpart at the Organic Agriculture Booth for the University for Guelph I was able to pick up a variety of organic lemon balm, mountain mint and lavender all grown on the University of Guelph’s campus. 

Overall my experience can be boiled down to a point that was brought up at the opening nights forum.

Friday night panel Guelph Organic Conference 2016Amid one of Ekk Pfennings discussion points, while on the Friday night panel, he pointed out that organic agriculture remains only 5% of the total agriculture that makes up Canada.

This was not a pessimistic stance by any means, it was seen in my mind as an affirmation of the work that stills needs to be done.

However after a weekend at the Guelph Organic Conference, it is tough to resist that this change is coming and the future of agriculture is being transformed!

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Accomplishing Three Goals at the 2016 Conference…

Growing Connection 2016 Guelph Organic Conference

by Amanda Vandenberg

The 2016 Guelph Organic Conference was a weekend filled with like-minded enthusiasts who support organic foods and farming. 

The Conference is the perfect place for farmers and consumers to meet. Every single person I talked to at the conference spoke with such passion.

It was inspiring to see so many young people at the show thriving to learn more.

I went to the show with 3 main goals:  To educate myself on growing my own food, to speak to local businesses and to taste something new.

Growing Connection photo for blog#1  Educating myself on harvesting my own food

One booth that stood out to us was “ The Growing Connection”.  Robert Patterson had very inviting energy .

He spent  30 + years with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN working on project design and implementation so it was no surprise that he developed the growing connection box. 

The box is an easy –to – use system for growing plants. It is so easy to assume we cannot grow our own food but this is so far from the truth. This box can be virtually used anywhere to grow a variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs and ornamental plants. The box is made from 50 % recycled plastic and uses very little space (That’s right condo dwellers, no excuses!!)

Robert gave us a demo and I was instantly convinced.  The product is simple to use, very little experience is required.

Birds and Beans coffee display at 2016 Guelph Organic Conference#2   Speak to local businesses

 It was a pleasant surprise to see my local coffee joint at the show.  Aside from the fact they have a no charge soy policy this local business sets the bar high for sustainability. 

Some of their sustainable offerings include:

  • Bird friendly coffee ( the 1st company in Canada to do so) . Bird Friendly certified coffee is guaranteed to provide wintering habitat for our migratory songbirds and other wildlife.
  • All food products are certified organic (from the cinnamon to the organic meat slices from Beretta Farms)

I could talk all day about the sustainability of this local business. I recommend next time you are on Lakeshore Blvd in Toronto you stop in and grab an Americano . The breakfast cookie is also a local favourite.

Amanda trying Live Kombucha#3  Taste something new

 I can confidently say that I have never been a fan of the taste of Komucha. 

That was until I came across the Live Kombucha booth fully equipped with a sampling keg.

On Saturday they were sampling: Orange Oolong, Lemon Ginger, Naked Blend and Citrus Heat. 

Naked blend was my favourite of the 4. It was refreshing and had nothing to hide. 

We were lucky enough to meet Lorman  (Founder of Live Kombucha ).

Lorman has always had an interest in the mystery and mystical properties of the leaves.  Live is Guelph’s 1st brewed fermented Kombucha Tea  and is family owned. They value nutrition , health and environmentally sustainable methods.  

The tea can be purchased at many retailers across the GTA.  I myself purchased a 12 pack at the show.

In Summary…

I enjoyed my time at the show and would urge any person interested in organics to attend and speak to our local farmers. The show is free to the public and offers the chance to buy directly from organic food suppliers.  I can’t wait to go back next year.

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Transition To Organic Farming Requires Planning

Organic Transition Wheat Photo

Demand for Organic Crops Remains Strong

“Demand for organic crops is growing by 15% annually, and the weaker Canadian dollar has especially strengthened demand for Canadian product,” notes Rita Felder, owner and CEO of Field Farms Marketing Ltd. near Petrolia, Ontario.

“Significant quantities of organic grains and oilseeds are coming in from Asia and Eastern Europe to cover the production shortfall here in North America,” says Tom Manley, President of Homestead Organics near Cornwall, Ontario.

