Organic industry growing, but fresh challenges lie ahead

Loss of government funding a major hurdle for sector

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By most measures, a $2.2-million program launched in 2014 to improve the quality and quantity of organic grains produced on the Canadian Prairies was a success.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/07/2019 (1181 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

By most measures, a $2.2-million program launched in 2014 to improve the quality and quantity of organic grains produced on the Canadian Prairies was a success.

The Prairie Organic Grain Initiative (POGI) offered support to organic growers, not through direct cash outlays, but something far more lasting: agronomic research and extension. Government contributed $1.2 million toward the cost, with the industry making up the rest through matching and in-kind contributions.

Over the past four years, it played host to 1,675 production workshops, 1,390 field days and 1,025 transition workshops. Its “pivot and grow” website captured all that information and made it widely accessible to growers.

Organic agriculture is the fastest growing segment of the food business. (John Walker / Fresno Bee files)

The program also made it possible for the sector to do a better job of collecting data to make its growth measurable, and therefore tangible.

In a newly completed external evaluation of the program, consultants interviewed organic farmers and found that nearly 60 per cent of those interviewed made management changes as a direct result of POGI training.

Certified organic operations on the Prairies rose 18 per cent between 2015 and 2018, and now make up 27 per cent of the national total. Acreage grew too, with 56 per cent of the certified organic acreage now located in the Prairie region.

However, certified organic livestock production has declined.

“This is likely due to the change of consumer consumption behaviour and the preference for plant-based foods,” the Canadian Organic Trade Association says in its report.

That trend isn’t a good one — the organic production model struggles to replenish nutrients, particularly phosphorus, that are removed through crop production. Livestock manure is one way to help fill that void. It’s not unusual to find organic consumers who are vegetarians, but it’s rare you will come across an organic farmer who doesn’t see value of having livestock on the land.

Make no mistake: organic agriculture can be lucrative. It is the fastest-growing segment of the food business. And because the margins tend to be wider than conventional systems due to consumers’ willingness to pay a premium for organic and the fact that organic producers don’t buy their solutions in a package, a farmer can, potentially at least, make more money on less land.

However, it is a tough row to hoe on a commercial scale. Producers struggle with the same pests, weeds and other production challenges as their non-organic counterparts, but they have a lot fewer tools in their management kit.

Their traditional weed management tool — tillage — compromises soil health, which means finding ways to reduce the amount of tillage they do is key to the system’s sustainability.

Besides that, while their buyers often pay a premium, markets are much thinner and the supply chain lacks transparency. An organic farmer can do everything correctly, only to have the marketability of his or her crop hampered by residues from herbicides drifting in neighbouring farms.

So while the POGI accomplishments over the past four years may seem incremental, the program has played a key role in stabilizing the sector and positioning it for further growth.

The coalition of provincial organic producer groups behind it had hoped to expand the extension focus in the next round to providing on-farm support tailored to supporting individual growers. The first initiative focused on developing resources and hosting field days — but each farmer faces a unique set of management challenges. Helping them find solutions in the context of their own operations is seen as the next big step forward for the sector.

However, the one measure where the program has failed is in convincing federal funders they should keep supporting it. When the coalition applied for a second round of funds to take the program national and continue with its next phase, it found the criteria for its initial funder, Western Economic Diversification, had changed and this type of program no longer qualified.

Attempts to apply for support through other federal agricultural support programs have also been rebuffed, based on criteria used to evaluate mainstream agriculture. Efforts to change the government’s mind continue.

In the absence of new support from taxpayers, however, the sector will have to find creative ways to continue financing its growth.

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at lrance@farmmedia.com.

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