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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.