Experts question why organic growth is stagnant

SWIFT CURRENT, Sask. — Michael Gertler wants to know why there aren’t more organic producers in Saskatchewan.

The University of Saskatchewan sociologist, along with colleagues JoAnn Jaffe from the University of Regina and Mary Beckie at the University of Alberta, has questions about restructuring in the farm sector, particularly what could be inhibiting growth in the organic sector.

“As social scientists deeply interested in agriculture, we asked ourselves, ‘what’s been holding it back?’ ” he said.

Although they are just beginning their work and are looking for funding to continue, Gertler said they have identified six factors that limit organic farming in Saskatchewan.

“We are historically ‘next year country’ for a reason,” he said, referring to the boom-or-bust nature of farming. “Within organic, those ups and downs are amplified,” he said.

“We’re dealing with an even more volatile set of markets and a more volatile set of production conditions.”

Yield and price uncertainty make economic decisions more difficult.

“You have to make a living but you also have to make a life in rural Saskatchewan,” Gertler said at an organic spring workshop. “And it’s harder, because you have to convince everybody around you that you’re not nuts.”

He said organic farmers often feel as if they are the “other” or “on stage” because there is an expectation of high yields and tidy fields that they can’t necessarily uphold.

This situation is improving, however, as the environment dominates more discussions and organic is recognized as a market niche.

“Conventional producers are more aware that in nature there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and everything is connected to everything else, and so they too are worried about spraying and about the high cost of inputs.”

Research money for organic projects can be hard to come by. Corporate partners are increasingly necessary.

Gertler said some governments might be willing to pay for organic research because there are associated benefits, for example more wildlife.

“There’s a lot of talk about greening. There’s a lot of talk about sustainability, but a lot of that talk is negative.”

One example is the notion that organic systems can’t supply enough to feed people.

“There are international studies that say organic is not necessarily a prescription for hunger,” Gertler said. “Much of (production) is not feeding hungry people anyway. It’s going to high fructose corn syrup, or ethanol.”

Peasant is still the number one occupation in the world and peasants are still feeding most people, he said. Governments and organizations will pour money into projects such as the License to Farm video to portray a certain type of agriculture, Gertler said.

“Don’t watch it if you want to sleep well,” he said. “This is your Canola Council and your provincial government dollars at work, trashing your way of thinking about farming.”

Farmland values that have in-creased by double digits each year, plus increasing canola acreage, add up to limited land access for organic farmers.

“You’re competing in a land market with people who are wanting to make fast money in other ways.”

Saskatchewan organic growers are far from the urban markets of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal where the demand for their products is found. Organic producers have mixed feelings about marketing co-operatively or hanging on to their own markets. They are likely to become more reliant on intermediaries, Gertler said.

The net number of organic farms appears every five years in the census, but Gertler says those statistics don’t show how many entered the business and how many left.

It’s easier to leave than to enter and producers ready to retire or move on have a problem: the chances the farm stays organic are iffy. Their children, should they be interested in farming, might not share the organic philosophy. Outside buyers are likely to be conventional.

“One of the problems that organic farmers have is they’re really part of the disappearing middle,” he said. “The pressure is on the mid-sized farm.

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  • richard

    Organic agriculture only succeeds if soil fertility is maintained…..Intensive use of forage legumes, grazing livestock, and extended crop rotations are essential…..and a lot of work…..Fear of the unknown, fear of weeds and fear of redneck backlash are big reasons why growth in organic agriculture will be organic…….

    • Happy Farmer

      You mention 2 points that have merit no matter what type of dirt farmer we are. Those points are: Maintaining soil fertility, and Extended crop rotations.

      From my perspective there is a general problem with society not wanting cattle(manure and red meat) both in the past and still today. This makes it difficult to have an overall increase in a farming practice that needs intensive forages and grazing.

