Northern organic farmers get help

Fort Vermilion, Alta. — A new organic program in northern Alberta hopes to help solve farmers’ woes when it comes to growing in the region.

The recently launched Mackenize County Organic Success Program will see the hiring of an agronomist to help with issues relating to weeds, soil fertility, crop rotations, finances and marketing.

As well, plot and field research will be conducted by the Mackenzie Applied Research Association (MARA) to determine what types of crops or management practices are best suited for the region to deal with those issues.

“There is tremendous potential for this region,” said Becky Lipton, executive director with Organic Alberta, which is leading the project, a $330,000 initiative.

More than half of the province’s organic producers farm in the region. Many of them turn to organics because they are dealing with brand-new land and don’t want to invest heavily in inputs or big machinery. They can also get organic certification sooner because land is new.

As well, Lipton said profit margins for organic products tend to be better, so some farmers decide to transition some of their conventional fields into organic. There is also a big support network of organic producers in the region, making it easier for people to seek advice.

“There is a lot of people to learn from to support that transition,” she said.

But because organic farmers can’t use chemicals or other inputs, they face unique challenges.

Controlling weeds and maintaining soil fertility are big issues, said Jacob Marfo, manager and research co-ordinator with MARA.

He said farmers turn to cultivation to control weeds, which means they can’t apply minimum-till practices to boost soil composition.

As well, getting enough nitrogen back into the soil by only planting pulses can be challenging. Peas have shown to work in the area, Marfo noted, but more research needs to be done to see if new short-season lentil varieties can work just as well.

“We’re never going to eliminate these issues, but this will help,” he said.

The program will feature two streams — one for farmers transitioning or brand-new to organics and the other for experienced producers.

The program that deals with new and transitioning producers will help farmers with certification, finances, marketing and crop issues, while the program for experienced growers will assist them with rotations and crop issues.

“We want to see all organic farmers, whether they are transitioning or current, to be profitable and successful in five-plus years from now,” Lipton said.

Organic Alberta hopes the initiative spurs other farms to transition into organic farming. The sector is worth $90 billion globally and growing.

John Simpson, who farms near Fort Vermilion and has transitioned some of his land into organic, said he supports projects like this. He has participated in field trials to see whether crops work for him.

“Sometimes things don’t turn out as good, but that’s OK,” he said. “Research can make the mistakes that hopefully we as farmers don’t need to make.”

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