wheat business that thrives in the prairies
Its not just in Britain that
organic production is taking
off. In Canada, too, both
big and small businesses are
embracing it, as Pam Irving
(who came to farm in
Canada from Scotland with
her husband Kenny last
WHILE some British farmers wrestle with the risks and far-from-certain viability of organic farming, many western Canadian farmers are seeing it as the only way to go.
With low world prices threatening farmers, and genetically-engineered crops threatening consumer confidence, both farmers and consumers are looking to organics as less riskier in the long run. Established organic farmers say there is money to be made and are encouraging other farmers to go organic too.
Dwayne Smith doesnt fit easily into conventional or organic farming stereotypes. At only 34, he is head of Grainworks, a wholesale organic enterprise grossing over Can$1m (£420,000)/yr. The only organic enterprise in the heart of Canadas wheat belt near Vulcan, Alberta, it is growing steadily while other farmers are feeling the pinch. He is a third generation farmer who relies on his instincts more than formal training, yet is very articulate on agricultural issues.
"In the early eighties, I was selling about $10,000 (£4200) worth of bags a year of unsprayed grains and putting in about $20,000 (£8400) of work," he jokes outside his processing facility. "We now gross over $1.2m (£500,000) per year with an estimated gross next year of $1.6m (£670,000), and an average annual growth rate of 20-35%. Its growth, but it could be better," he shrugs modestly, "I could successfully organic farm twice the land base."
Mr Smiths grandfather homesteaded the land back in 1912 when no one used sprays. His father, Russell Smith, didnt find it cost-effective to use too much spray and fertiliser during his farming years either. By the early 80s, the Smiths decided to pursue the growing trend toward unsprayed grain, since that was what they were doing anyway.
Grainworks did not to have to worry about transitional markets. "I know they can be a problem for farmers wanting to convert. We had originally hoped to serve a market for higher quality feed, but that hasnt panned out." With a current ratio of 58,000 conventional farms to 150 organic ones in Alberta, its still an uphill battle for farmers looking to convert.
Today, Grainworks markets to California directly and ships out 45,000kg (100,000lb) a month to health food stores throughout western Canada. It also has markets in Japan and Europe. The firm has its own processing facility and marketing arm and employs four outside workers and three in-house staff.
Grainworks primary crop is wheat, with some triticale, barley, flax and rye. It also buys in some other grains, dried beans and rice. The firm used to send wheat to the local co-op to get it cleaned, but decided to lease a nearby grain elevator when Mr Smith realised he could do so for less than paying the co-op. Grainworks now owns the facility and has updated it with processing and bagging equipment.
Grainworks operates a ten-year crop rotation, with five out of ten years in fallow growing green manure crops such as yellow blossom sweet clover. "Our yields are respectable and can outyield some of our conventional neighbours," he says. To farmers who raise their eyebrows about excess tillage, Mr Smith says that tillage only destroys soil if it results in less organic matter. "If you are putting in green manure as opposed to chem fallow, you can afford more tillage."
Mr Smith believes he is improving the soil. "You have to understand soil from a farmers perspective. Get out and see whats happening in the fields. Rely on those senses, rather than waste a lot of money on soil samples. You send the same sample to two different labs, youll get two different results."
Organic farming is equally attractive to people who do not want or can not afford to farm a large land base, providing a diversity of possibilities from garlic to wine.
While Alberta is better suited to big farms with lower yields, its neighbour in British Columbia (BC) particularly in the southern interior, is better suited to smaller farms with higher yields. In Creston BC, Merv Sloss farms half an acre of organic garlic grossing Can$10,000 to $15,000 (£4300-£6400)/year. As a member of the regional organic growers association, he gets marketing tips, advice and opportunities to co-operate for marketing.
Hainle Vineyards 7ha (18 acres) near Penticton, BC is Canadas only certified organic winery and finds that private wine and beer stores pay higher prices than government ones. Both of these farmers are able to market directly or through wholesalers and say they can not keep up with the demand.
Because of the perceived higher food value, consumers are prepared to pay more for the health of their families in the short term. Products that were once only available in health food stores, are now widely available in supermarkets. Local and imported produce and value added products like Rice Dream and Natures Path can be purchased at Safeway. In fact, in a UK survey over 60% of consumers surveyed said they would purchase organic food if it were more readily available and cost no more than conventional food.
