There’s money to be made in organics, says the executive director of Organic Alberta.
“From a business perspective, organic production does make sense,” said Becky Lipton. “If you’re looking on how to expand your operation, organics do provide a lot of opportunities on that end.”
While yields can be substantially lower — as much as 18 per cent less — premiums of 30 per cent or higher in recent years have more that offset that drop, a recent global study by Washington State University found.
So why aren’t more conventional producers making the switch to organics?
It’s a lot more work, says veteran Alberta organic farmer Steven Snider.
“There’s more tillage, there’s more field time, there’s more operations that way,” he said. “Your scouting becomes more critical, and your knowledge curve is different. You can’t resolve problems by picking up a can and reading a label. There’s other tools you have to use.”
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As well, you have to get past “myths and theories that aren’t necessarily practical in application,” he said.
“To sort out what works from what doesn’t is tough,” he said. “Every producing region is different, and some practices do work well and some don’t.”
Age is another factor.
“Organic production has a steep learning curve,” said Laura Telford, an organic specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. “It’s a completely new way of thinking so it’s not really the best time of life to make a major change in your business model.”
But the work is “manageable,” said Lipton.
“If you’re willing to diversify and adapt and learn, the resources and the research are out there to be able to help producers through the transition,” she said, adding that the transition period is at most three years.
The new Prairie Organic Grain Initiative will help on that front, but there’s a lot of work to be done on educating growers on best practices in organic production, said Telford.
The goal in organic production isn’t to maximize yields, but rather optimize them, and right now “we’re not even close,” she said.
“There’s a long way that we could go towards providing education and transferring success stories to organic producers that can help them dramatically increase their yields and grain quality.”
When the premium for organic grain dramatically shrunk after the 2008-09 recession, hundreds of Prairie producers quit farming organically, Telford noted. To prevent a repeat of that, organic yields have to be higher, she said.
“If you can get a yield that is 75 per cent of conventional, I think that would really provide some buffering,” she said. “If those who left organic during the recession had got those yields, I think they’d still be in it today.”
Still, said Lipton, “organic production really is a great opportunity.”
“The barriers are not unbearable. These are things that can be tackled and managed.”