      • richard

        In my opinion once you get past the vegan fundamentalists, most people are not opposed to “manure and red meat”, rather manure in the red meat (industrial livestock abuse leading to contamination and disease…. e coli, PED, CWD, CJD, BSE, antibiotic resistance)…… Ruminant mammals are the only way to extract protein from submarginal land and the grass ecosystem traps more carbon than any other per unit biomass……but you already know that……(read Don Gayton’s, Wheatgrass Mechanism) Furthermore forage legumes are not just food for livestock…..they are food for soil. An acre of sweetclover traps a tonne of carbon, fixes fifty pounds of actual N, releases ten pounds of bound P, provides habitat for a hundred beneficial insects, busts disease and pest cycles, has alelopathic effects…. when plowed down…… All of that for ten dollars an acre. Its no accident that the resilience of an ecological based agriculture is based on enhancement of ALL lifeforms within the system…..not subtraction. And the only people who get it are those who practice it.

  • Ddant

    We were all organic in the 30’s…we all know how that turned out. The biggest problem with organically farmed land is it has been mined of all minerals when you take it over and is polluted with weeds.

    • richard

      We were all nozzleheads in the two thousands and we all know how that turned out……the biggest problem with industrially farmed land is that it has been mined of all natural resilience and by the time you lose it, it is polluted with herbicide resistant weed and disease vectors……..

      • Ddant

        Clearly, your not a farmer and likely never been near a farm. …

        • richard

          sorry, way wrong again/…. but if you wanna see the future watch how Amazon takes Whole Foods supernova….. no amount of fear, loathing and envy can stop evolution…..

          • Ddant

            Sry, then just clueless. Whole Foods was hardly a winner. Low margins and dropping. You can only fool a millennial for so long. Amazon will recover what it can with a better business plan.

          • Kissing optional

            Like the farmer of the thirties learning that shelter belts would stop soil erosion, yet agri-corps are brush piling everything everywhere to accommodate the size of their now necessary equipment?
            Now that is what I call clueless

          • ed

            Yep. You got it…

          • Ddant

            Thats because we now zero till and intensive tillage is only used on organic farms. The shelter belts were effective for their time but have outlived their usefulness. We have more effective means of conserving our soil and thanks to modern technologies are able to rebuild our soils to nearly their native organic matter.

          • Kissing optional

            Yet that myth is just a chemical company propaganda lie. ..

          • Ddant

            Did you even bother reading the article you posted. It supports my claim 100%…”why zero tillage is critical for sustainable crop production.”

          • Ddant

            Whats to fear, loathe or envy. I’m a farmer, I can farm anyway I choose. If organic makes sense I’ll switch. Farmers have dropped 40% of organically farmed land in UK and Australia. Clearly there is problems. Also, massive fraud as to what is organic. You load low grade feed wheat on a ship and unload expensive organic wheat at port.

    • ed

      Lots of big farmers land blowing this year. No organic matter left in the soil for those guys. Organically farmed land under good stewardship is fairing much better.

      • Ddant

        I have taken over and farmed organically farmed land before. Unless it was under continuous alfalfa or pasture, there is nothing left. All nutrients and organic matter has been depleted. I put it into ICU for 20-30 years before it starts to respond like my own land. We have rebuilt some of this land back to within 1% om of native grass due to zero tillage.. Organic land is intensively tilled and yes, it blows. Not mine.

    • Kathleen

      Comparing conventional ag of the 30’s to today’s modern organic production is like comparing convention ag of the 30’s with modern conventional ag – that’s like comparing steak and the moon. Instead of touting misinformation – you would be farther off educating yourself. Attend a few organic field days, take a few organic courses online, get with the times. Modern conventional production depletes the soil of everything far more than actual organic production ever could (yes that has been shown scientifically) and weeds as you call them are an issue in ALL production methods – even if they don’t have to be. There are very useful tools other than chemicals which can be utilized for vegetation management – you merely need the desire to try something new (but old news for other countries).

