[UPDATED: July 23, 2018] Growing demand for organic milk not only has the provincial dairy association seeking more production but also more producers — just to make sure it never runs short.
“We need more organic and we need to make sure that we don’t only have a few farms taking some of the supply market share,” said Jonathan Ntoni, a policy analyst with Alberta Milk.
Currently, there are just six licensed organic dairy farms in the province.
“We will reduce our risk in case one of the farms loses certification or something like that. We just want to spread the risk,” said Ntoni. “The demand for sure has gone up, and that is why we need more supply.”
The new Organic Entrants Assistance Program is similar to one created for conventional producers in 2011.
Applicants must be Alberta residents (for at least a year) and cannot have “owned a dairy farm at any location, at any time.” They need to submit a detailed two-year business plan, including projected cash flow statements, and a 10-year plan setting out long-term targets.
If chosen, they can borrow three kilograms of quota for every one they buy, up to a maximum of 25 kilograms of quota.
Since it takes up to three years to transition to organic, the new entrants will receive a premium of 10 cents per litre during that period. Their ‘loaned quota’ will be progressively reduced during their second decade in the milk business.
“I think it’s an excellent program and I hope young farmers will benefit from it,” said organic dairy producer Joe Mans, who operates Vital Greens Farm near Picture Butte with wife Caroline and their family.
But while the program lowers the cost barrier, applicants are going to need a strong financial base.
“It’s still not easy because it costs a lot of money,” said Mans, who also processes milk on his farm.
The latest figures from Alberta Milk show quota was selling just above $38,000 per kilogram in March.
Organic producers also have extra costs. They must be certified by a recognized agency; submit the paperwork to prove it every year; ensure their pastures haven’t been sprayed with chemicals for at least 36 months; and give their cows only organically grown feed. The cows can be given antibiotics, but only once in their lifetime.
“If you give antibiotics then the withdrawal is twice from what is on the bottle or 30 days in order to clean the cow out again,” said Mans, who has operated his organic dairy for 13 years, and now milks 60 cows.
Organic cows produce less milk, but also have lower levels of mastitis. The cows must be kept on pasture after they are over six months old. About 40 per cent of their dry matter forage must come from pasture.
Last year, about 79 million hectolitres* of organic milk were produced annually in Alberta.
“Our utilization rate for the milk we pick up for organic is 85 per cent, which means that 85 per cent of that milk is organic and the rest goes to the conventional pool,” said Ntoni.
“We always want to ensure that we have an adequate supply of milk so that the organic processors are not short.”
Quebecers are the biggest consumers of organic milk, with production topping 470,000 hectolitres annually. Ontario and B.C. (roughly 320,000 hectolitres) account for almost all of the rest of Canadian production (1.2 million hectolitres in 2016-17, according to the most recent federal stats).
Alberta is the biggest in the remaining pack, with Manitoba counting only two producers and Nova Scotia just one among the country’s 232 organic milk farmers.
*UPDATE: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the number of hectolitres of milk produced in Alberta in 2017. We regret the error and apologize for any confusion this may have caused.