As equipment and input costs go up and profit margins become increasingly smaller, organic farming makes economic sense.
While the total amount of Canadian farms is decreasing, organic acreage was up by 45 per cent between 2011-2016.1 As of December 2018, price premiums for organic crops in Western Canada ranged from 133 per cent for oats up to 477 per cent for black lentils.2 Saskatchewan accounts for a significant portion of Canada’s organic industry with 37 per cent of the country’s organic agricultural land.3 At the present, supply is not keeping up with demand. “There’s continued demand, both in Canada and globally, for organic food and feed products and we just don’t have enough producers to fulfill that need,” says Marla Carlson, executive director of Sask Organics. “I think (the industry) is going to grow as quickly as people can transition.”
Joe Wecker owns Wecker Farms with his family southeast of Regina. They grow a variety of organic crops and operate an on-site seed cleaning and processing facility. He has witnessed the growing demand for organics first hand. “We’ve been overwhelmed with the demand that’s out there—there’s 10 guys lined up and I can only supply one,” says Wecker.
To be labelled and sold as organic, agricultural products must be certified according to the Canadian Organic Standards. To become certified, land must be managed organically for 36 months prior to harvesting the first organic crop. That time is called the transition period and it is challenging. The crop must be sold at conventional prices and the land’s response can be unpredictable. “But when you start getting the first organic crops on to the market, that’s when it gets better and better,” says Wecker.
He’s transitioning their 10,000 acres to organic over six years. “When you cut out your chemicals and your fertilizer—you don’t know what to expect. You can’t just risk it all. You put your whole farm at risk,” he says. He plants rye and peas, and alfalfa for seed production during the transition period. The alfalfa has been an outstanding crop, especially going into the first organic year, as it leaves the soil full of nutrients.
Wecker said the feeling of taking off their first organic crop was “amazing.” “There’s no quick fix. You have to work with nature and then at the end of the year, you’re happy that you have a really good crop that your customer wants and pays you a premium for it.”
Wecker is one of few in the province combining regenerative techniques (which focus on soil health to create nutrient-dense plants) with organic farming. Thanks to these practices, he doesn’t have as many of the challenges others may face during the transition years as he’s cut down on inputs. He seeds cover crops right after harvest, “to feed the soil biology with green roots and pump sugars down into the soil.”
Wecker is not the only with a large organic operation in Saskatchewan. Travis Heide runs what will become Canada’s (and possibly North America’s) largest organic farm. He and his business partner, Robert Andgelic of Calgary’s Andgelic Land Inc., own 40,000 acres in east central Saskatchewan. The land is being transitioned to organic; Heide’s goal is to have it finished by 2020.
If you’re interested in organic farming, Sask Organics can help guide you and connect you with a mentor. “I think it’s important not to paint too rosy a picture but to recognize the opportunity and work with others who have been down that road,” says Carlson. Check saskorganics.org for upcoming workshops on transitioning to organic grain farming, and visit Farmers’ Table at farmerstable.localfoodmarketplace.com and Local & Fresh at localandfresh.ca to buy products from Saskatchewan farmers.