OLDS, Alta. — Switching from conventional farming to organic doesn’t need to happen overnight, or in one year, or the entire farm, two farmers told an Organic Alberta conference.
It took a few years, but Brian Luce’s central Alberta cattle farm, Lucends Ranch, is now certified organic.
What began as a traditional mixed farm in the grey-wooded soil west of Ponoka, Alta., evolved into a large cattle herd and feedlot, then switched to intensive grazing and custom feeding before finally becoming an organic farm that sells organic beef, pork, lamb and chicken direct to consumers.
It was the years of producing nothing but high-quality grass, without added fertilizer or chemicals, that allowed Luce to quickly transition from conventional to organic production with little disruption.
“A lot of the pasture land had no chemical ever, or since the early ‘80s,” he said.
“A lot of the pasture and hay met the requirements. I only have three or four fields that are in transition to organic. That made it pretty easy.”
He said it’s important for producers to have enough stockpiled organic hay or grass when switching to organic to ensure they’re not forced to feed non-organic hay and lose their status.
“We didn’t want organic beef but no feed,” he said.
“We wanted to make sure the pasture hay and feed was organic first.”
Luce advised producers to determine how much feed they will need for the year.
“You can’t just run out of organic feed.”
Luce grazes his cattle on pasture and stockpiled grass as long as he can. Rotating cattle throughout pastures is key to ensuring the animals have few parasites.
He said running an organic farm isn’t easy. It’s difficult to put together a complete mineral package, especially in their grey-wooded soil where selenium deficiency is a concern. It’s also difficult to find organic vaccines and organic seed inoculations.
“Some of those things get a little bit daunting.”
John Mills of Eagle Creek Farms near Bowden, Alta., also switched slowly from conventional to organic farming.
His transition to organic started with his U-pick and market garden before he expanded to other crops, including 12 acres of sunflower and a corn maze.
“You can’t hand weed 12 acres of sunflower and corn,” Mills said.
He later bought special equipment to cultivate between the corn and sunflowers.
“I still have weeds, but just about as clean a crop as with chemicals.”
Mills switched to organics as a way to create more income without expanding his land base.
“I wanted to farm but didn’t see long-term sustainability in conventional farming, and consumers of organic products are good supporters.”
Mill operates a summer and winter community shared agriculture program with 500 customers who buy a share of his vegetables, fruit and eggs.
The winter program includes cold hardy greens and dried herbs as well as root vegetables. He is slowly adding beef and lamb into the CSA basket.
Forty varieties of seed potatoes makes him one of the largest suppliers in the province. The potatoes are not certified organic yet but are part of a four to six year rotation.
Remaining a small organic farm could have worked for Mills, but he worried about what would happen if he couldn’t work and there was no income.
The expansion allowed him to hire employees to keep the farm operating if he became sick.
“The goal was to create a farm, if I got ill it would continue.”
Mills said it is important to be a good farmer, but one of the keys to a successful transition to organic farming is to believe in the product.
“I truly believe if you love what you do, you will be successful, but it doesn’t matter how good a producer you are, you have to connect with people.”
He said he was unwilling to go head to head with established farmers at farmers markets and chose to market directly through the community shared agriculture model.
The upfront fees and regular customers have allowed him to worry less about weekly sales.
Mills also advised farmers to keep customers up to date about new products, distribution problems, sales and farm facts through social media or a weekly newsletter.
“If you have a chance to talk one-on-one with customers, you can never beat that,” he said.