This presents a dilemma for producers. Organics provide higher premiums but the labour inputs are also greater. Supermarkets in Canada already dictate to growers how they want the produce marketed and presented. "It wont be long before contract prices are lowered," warns Kenny Irving, an ex-UK farmer who echoes the British experience.
With world trade markets levelling out due to deregulation in agreements like NAFTA, it wont be long before local growers will not be able to compete with places like Mexico. "What can we do? We want organic food distributed as broadly as possible," says spinach farmer Dan Ferguson in Canada.
Organic certification is still a bit unclear as national standards in Canada are still being standardised. Local grower groups, supported by the national organic group, can certify farmers through a process of inspection and soil tests. Not all certification bodies enjoy the same respect internationally as they might locally.
Despite his success, Dwayne Smith of Grainworks also has concerns about the future of organic exports from Canada. "Im afraid that our national standards will be insufficient to maintain international confidence in our products." Canada already has lower standards than some countries and Smith thinks organic exporters may have to look to an international body for certification to be taken seriously in world markets.
"If you are sitting on half an acre and selling to the local co-op, the export criteria doesnt affect you, but Grainworks has a vested interest in seeing Canadas standards meet the grade. We have dandy markets to California and the Pacific Rim and we want to maintain and build on them."
Food co-ops set up over twenty years ago in Canada continue to serve producers and consumers. According to customer services worker Abra Brynne, the Kootenay Food Co-op in Nelson has a steady annual growth rate of at least 8%. Over 600 people per day pass through their doors. Many larger retail outlets are not doing as well. "We are selling organic asparagus for $22 (£9)/kg. Thats a good premium for producers. We would like not to have to import from the US. Canada needs more growers and processing facilities."
Park Cowin of Glade Mountain Farms is on the board of the Koot-enay co-op and has been producing organic veg and fruit for 10 years.
He also has a line of value-added products like pesto and edible flowers. Like many organic farmers, he relies on reducing his labour input by using WWOOFers (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) who work for room and board and the pleasure of a healthy working holiday.
Mr Cowins farm has been certified organic for three years. Along with residential courses on organic farming, they realise a year round income from the farm.
Debbie Boyle has been involved in the food industry for over twenty years and is now head of Pro-Organics in Vancouver, the biggest wholesaler of organic produce in Canada.
Many organic markets are niche ones, she points out; heirloom beans, cranberries and onions are good examples where there is currently a gap in the market. Soya and soya products are an example of a product that is always in demand. New markets are opening up. Hemp growers, for example, are badly needed by a new processor in Grand Forks, BC.
Lonnie Lacerf of Pleasant Peasant Farms near Creston, BC sells to the Kootenay co-op but also has a steady home delivery business. He claims that on two acres he can grow 23t (50,000lb) of vegetables in a season, grossing $1.76/kg. In other words, his two acres is capable of grossing $40,000 (£17,000)/yr. He is also leasing 2.5 more acres this year, and will provide some market for produce that is not yet certified. He is looking to expand further.
It takes 36 months to convert from conventional farming to organic in BC. Transitional markets are not very profitable as most buyers only want 100% certified. "If the future really is in organics, more encouragement is needed for farmers during that period. Selling transitional on the conventional markets is not viable and farmers are discouraged," says Mr Irving, a victim of the beef crisis in the UK who emigrated to Creston and is looking to convert some of his farm to organics. "That support could come from government premiums and buyers providing transitional markets in the form of unsprayed produce or transitional feed. We also need more larger markets for larger farms."
Mr Irving says that conventional farmers looking to convert to organic need to do their own research, have a long-term plan, and realise they will need to market more vigorously than ever before. The internet, food co-ops, wholesalers, and local growers groups are good places to start market research. "On the other hand," he says, "farmers will also find that organic farmers are very helpful in market and information sharing."
The Certified Organic Association of BC and the Western Sustainable Agriculture Working Group also provide contacts and were sponsors of a recent conference that brought together producers, marketers, and government representatives.
Canada and the US.
Cross-border marketing is geographically easier for grain farmers in southeast BC who are not restricted by the Alberta Wheat Pool, a government marketing board. A new seed co-op in Oregon hopes to provide more bio-diversity than what is available through conventional seed companies.
