Organic farms getting bigger on the Prairies

The number of organic crop producers on the Prairies hit 1,442 in 2016, up from a recent low of 1,151 in 2013.

That’s positive news for the organic sector, which lost producers on the Prairies from 2010-13, when prices for conventional grains and oilseeds were particularly strong.

The number of organic acres also increased, going from 1.3 million in 2012 to 1.64 million in 2016.

The acreage and data on the number of producers comes from the Canada Organic Trade Association, which in May published a report called Organic Agriculture in the Prairies.

COTA highlighted a few key findings in the report:

  • Organic acreage jumped from 1.4 to 1.64 million acres between 2015 and 2016. Those numbers represent all organic acres, including field crops, pasture and forage.
  • The number of livestock producers was 118 in 2015 and 132 in 2016.
  • Alberta had the greatest increase of crop producers in Canada, going from 380 in 2015 to 450 in 2016.

Producer numbers in Manitoba and Saskatchewan were flat, but organic farmland (field crop and forage) increased by 20 percent.

“It’s that perfect storm situation, where you’ve got continuing high prices in organic field crops and continuing low prices in conventional,” said Laura Telford, Manitoba Agriculture’s organic specialist.

For example, Saskatchewan added 35,000 acres of organic field crops in 2016, going from 492,000 in 2015 to 527,000 in 2016.

However, the bigger story was organic forage and pasture acres, which jumped from 396,000 in 2015 to 556,600 in 2016.

Meanwhile, the number of producers increased by only 15 — 824 in 2015 and 839 in 2016.

“What it (the data) is suggesting is that the new farmers, coming in, are bigger than usual, and the existing farmers are scaling up,” Telford said.

If the data is correct, organic farms in Western Canada are getting larger, which goes against the perception that a typical organic farm has 40 acres, eight goats and a 1964 Minneapolis Moline tractor.

“(It’s) kind of breaking that stereotype of farm size and organic,” said Marla Carlson, executive director of Sask Organics, a farmer led organization.

It paints a different picture of organic farming in Alberta, where the number of producers is way up. In 2014 Alberta had 305 organic crop producers and in 2016 there were 450. Much of the increase can be attributed to an organic boom in an unlikely place — the northwestern community of La Crete.

“They have a cluster of organic farmers up in Mackenzie County and that group of farmers is larger than all of the organic farmers in Manitoba,” Telford said.

“(But) those tend to be very small acreage farmers.”

Organic acres also increased in Alberta. Field crop acres went from 137,941 in 2015 to 184,042 in 2016, a jump of 33 percent.

Manitoba saw an acreage gain of 48 percent for field crops, but that figure is deceptive because base acres were small. Field crop acres increased from 34,570 in 2015 to 51,311 in 2016.

While the numbers suggest that organic is expanding and farms are getting larger, the data should be taken with a grain of salt.

COTA said the figures are based on numbers from organic certifiers, so the acreage data is an estimate. As well, it is two years out of date.

  1. Wheat 234,501
  2. Oats 211, 601
  3. Lentils 57,001
  4. Barley 56,597
  5. Peas 55,670
  6. Flax 49,385
  7. Kamut 33,716

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