Echoing Rita, Tom says that with the high US dollar, Canadian organic grain prices remain stable and continue to provide farmers with significant price premiums versus conventional crops.

With a 36 month transition phase, moving to organic production requires farmers to think ahead and have a solid plan in place before starting.

“A grower’s decision to farm organically and how that transition will take place varies for each individual and depends on many factors,” says Rita. “It not only depends on their farm’s characteristics, but also on how fast they are willing to learn and how quick they want to change.”

“A good starting acreage is usually 100 acres,” says Rita. “If you have acreage in hay, or a sufficient park of equipment and manpower, you could look at transitioning a bigger number of acres more quickly,” she adds.

Tom suggests a gradual transition for any farm over 200 acres. For a 1,000 acre farm he suggests 100 acres in the first and second years, then 200 acres in years 3 and 4, then 400 acres in year 5.

“You need to manage risk and absorb temporary yield loss during transition, using the balance of the farm as a revenue buffer,” notes Tom. “The yield drop will not be so important in later transition phases thanks to investments in soil development and lessons learned in prior years.”


Field with house in background

Which acreage to begin with? “Choose the best acres with the best drainage,” notes Tom. He also suggests that fields with easy access, close to the house or road for monitoring, currently in pasture or hay should also be considered as good places to begin. Last but not least, he recommends fields with clay loam soils and high organic matter.

“It’s really important for farmers to realize that organic farming is not zero-input production. You won’t be applying pesticides and herbicides but nutrient imports from manure and/or mineral sources will be critical,” emphasizes Tom.

“Seek the assistance of an organic agronomist and be prepared to invest in amendments. Many farmers we work with are not importing nutrients every year, but compost every 3 years and mineral amendment every 5 years unless dealing with specific deficiencies,” he notes.

Other factors to consider are crop rotations, buffer zones, and whether farmers will use parallel production methods during transition.

For example, Tom notes that if parallel production is undertaken, the two crops must be visually distinct, “to prevent the temptation or suspicion that the organic crop may be topped-up with conventional product. For example, organic clear-hylum soybeans versus conventional dark hylum soybeans.”

“There are very distinct rules and regulations under the organic standards so it’s important to understand these ahead of time,” notes Rita.

“Farmers have likely heard someone talking about organic. It might be a neighbour, it might be their daughter’s university friends. They might even be skeptical,” says Tomas Nimmo, Manager of the Guelph Organic Conference. “What we offer – through the conference – is a chance to investigate what it’s all about from primary crop production to finished high end product.”

“Getting informed before starting transition is essential,” emphasizes Tomas. “The conference is an opportunity to talk to organic farmers, certifier representatives, and grain traders to understand what is going to be involved.”

For those interested in transitioning to organic farming Tomas recommends Saturday as a good starting point. “There are a number of workshops on organic crop production, as well as the free trade show with organic grain trader-processors, certifiers, equipment manufacturers and nutrient suppliers,” he notes.

The Guelph Organic Conference runs at the end of January each year and offers over 40 workshops on a variety of topics including soil health, cover crops, grass-fed beef, plant breeding, commercial root cellar design, pollination, composting and much more. The free trade show with over 160 exhibitors, including food sampling, is held on Saturday and Sunday.

For more information visit the following links or call 519-824-4120 x56311.

Workshop Schedule 

Link to list of Trade Show exhibitors.

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The Eco-Scholar Experience

2015 Guelph Organic Conference Eco-Scholars at the Big Carrot Booth

2015 Guelph Organic Conference Eco-Scholars

2015 Eco-Scholar Program winners: from left, Emily Peat, Kyra Lightburn, Victoria Kyle, Tomas Nimmo (Conference Manager), Gayl Creutzberg (Eco-Scholar Co-ordinator), Alex Sanders and Ranjit Singh Kalra.