      • Harold

        If one were to say today’s organic production and today’s gmo production, the terms modern, and conventional, would be thrown out the window in favor of conversational clarity, objectivity, and focus. If one were to say natural plant or genetically altered natural plant, the term Organic would be thrown out the window in favor of conversational clarity, objectivity, and focus. All plants are organic even when altered. There is only un-altered (natural occurrence) and gene altered. (GM) This is how Monsanto gained the no distinction standing with the government agencies and GM was not placed into a separate category. They should be separate but because they both are organic they lack distinction. The terms we were/are given/fed are meant to confound conversations whereby within those terms there is no object to focus upon therefore leading to scattered thoughts. Collectively we should be more concerned and focused upon words meant to confound and then to eliminate them from our speech and also challenge those (industry) who use them. We are awash in meaningless word use.
        There are farming methods, applications, husbandry, soils, and their results, but to make all vanish from focus, objectivity, and clarity, Is to say the word modern; as you say, “the moon”.

      • Ddant

        Organic still relies heavily on tillage, the most destructive practice for the soil other than urban sprawl. I farm beside organic producers and have taken over organically farmed land. I know the soil has been depleted when I take it over and put it into ICU for a long time. There is nothing left. Only when organic can go no till will it be viable. The only sustainable organic is continuous alfalfa and livestock production unless you have access to an army of field laborers. There is a reason that organic production lost 40% of the land in production in the UK and Australia. Its not sustainable, requires a major shift into livestock and produces 50% less than conservation/no till (based on crop insurance actual yields).

    • Jeff

      The biggest problem with non organic land with the use of fertilizer and millions of dollars of machinery is the ruining of crop prices. This is the reason wheat today is the same price as 1980. The massive overproduction of wheat has left grain buyers with extra billions of bushels to cherry pick from anywhere in the world. Also with other crops. Even when the price is good it is only a matter of time before overproduction with the use of fertilizer gravely reduces the price.

      • Ddant

        Actually, if you’d been following wheat prices, they have had a major rally recently. Up about 50%. But keep in mind, it would only take a small shift in production from non-organic to organic to swamp the market and drive the price down to commodity prices. This happened in 08-09 when the financial markets collapsed and people wouldn’t pay extra for organic.

        • Jeff

          Yes, Ddant this is correct wheat prices are up or forecast to be up. We must wait and see if these prices materialize. But this is my whole point. Fertilizer with this huge machinery caused this glut of wheat. The reason wheat prices have been quoted higher is. Less seeded acreage and less yield because of moisture issues. You are correct. Any many shift probably in the hundreds of thousand of acres here in Canada to organic would be negative for the price. But there is real good news for organic growers. You must go three years to register your crop as organic. So it would only be in the fourth year that a market could actually be negatively affected. I do not have organic wheat acres as a statistic on the prairies in Canada. But yes, a major major increase in acres could and probably would hurt organic prices.

  • Richard

    If you live adjacent to it, non-organic farmers see the results of pie-in-the-sky farming all year long. The organic farmer works the crap out of his ground and seeds late, to produce a crop with enough weeds to contaminate the adjacent fields. Where is the advantage and when does it start?

    • richard

      Iit starts where grow more get less ends……..where 2050 over production ambitions attached to 2017 costs and 1977 prices meet the brick wall of no more cheap money and no more ag programs underwritten by the taxpayers and the environment………

      • ed

        Yes, the appetite for the tax payers super subsidizing the welfare state mentality of big agriculture is drawing to a close. It is collapsing nicely now as the farmers do a fly on sugar bait final feeding. The results of lower yields because of the soil degradation caused by high yielding crops like beans, corn and sunflowers, mixed with tragic crop rotations, vertical tilled, pounded and rolled fragile land, even lower prices, droughts, floods, disease, pests and other natural peril, skyrocketing debt, pride, greed, arrogance and stupidity, then blended with lower even lower grain prices, adjusted for inflation, higher input costs, free falling land prices and topped with double digit interest rates are very predictable and will be something to behold indeed. This direction in modern agriculture is not however something that many have an interest in curbing so the games are about to begin it seems. Stay tuned. 2050 is coming much sooner than you think.

  • Ddant

    “We’ve degraded our soils. With adoption of no till, minimal till, cover crops … we’re starting to swing that pendulum.”


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