In 2013, organic agriculture in Western Canada was suffering.
The industry was losing producers and struggling to attract new entrants.
The suffering is now over.
Since hitting a low of 1,170 organic crop producers in 2013, the industry has been booming. As of 2018, there were 1,756 organic crop producers on the Prairies — a gain of nearly 600 over five years.
The numbers are based on data from a Canadian Organic Trade Association report, released last month, on organic agriculture on the Prairies.
The downturn in conventional commodity prices, which began about five years ago, convinced many growers to switch to organic.
The decision to publish organic prices, which can be two or three times higher than conventional grains, was also a factor, said Laura Telford, Manitoba Agriculture’s organic specialist.
“Having a bit more price transparency, so conventional producers were aware of the opportunity … (but) it was definitely the collision of the markets negatively impacting conventional and positively impacting organic.”
The report detailed a long list of positive data for organic on the Prairies, including:
- The number of organic crop producers in Alberta has more than doubled, from 280 in 2013 to 615 in 2018.
- Organic acreage — field crops, green manure, pasture and forage — was 1.84 million in 2018 and 1.2 million in 2012.
- Organic pulse crops were 192,000 acres last year, compared to 88,000 in 2015.
Most of the pulse acreage gains came from peas.
“That’s probably the single thing that jumped out of the report (for) me — the sheer increase in the number of pulses,” Telford said.
The growth in organic pea production is mostly positive, but it may have happened before the marketplace was ready.
“In reality, the markets we have been expecting for fractionated peas haven’t come on as quickly as we thought,” Telford said.
“We were expecting three big new processors coming on stream in Western Canada. One of them is starting to build, one of them didn’t happen … and the third had some challenges and they haven’t been purchasing anything.”
The situation has been complicated by diplomatic tensions between Canada and China, which is the world’s largest market for fractionated peas.
As a result, many organic producers in Western Canada have peas in storage, waiting for buyers to appear.
Marilynn Boehm, executive director of Organic Alberta, said selling organic peas should be a short-term problem for growers because global demand is strong.
“The supply chains in Western Canada and Canada are still developing,” she said.
“I don’t think we’re there (yet) in terms of the complete supply chain, which may be causing a few complications.”
One disappointing piece of data from the Organics Agriculture in the Prairies report is livestock production. The number of livestock producers has been stuck at 120 since 2014.
That’s possibly because the market for organic beef has been relatively weak.
“Beef priced itself out of the marketplace, in general, in 2015, so people couldn’t afford a regular steak, let alone an organic steak,” Telford said.
In response to sky high beef prices, consumers switched to other proteins — especially chicken.
The same is true for organic consumers in Canada.
“I have a new food processing report … and it shows a massive increase in the number of organic poultry producers in Canada,” Telford said.
Another issue could be the growth in plant-based proteins as millions of Canadians try burgers made from plants or eat less beef.
That trend could be accelerated in the organic segment because organic consumers might be turning away from beef at a faster rate.