By Alex Sanders, 2015 Guelph Organic Conference Eco-Scholar

The 2015 Guelph Organic Conference proved to be a place where I could see some friendly faces while meeting a few new ones. Meeting my fellow Eco-scholars made this latter point especially true. We came from varying backgrounds – cities and farms, Guelph and Waterloo, Canada and India – to share our unique thoughts, ideas, and aspirations that related to organic agriculture.

This education we received from each other occurred in parallel with the amazing workshops. Coming from a cash-crop operation, I instinctively leaned towards the field crop workshops. However, the urban orchard and market gardening presentations proved to be just as interesting and engaging. I suppose that understanding and learning from other facets of agriculture can only help and never hinder!

Despite these great experiences, the best part of the organic conference for me was the delicious dinner and the following panel discussion on issues facing Canada’s organic system. I believe that there will always be the argument that it all comes down to food. Food brings people together and allows them to swap ideas, be creative, and enter dialogue on current issues. This is exactly what happened at the conference dinner, where I was able to converse with the other Eco-scholars, representatives of The Big Carrot, and many other members of the organic sector.

Guelph Organic Conference 2015, Friday night dinner.

Eco-scholars enjoying the Friday night dinner.

A larger dialogue continued after the meal with the panel discussion. I experienced a few ‘a-ha’ moments while listening to proposed solutions to dilemmas facing organic agriculture. For example, the call to farmers to buy pedigree organic seed so as to gain more seed suppliers and more varieties was fascinating. Recognizing the large void between domestic organic food supply and demand, and the huge opportunity that exists in the sector, was just as interesting. Based on the talks, I left the lecture hall confident that the organic sector can confront and solve current problems and concerns.

Guelph Organic Conference 2015, Friday night forum.

Eco-Scholars enjoyed a stimulating organic trade discussion at the Keynote Forum Friday evening.

Overall, I thoroughly appreciated my experience at the 2015 Guelph Organic Conference. The fact that I was an Eco-scholar significantly enhanced the event’s impact for me. As a result, I would urge any young person who is at least interested in organics to apply for the scholarship. Advice that I can give everyone else is to not only see what you want to see at the conference, but to also attend a random workshop. Be open to every learning opportunity no matter the topic!

Alex Sanders - Guelph Organic Conference 2015 Eco-ScholarAlex Sanders is studying for a degree in agriculture science at the University of Guelph and in the summer of 2013, he completed a co-op internship at Meeting Place Organic Farm near Lucknow, Ontario. His involvement with organics began in 2008 when his family began pursuing certification of their 150-acre cash crop farm near Brussels, Ontario. Their grain yields have been slowly stabilizing, and even increasing. His keen interest in plants means that his future occupation will likely be focused on organic crop production and cropping systems.

To learn more about the Eco-Scholar program please visit here.   

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Three Reasons I Loved the 2015 Guelph Organic Conference

Cottage Gardener organic seed display - Guelph Organic Conference 2015

By Samantha Sawyer-Blain

I first learned of the Guelph Organic Conference & Expo when searching for volunteer opportunities on I was delighted when a friend and fellow University of Guelph grad asked if I would like to volunteer.

Filsinger's samples at the 2015 Guelph Organic ConferenceWhile I could go on and on about all that is great about this event, the following are what I loved most…

#1     Great finds!

My friend and I bought two bottles each of Filsinger’s Organic Food’s apple cider vinegar, and I picked up some Level Ground fair trade organic coconut oil from the Grow Marketing exhibit.

The Cottage Gardener Seeds representatives were especially helpful in answering my many questions – “Basil, I can grow basil in my window, right? Like a window herb garden? No? What about this? Would these grow?” I have very limited experience with gardening, so I really appreciated the free booklets they made available to me. I also bought Catnip seeds for my mom, and Echinacea seeds for my dad ?

Cottage Gardener Seeds booth at 2015 Guelph Organic Conference

#2     The story of Black Creek Community Farm

It was enlightening to listen to the workshop speakers describe the trials and errors of establishing this relatively new community farm, and heartwarming to hear stories of how they’ve collaborated with and learned from members of their community. I found the manager, Alex Redfield, to be laid back and patient with a great sense of humour which, after hearing the details of some of their challenges, I imagine must be necessary in order to remain undeterred.

