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Organic farm serves island

Community Shared Agriculture | Barnyard Organics says the farm proves that organics can be viable

FREETOWN, P.E.I. — Philosophy collided with profitability at Barnyard Organics, a Prince Edward Island farm operated by Mark and Sally Bernard.

The result was a profitable organic farm in the heart of the island’s potato fields.

Mark emerged from his college business and plant sciences studies with the goal of making money in organic farming. His wife, Sally, whom he met at school, shared his plans.

Now the Bernards’ fourth generation farm has been fully certified as organic since 2010, and there is no going back to its history in dairy and potatoes.

“From the get go, it was strictly business,” said Mark.

“We were going to make money.… things were working and we really believed in it. Now we don’t really see any other way of doing it. We’re still making money but we just really believe and love the philosophy of organic and what it does.”

Like Mark, Sally grew up on a farm and brought livestock experience to the marriage and partnership.

“I always wanted to farm, but I’m the youngest of nine and it was not a big enough operation for me to fit in,” she said.

“I came with a love of livestock, so I brought with me sort of my ongoing 4-H project. My dowry was a flock of sheep.”

After the birth of the couple’s fourth child, they decided the organic sheep business was too time consuming, so they sold the flock and started a Community Shared Agriculture project involving meat bird sales.

That was added to their 500-acre operation that is farmed in a five-year crop rotation and includes milling and feed wheat, soybeans, barley, field peas, oats and clover.

An organic feed processing mill, a small-scale poultry processing facility, laying hens, a few pigs and a milk cow round out the operation.

Sally and the “crew boss,” her daughter Lucy, 6, manage the chicken sides of the business, with 120 layers. The meat birds, raised only in the summer, are pasture-raised.

About 80 families in Charlottetown and Summerside receive one chicken every two weeks, processed on the farm and provided whole or cut up. Eggs are also provided in a CSA system, said Sally.

“We’re happy with the scale that we’re at now. I don’t really want to get any bigger. The scale that we’re at, Lucy and I can do it, just the two of us, and it’s fine.

“Our philosophy is that we would rather have 1,000 farmers have one pig than one farmer have 1,000 pigs, so we’re trying to do maybe a bit of a model so we can show people that you can raise organic chickens on pasture and make money and it’s a business model. It’s not just a dream and this backyard thing.”

The on-farm feed mill began as a way to make their own organic feed, but other farmers approached them seeking an organic feed processing source.

Now Barnyard Organics is certified by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to make organic feed for others, as well as supplying its own needs. A soybean roaster is dedicated to organic and non-genetically modified soybeans.

“We’ve really been pushing the livestock side of it, and having livestock on the farm, as well as being supportive of livestock feed,” said Mark.

There are challenges with fertilizer on an organic farm, he said. The Bernards trade their clover crop for dairy manure, which must age for six months before it can be used.

Combined with mussel shells from the province’s large mussel production industry, the manure is incorporated with calcium, nitrogen and various seawater-borne minerals and salts.

“You get a nice product out the end,” said Mark.

Grain is the profit base for the small-scale operation that has many other parts, but the Bernards consider their size to be ideal.

“We’re at a good, happy stage right now. We would like to see more neighbours and more farmers rather than us farm more acres,” said Mark.

Added Sally: “I think the danger is the bigger we get, the more we might possibly start to cut corners or have somebody else doing the work who wouldn’t maybe care quite as much. So this way, we’re in control and it’s at a quality that we’re confident in.”

The couple manages the farm with help from Mark’s father, so the labour demands can be considerable when spread among only three people. However, they were selected in 2012 as the Atlantic Region Outstanding Young Farmers, an honour that brought more attention to their operation.

“It’s all kind of built slowly and gradually, the infrastructure on the farm, for what we need, and we’re kind of trying to be a support system for the organic industry as well as being able to sell our own product a little better,” said Mark.

Barnyard Organics is one of few organic farms on the island. Land prices range from $3,500 to $5,500 per acre in this region so without farm succession, it is difficult for young farmers to enter the industry.

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