There are lots of good reasons to go organic

There are lots of good reasons to go organic

by in News

Imagine farming in a world in which you could control your production costs, receive a premium for what you produce, and in which demand exceeds supply.

That might seem like the impossible dream, especially in a year such as this one, when it appears it doesn’t matter what crop a farmer grows, there are few opportunities to do much better than break even — despite assuming above-average yields.

The situation is even more dire for farmers suffering drought in the West or even for farmers here who have been getting just a touch too much moisture in all those thundershowers.

But such a scenario is no fantasy. It’s the reality for organic farmers.

Even more surreal is the fact their customers are investing in a special development fund to attract the production they need to supply the growing international demand.

The Prairie Organic Grain Initiative, a consortium of organic groups in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, was recently awarded $1.2 million in federal grants for a multi-faceted project aimed at strengthening the organic sector. Organic food processors and others are chipping in another $1 million to help attract and train new growers in the art of growing crops without artificial inputs.

The organic food industry, with an estimated value of between US$63 billion and US$72 billion globally is the most dynamic and rapidly growing sector of the global food industry, according to federal statistics.

The value of the Canadian organic food market has increased 300 per cent since 2006. In Canada alone, the organic market is worth an estimated $3.7 billion annually, and continues to outpace the growth of other agri-food sectors.

Canada’s organic exports, at $550 million annually, have increased 20 per cent in the last two years. Fifty-eight per cent of Canadians buy organic products every week.

It’s a significant player in food processing, too. There are 400 western Canadian small and medium-sized enterprises that add value to the organic grains sector for further processing.

Yet, certified organic operations represent just 1.8 per cent of all farms in Canada, and those numbers have shrunk in recent years.

Industry observers say it’s partly due to the fact the average age of farmers in Canada is 54. Most are far enough into their farming careers that making a wholesale change in production systems is unappealing because of the economic risks and steep learning curve.

Converting a farm to organic takes three years after the farmer has stopped using chemical inputs and genetically modified seed. His or her yields will likely be lower, but during that transition phase they still won’t be able to capture the premium prices usually paid for organically grown commodities.

And although you would think their costs of production would be much lower because they are not buying herbicides, fungicides and insecticides, they are paying much higher costs for fertilizer.

Most organic farmers build fertility in their soil by growing what is called a ‘green manure’ crop for one year in a three-year rotation and adding composted manure besides. That green manure year represents a year of lost crop production in the cycle, and that has to be factored into their total costs.

But once the organic system is up and running, farmers’ net returns per acre tend to be higher — much higher — than their conventional neighbours. Their energy consumption is lower, too, by as much as 222 per cent.

For example, an organic farmer can capture a net profit of $176 per acre for hard red spring wheat compared with a minus-$23-per-acre net return on conventional operations, according to provincial crop production budgets for this year.

The naysayers say organic won’t ‘feed the world’ because only well-heeled consumers can afford it. So what? What business-minded person would shun the opportunity to sell to a customer who wants to pay a premium for their food?

If consumers want it — and they do — and farmers can make money at it, organic agriculture is here to stay.

Source: Winnipeg Free Press (as found on Organic Alberta website)

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