They are not alone in fighting to solve the paradox that is the urgent need to make healthy food accessible to economically disadvantaged communities while at the same time paying fair wages to farm labourers. It would be wonderful to see Black Creek Community Farm become a successful and inspirational model for other communities.

#3    The conference was full of individuals working to make the future better for Canada’s organic farmers!

The Conference provides opportunities for organic producers to do the following:

-introduce and sell their products to attendees
-network with retail representatives
-share and receive helpful knowledge and advice from other producers


Pfenning's Booth at 2015 Guelph Organic Conference

Beyond being entrepreneurs, many of these organic farmers have a very emotional connection to what they are doing; many are working for positive change, while some could consider themselves activists.

One of my favourite things about the Guelph Organic Conference is that it provides opportunities to learn about and discuss the issues faced by the organic farming community. To facilitate this discussion there were several events and seminars covering many important topics including:

-Keynote Forum on National Organic Farming Issues: The State of the Organic Nation;
-Greenbelt Farmers’ Market Network Room;
-Seminars focused on topics such as fibreshed, pollinators, social justice, regulatory issues, certification, etc.; and
-Informational exhibits, such as the one focused on GMOs

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Why I Love Volunteering

Volunteers carrying boxes

By Samantha Sawyer-Blain

These days I continue to be amazed by how necessary volunteering is to most aspects of our society.

Volunteers give their time to the organizations most active in protecting and strengthening our collective rights, provide assistance and services to those most vulnerable, and in solidarity influence policy and legislation for the better.

Every one of us benefit from the work of unpaid and often unrecognized volunteers.

For most people, myself included, free time is very valuable. The less time I have to myself the more selective I become when deciding how it should be allocated. I want to make sure that I am getting the maximum enjoyment from every moment!

Watching television shows, with commercials and redundant recaps and bookending, doesn’t have a very high enjoyment/hour rate for me. The endeavors I do deem worth most of my precious free time are:

a) Socializing
b) Learning about things which interest me
c) Self-improvement
d) All of the above, at once

Option d) sounds like it must be a pretty satisfying way to spend my time, and a great example of this was volunteering at the 2015 Guelph Organic Conference!

Volunteers Registration w bags sm crop

Volunteers assisting with bags and materials for registered attendees.

It was my second year volunteering at the Conference and my duties included assisting at the registration desk, collecting attendees’ badges for re-use next year, and helping with tear down.

There was much socializing to be done at this event!  I had the pleasure of volunteering alongside friendly and enthusiastic individuals, and it was great learning about exhibitors’ interesting stories and great products.

I was able to spend time chatting with the good folks representing Alternatives Journal (“Canada’s Environmental Voice”), to which I’m a loyal subscriber, about their recently published Water issue. I also received some good pointers and helpful literature from The Cottage Gardener Seeds exhibitors regarding my ambitions to grow a window herb garden.

The highlight of the Conference’s social aspect, for me, was the enlightening discussions that took place during seminars with fellow attendees and speakers.  One of the perks of volunteering is being able to attend workshops between shifts.

The seminar on the Environmental Bill of Rights appealed to my interests in activism and environmental sustainability, and the workshop on Black Creek Community Farm was super interesting to me because of my aspirations to one day grow my own food and be part of a community food share program.

In respect to self-improvement, there were many opportunities to become educated on topics related to organic farming as well as take in information about a variety of related social justice issues.

It’s also well-known that volunteering has a positive effect on well-being; 43.6% of Canadians volunteered 1.957 billion hours in 2013, according to Stats Can.

And, of course, volunteer experiences can be very useful networking opportunities along with providing resume material!

Volunteers Carrying Boxes

Volunteers Carrying Boxes

Volunteering my time and energy at events like the Guelph Organic Conference allowed me to witness positive change in real time. It affirmed my optimism that there are others out there who recognize what changes must occur and are optimistic enough to dedicate their time and energy to making it happen.

