Organic oats popular for northern Alta. growers

Ideal growing conditions | Producers in Mackenzie County cite economic benefits in switching from conventional methods

FORT VERMILION, Alta. — Alberta’s organic farmers are scattered across the province, but a surprisingly large number of them are in Mackenzie County.

Twenty percent of the Alberta Organic Producers Association members are in the northern county.

“There is a huge growth rate in the area,” said Becky Lipton, executive director of Organic Alberta.

Long-time organic producers Al and Marilee Toews aren’t surprised to see so many organic producers in the region, but they each have their own theory.

Al believes it’s a combination of philosophy and economics.

The 2011 Agriculture Census showed the average farm size in Mackenzie County was 879 acres.

He said organic production is a way for these smaller producers to make a decent living without the financial risk required with conventional agriculture.

“To me, the risk is huge,” Al said about conventional farmers spending big money to buy inputs for larger and larger farms.

The couple started switching to organic in 1997.

“I saw my husband becoming pretty stressed,” Marilee said.

The final push came with a large die-off of their alfalfa leafcutter bees, which they associated with spray drift.

Marilee believes growing consumer demand and an increasing environmental awareness among farmers are also prompting the switch.

Frank Bueckert of Fort Vermilion, one of the largest organic farmers in the area, said organic production has allowed him to make a good living without the added financial stress of buying herbicide, seed and fertilizer.

“The biggest benefit is the low input costs with not a lot of difference in yields,” he said. “The bottom line is quite a bit better.”

Bueckert grows 800 acres of peas, wheat, flax, oats and barley and has 300 acres of summerfallow.

“With the acreage I have, I can make a living off that. I don’t need to farm the whole country,” he said.

Organic oats is one of the most financially rewarding crops in the area because of the ideal growing conditions provided by long days and cool nights.

“There is a big opportunity, especially in raising organic oats.”

Bueckert has been a certified organic farmer for 12 years and has become a mentor to many local producers wanting help making the switch.

He believe more farmers will look at the organic and conventional re-search that the Mackenzie Applied Research Association is conducting at the old Agriculture Canada Experimental Farm and become more confident that it’s possible to farm without chemicals.

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