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To say a conversion six years ago to organic farming changed the fortunes of Pipestone's Lobreau family would be an understatement. A really big understatement.
"We were very small -- more of a hobby farm at that point," Bryce Lobreau explained during a recent interview.
Today, Pristine Prairie Organics, the 5,000-acre farm Lobreau operates along with his parents, Danny and Robin, is one of the province's most successful organic farms thanks to a burgeoning consumer demand for healthier foods.
Their herd of beef cows has grown nearly fourfold to 250 animals. They now also raise and sell about 1,000 feeder cattle per year, with the intention of expanding to 5,000 per year within the next five years, and plant about 1,000 acres of grain per year. That latter number is also a big change from the 100 to 200 acres they had when they started.
Then there's the farm's yearly revenues. Lobreau said they've grown 4,800 per cent over the last five years, thanks to all of that expansion and the premium prices organic commodities command these days.
Laura Telford, an organic specialist with the Manitoba government, said because conventional-grain prices are fairly low right now and organic-grain prices are fairly high, the spread between the two has likely never been higher. Although it can vary from grain to grain, she noted the price disparity for hard red spring is now a staggering 300 to 500 per cent.
"That looks very attractive to mainstream farmers," she said, adding there's been a nine per cent increase so far this year in the number of Manitoba farmers who have begun converting to organic farming.
With demand for organic food higher than it's ever been, that's created a "huge" shortage of both food and growers.
There are 148 certified organic farmers in the province. And surprisingly, that's down more than 100 from the estimated 250 there were 10 or 12 years ago.
"We went through a (global) recession and that really crashed organic," Telford explained, and it took until 2012 for the sector to begin bouncing back. And with demand for organic food higher than it's ever been, that's created a "huge" shortage of both food and growers.
The owner of Fresh Option Organic Delivery, a 12-year-old Winnipeg company that distributes organic fruits, vegetables and herbs to several hundred local residential and commercial customers, confirmed it's a struggle to find enough certified organic farmers.
"There has been an increase in the number of organic farmers (in Manitoba), but not necessarily for fresh produce," Marnie Feeleus said. "So we're always looking for more good growers that will become certified."
Feeleus also noted while more small farms now using natural or organic production methods, not all of them are going through the certification process.
"We encourage them to become certified," she added, "because that's important to us. It (organic produce) is a premium product, and when people buy it their expectations are high... So we also are very particular."
She said while the demand for organic produce isn't growing as fast here as in bigger cities like Vancouver or Toronto, she's convinced she could grow her sales faster if she had more product.
Telford and Manitoba Organic Alliance (MOA) president Kate Storey said one of the reasons there aren't more certified organic farmers is because it takes up to three years to convert from conventional to chemical-free farming. Among other things, that means no pesticides, herbicides, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, synthetic hormones, antibiotics, or genetically modified seeds anywhere within your operations. And that means lower yields.
Farmers also can't begin charging a premium for their products until the conversion process has been completed, which usually means a few pretty lean years. Storey said there's also a pretty steep learning curve involved.
"You have to think a little differently about things. You have to think more long term... and it takes time to learn all of that."
That's why a consortium of organic groups from the three Prairie provinces, including MOA, recently launched a new initiative aimed at not only helping more producers convert to organic, but also helping existing ones to improve their production rates.
Storey said you don't have to look far to see why production levels need to improve.
"You just have to walk through a grocery store and with almost every product, you can probably find some sort of organic version (of it). So there's a real push right now from food processors -- the people who make those (organic) cookies, bread, and all of that. They need those (organic) ingredients."
Lobreau confirmed he's had no problem finding buyers for his organic beef and grain.
"The toughest part is deciding who you're going to sell it to."
Telford noted Manitoba has worked hard at growing its food-processing sector because of the positive impact a vibrant sector can have on the economy. And that effort is paying dividends.
She said Manitoba now boasts abnout 50 certified organic food processors, compared to just a handful 10 or 15 years ago. They're producing everything from meat and dairy products to pulse-based flour and hemp-seed oils.
"Manitoba is actually famous for its hemp processing," she added. "They are driving hemp production across the Prairies."
Although Telford doesn't have any data on the value of Manitoba's organic food sector, a 2013 report by the Canada Organic Trade Association said that between 2006 and 2012, said the value of Canada's organic food market tripled to $3.7 billion.
The main driver of that growth is consumer demand. The report said that by 2012, 58 per cent of Canadians were buying organic products each week.
Maureen Atkinson, a retail analyst and senior partner with the Toronto-based J.C. Williams Group, said there are several reasons why more Canadians are going organic. One is changing consumer attitudes about the foods they eat.
"There is this move to eat heathier, but they also want to know the healthier food they're eating is truly good for them. And I think people genuinely do believe there is a benefit to eating organic food."
Another is accessibility. As Storey pointed out, it's no longer just health food stores and Mom-and-Pop specialty stores that are selling organic food these days.
"It has become much more mainstream," Atkinson said. "Now you see regular grocery stores carrying it.... and there are more areas (in the store) where you see it. It used to be just in produce."
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She noted that even the world's largest retailer -- Walmart -- is now in the organic game.
"And of course, they never go into anything in a small way, so that's very significant."
With large discount retailers like Walmart now selling organic food, Atkinson said that's also putting downward pressure on prices.
"I don't see a time when it's going to be the same price as non-organic food... because it is generally more expensive to produce. But I think it (the price gap) has become closer..."
Organic food industry facts
HERE are some facts and figures about the organic food industry:
-- Canada is the fifth-largest market in the world for organic foods
-- The value of Canada's organic food market more than tripled between 2006 and 2012, climbing to $3.8 billion.
-- In 2012, which is the latest year in which a comprehensive study of Canada's organic market was conducted by the Canada Organic Trade Association, 58 per cent of all Canadians said they bought organic products every week.
-- That same year, Canadians purchased a total of $2.98 billion worth of organic foods and beverages, while Canadian organic exports reached $448 million.
-- The 10 bestselling organic products in Canada in 2012 were milk, coffee, soya drinks, yogurt products, eggs, bread, ready-to-eat cereals, juices and drinks, baby food and butter and dairy spreads.
-- There are 148 certified organic farmers in Manitoba and 3,590 in Canada.
-- There are also 60 handlers and food processors in the province, and 1,237 in Canada.
-- There are currently 21,970 hectares (54,289 acres) of Manitoba farmland devoted to organic farming. For Canada, it's 856,818 hectares, or just more than 2.1 million acres.
-- sources: Canada Organic Trade Association and Manitoba Agriculture Food & Rural Development