It was especially heartening to see how important it is to some producers to operate ethically, including; sustainable farming practices, facilitating accessibility to healthy organic food, and fair wages for farm labour.

Though activism is important to me, and the reasons I choose to help charities and non-profits are often at least semi-political in nature, there are countless other ways every one of us can feel as though we’re making a difference to our communities.

If you are interested in volunteering at the conference visit the Volunteering Section here.

Each year the conference relies on over 150 volunteers to ensure everything runs smoothly.

Just be ready to make new friends, network and gain lots of interesting experiences!

Volunteers coat check sm crop br

Volunteers helping in the coat check area.

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Organic Gardening Tips

Gardeners wheelbarrow and gardeners gloves

The anticipation when you purchase your seeds. The feel of the soil on your hands.  The excitement of seeing those first seeds sprout.  And hopefully…. the satisfaction of a bountiful harvest!

There are lots of exciting aspects to gardening.

For those starting out, as well as those with years of experience, we assembled these organic gardening tips from Cathy Nesbitt, Owner of Cathy’s Crawly Composters and Glenn Munroe, Proprietor of Worms and Associates .

Organic gardeners wheelbarrow and gardeners glovesAdd Compost

Compost provides a variety of nutrients, increases moisture retention and helps mitigate soil compaction.  “Add it regularly and if you can, use vermicompost – created by worms, which is going to be your best option,” notes Glenn.

“It’s best to make your own compost, or at least know your source of compost well,” notes Cathy.  She adds that “not all composts are created equal.  For example, compost from municipal green bin programs can be high in sodium.”

Focus on Soil Development

“The key aspect of organic gardening, is helping your soil to become as healthy as possible,” notes Glenn.  He suggests minimizing the disturbance of your soil except for some specific circumstances.

Both Glenn and Cathy agree that keeping your soil covered over the winter is important.  “In the winter the soil is regenerating, building up it’s energy for Spring,” notes Cathy.  “Consider lasagna composting and set it up in the fall to provide a cover for the ground,” she adds.

Glenn also recommends mulches or cover crops.

Colorful and fresh chives with pollinating bee in spring sunlightPractice Ecological Diversity

“Growing different crops in your garden each year, or at least rotating them to different areas of your garden is important,” advises Glenn.  He also recommends planting pollinator friendly plants and mixing perennials and annuals.

Cathy emphasizes that it’s important to know the origin of your plants.  “Check your plant source, to know how your plants were grown.  For example, avoid plants with neonicotinoids.  You might be killing bees without even knowing it.”

Cathy also recommends focusing on plants that are suited to the conditions in your garden, as well as heirloom and native varieties.

Just Stop It!

To have an organic garden, you’ll need to stop using chemical sprays.

Cathy notes that often gardeners are okay with this until they are faced with a specific threat such as wasps or mosquitoes and then they panic.  “Just stop it!  You’re not just getting rid of that one type of bug.   Think about the other bugs and organisms that will be impacted by the chemical residue,” she says.

Glenn notes that the goal should be to make your soil so healthy that pesticides aren’t needed and your only fertilizer is compost and/or worm castings.  “While you are moving towards your goal however, fish and seaweed fertilizers are good,” he notes.


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Demand and prices for organic grain remain strong in Ontario

Homestead Organics Grain Elevators

Published Jan 6, 2015

Organic grain traders, buyers and processors are paying top dollar for corn, soybeans and many other grains and expect this trend to continue.

“Depending on test weight and the shipping period, we expect to pay $12 to $14.50 per bushel for organic corn in 2015,” says Rita Felder, Owner and CEO of Field Farms Marketing near Petrolia, Ontario.

Tom Manley, President of Homestead Organics near Cornwall, Ontario and Dan Bewersdorff, Organic Grain Program Director of Herbruck’s of Saranac, Michigan will be offering similar prices. (Although Herbruck’s is based in western Michigan they source from Ontario as well as Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Indiana.)

Even with organic yields being lower than conventional, Tom estimates that for 100 acres of organic corn, farmers could increase their profit by $700 to $1360 per acre versus conventional.