Above: Grainworks grain processing facility.
Left: Russell Smith with one of the bagging machines.
Below: Russell (left) and Dwayne in the storehouse. It ships out 45,000kg of grain a month.
Canadian Organic Growers
Tel: 001 613 231 9047
Western Sustainable Agriculture Working Group
Tel: 001 206 935 8738
e-mail: email@example.com website: http://www.ecobio.com/wsawg
Kootenay Food Co-op
Tel: 001 250 354 4077
Pro-Organics Marketing Inc.
Tel: 001 604 2536549
Left: Lonnie Lacerf of Pleasant Peasant Farms near Creston, British Columbia, sells £17,000 worth of organic vegetables a year.
Above: Glade Mountain Farm, has been producing organic veg for 10 years.
Right: Abra Brynne, Kootenay Food Coop,
says there is plenty of
room for new producers.
OVER the past two years we have seen margins on nearly every agricultural commodity reduced until there is no margin. This means that there will be far less conservation carried out and the countryside will suffer.
However, one of the best forms of conservation is naturally regenerating set-aside stubbles if they can be left until June. And of course payment is still nearly £240/ha (£100/acre).
Why are naturally regenerating stubbles so important to our wildlife? Just think what we do to our crops over their growing period. We spray each crop with one or two insecticides, two or three weedkillers and two or three fungicides. All these sprays reduce the insect population.
Herbicides kill weeds. These weeds are hosts to insects. Some insects (like wheat bulb fly) feed on the young plants; others feed on the mature plants. Many insects can only live on one plant species and when that plant is not around, maybe because we have killed them all with a herbicide, they will not be able to reproduce.
Fungicides kill fungal diseases or stop them developing. Many species of insects feed on fungal growth. If that fungi is not present, again the insects will not be able to reproduce.
Despite our spraying we have never exterminated a species of insect yet. And we only have to make a small mistake with our crop spraying and we can have masses of insects around.
Take a field of naturally-regenerating stubbles that is not sprayed for nine or ten months. Just think how insects can multiply in that time, both on the original crop and on all the different weed species. And on top of that there are all the leftovers from the previous crop which seem to last the seed eating birds all winter.
No wonder our birds like naturally-regenerating stubbles so much. Most of our smaller birds feed themselves and their young on insects during the summer. That is all right if they nest in a wood or on a nature reserve because there are no applications of sprays to kill the insects or herbicides to kill the weeds. For a bird whose habitat is farmland, the situation is very different. Very often before the crop is poking through the ground it will be sprayed with a soil-acting herbicide. Every week or two after that the sprayer will be passing over the crop with more chemicals.
Why do we do it?
Quite simply, we are advised to do it to get maximum yields from our crops. If we have done our job properly, we can walk over our fields before harvest and see good healthy crops with no weeds at all. That is something generations before us have been striving to do, yet it is only possible now because we have so many chemicals available to us.
In reaching our goal, though, we have reduced the insect and weed seed life in our crops to an absolute minimum. When we have done that there is no food for the birds. And the spray that sometimes drifts into the hedges and dykes surrounding the fields kills some of the plants or insects, so there is less insect life there too. The plants that can survive are undesirable ones like cleavers, brome and hogweed which are less beneficial to wildlife.
Naturally-regenerating stubbles are very important to our wildlife. Early on, they are stubbles with lots of pickings on them; later these stubbles turn into an unsprayed crop, with the insect population increasing by the day.
Seven years weeding?
By the beginning of May most people will be wanting to spray these regenerating stubbles because some annual weeds will be in flower. They will be thinking of their fathers saying: "One years seeding, seven years weeding."
That was very true when weed control was done by hand but now we have a wonderful armoury of chemicals at our disposal. So perhaps it wouldnt matter if we allowed a few weeds to shed a few seeds.
We cant afford to have many weeds in our crops but to help our wildlife surely we could leave the spraying off of our set-aside another two or three weeks later than we did last year.
Above: Many native plants are host to their own species of insect. Here rape, groundsel and forget-me-not provide diversity. Below: Scotch thistle, sow thistle and pansy amid the stubble provide a sanctuary for insects.