And it’s not just corn. “I need a lot more of everything,” says Tom. “Growing niche products such as hops, millet or hemp isn’t necessary. There are very strong markets for soybeans, corn, wheat, barley and oats,” he adds. All three buyers expect organic soybean prices to be in the range of $29 to $34 per bushel.

“In my 17 years in organic, the prices have never been so high. They’re 2 to 3 times that of conventional,” says Tom. “It’s very lucrative,” he adds.

Demand for organic grains is being driven by consumer demand for organic food in a wide variety of categories. As the largest organic egg producer in the United States with over 1 million chickens, Herbruck’s sees this trend first hand. “The demand for organic eggs is growing so then the demand for organic grain grows too,” says Dan. “What we can offer growers is a good, solid, established market,” he adds.

With strong demand and prices two to three times that of conventional, why aren’t farmers lining up to convert?

“It’s a big step and requires people to change how they have been farming for the last two generations,” say Dan.

Sign for Field Farms MarketingRita notes that, “many conventional farmers have also taken on jobs off the farm. Their plates are already quite full without adding the learning curve of converting to organic.”

“When a farmer is operating a thousand acres and it’s profitable, there’s that idea of ‘if it’s not broken, why change?’,” says Tom. “It’s very sad that farmers aren’t converting. Consumers want more organic, and farmers are missing an opportunity to step up to the plate,” he adds.

Personal reasons have often been a key motivator in becoming organic. Rita notes that many organic farmers, “have experienced health challenges in their families and started re-thinking chemical applications.” She also finds that “family farms are sometimes looking for an income boost so they can include more family members in the operation.”

The three year transition period to organic farming is often seen as a significant hurdle.

“The transition period scares people away,” says Tom. “They’re concerned about poor yields, weed control and nutrient management – even when the fear is not substantiated,” he notes.

For larger operations, Dan recommends that producers look to a section of their operation that they can break off. “Find someone in the operation who has an interest in organics, break off a piece of the farm and let them operate that smaller piece as organic,” Dan recommends. “You can gain experience and learn from this without the stress of converting the entire operation,” he adds.

One important note is that farmers can receive premiums for their crops during transition, by selling into non-gmo markets. Prices are not as high as organic, but still offer a premium versus conventional.

Another big piece of the puzzle is education. “A lot of mainstream agricultural education is focused on conventional methods,” notes Rita.

“For farmers contemplating organic production we tell them to go to the Guelph Organic Conference, attend the sessions and talk to other organic farmers,” says Rita. “It’s a very important platform for the organic sector,” she adds.

“Farmers and motivated consumers can talk directly to buyers, traders, feed processers as well as established organic grain growers,” notes Tomas Nimmo, Manager of the Guelph Organic Conference & Expo.

“We just want the light bulb to go on in people’s heads about the organic cropping option,” says Tomas. “We’re not talking about hundreds of bushels or even just truckloads being handled by the traders in the show – we’re talking millions,” he emphasizes.

Update for 2018

There will be multiple organic grain trader-processors on hand at the Guelph Organic Conference.  

On Saturday, January 27th, 2018 the conference features a stream of workshops focused on organic crop production. The free Saturday & Sunday Expo features over 160 booths that include grain traders, certifiers, equipment manufacturers and nutrient suppliers .

For more information visit the workshop schedule here or call 519-824-4120, Extension 56311.

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Is it time to park your sprayer and learn to love the weeds?

Tractor in field

Published Oct 15, 2014

Transition tips for going organic on 500+ acres.

With demand soaring and prices at a premium is it time to think organic?

A 2013 study by the Canada Organic Trade Association (COTA), found the value of the Canadian organic food market had tripled since 2006, far outpacing the growth rate of other agri-food sectors. The study also found that 58% of all Canadians buy organic products every week.

Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough Canadian supply to meet these needs and imports are necessary.

Converting to organic is not an easy decision though, and following are some key points for conventional farmers to consider.

Think slow and steady.

A complete ‘all at once’ transition is not suggested.

“I started with 5 acres and made my mistakes on it. Then I moved to 50 acres, and added 100 each year,” says Roger Rivest of Nature Lane Farms in Tilbury, Ontario. Roger has farmed since 1973 and became certified in 1990, growing corn, soybeans, spelt and oats. He also operates Roger Rivest Marketing Ltd.

For Western farmers Wallace Hamm, who converted to organic production in 1996, advises starting with a quarter section of 160 acres, and rolling more land into organic each year. A native of southern Manitoba, Wallace now lives in Saskatchewan where he farms 2000 acres organically. Wallace is also the founder of Pro-Cert Organic Systems, a well-known North American certifier.

Although farmers with livestock can often speed up transition by converting hay fields and pasture land first it’s not unusual for it to take up to seven or eight years to completely transition all acreage to organic production.

Learn to love weeds.

This is one of the toughest mindset changes. Strategic use of winter annual crops, seeding density, crop rotation and tillage are quite effective at controlling weeds. But weeds are tough, and total eradication of weeds is not realistic or even desired in organic farming.

For example, Wallace’s main crops of flax and oats often compete with wild oats and wild mustard.

He estimates these weeds have accounted for up to 25% of total yield. Is he worried? Not at all.

“The weeds support bio diversity in our fields which is important to ongoing soil development,” notes Wallace.

Wallace also happily sells his weed crop. (Yes you read that correctly.)

There is high demand for organic livestock feed, and weeds offer excellent protein levels usually in the 15-20% range. Wallace regularly enjoys receiving $3 to $4 per bushel for his weeds.

In Eastern Canada, row crop tillage is key to weed control for crops such as corn and beans. Roger suggests investing in equipment such as a tine weeder, a rotary hoe and flamer. Although there is strong demand for organic livestock feed, an organized market for weed seeds as a protein source has yet to develop.

Keep the old ones, but plan to make some new friends.

One of the toughest challenges may be the opinions of your family and neighbours. “This is the big elephant in the room that nobody talks about,” says Wallace. “Peer pressure is tough.”

It’s incredibly important to have a support network of organic farmers to help you through the highs and lows of transition.

Reach out to established organic farmers and suppliers. Both Roger and Wallace are happy to talk to farmers who would like more information. They also recommend events such as the Guelph Organic Conference, where farmers can attend workshops and meet other organic farmers and suppliers.

Do the math.

Most farmers deciding to transition will do so based on potential revenue benefits. “Organics has its own independent price model now – and a quite lucrative one,” says Wallace.

Concerned about possible price volatility? “I’m a firm believer any farm – organic or not, needs to have the ability to store all their crops for at least a year,” says Roger.

Although land costs are still a critical factor, organic farms can be viable on much smaller acreages then conventional farms. In Ontario, Roger suggests a farm size of 500 to 1000 acres to achieve economies of scale. In Western Canada, Wallace suggests 1,600 acres as viable.

In the first few years, equipment investments are typical. For example, Roger sees liquid pumps and fertilizer boxes for planters as essential. Recently Roger invested in GPS and RTK technology for his 750 acres of organic crops. “It was a perfect fit and a very worthwhile investment. It paid for itself in the first year.”

In Western Canada, Wallace considers a rod weeder a must. “Many farmers consider it obsolete, but it’s a very simple and inexpensive tool that is very effective,” says Wallace.

Overall, a very key piece of the financial story is that organic farmers have significantly lower input costs because they are no longer spraying multiple times per year.

What have you got to lose?

Simply put, “you’re not going to lose the family farm simply by going organic,” says Wallace. “Feel free to keep some air in the tires of your sprayer just in case – but with careful planning and a willingness to try new things, it’s no riskier than conventional farming and has great revenue potential,” he notes.

To learn more…

Both Roger and Wallace are regular attendees at the upcoming Guelph Organic Conference taking place at the Guelph University Centre.

There are over 40 workshops for attendees to choose from at the conference. The workshop schedule is available here.

The free 2 day trade show features over 150 trade suppliers, organizations and organic products. For more information on the trade show visit here.