Organic farming requires a real commitment to working with nature

Written by  Matthew Liebenberg
Organic farming requires a real commitment to working with nature

A local grain producer spoke about the challenges and rewards of being an organic farmer during an event hosted by Southwest Sask Organics at the Swift Current Library Jan. 22.

Randi Ellis and his wife Heather have been producing food organically on their 3,000-acre farm in the Hazlet area for the past eight years.
They decided to change from conventional farming to an organic approach in 2003 when Heather had to consider taking on an off-farm job to help pay the bills. They then realized it was time to do something different.
“It’s amazing how long Heather and I talked about it before we did it,” Randi said. “It took something like that to push me to the point where I was ready to take a look at what my dad and grandpa had taught me — is that what’s really making me a successful farmer or am I just continuing to do the same thing over and over and hoping some day it will all change.”
Their farming operation had to go through a transition period of 36 months before it became a certified organic farm in 2007.
“During the transition years it’s tough,” he said. “You’re farming organically, but you’re selling common. … It always starts from the date of your last prohibited substance, which is usually before August. So prior to harvest on the third year when those 36 months are up, that last year of transition will swing into an organic crop for you.”
Despite years of using chemicals to control weeds on his lands, he quickly realized during the transition years it had no long-term impact on weeds.
“All that weed spray really doesn’t kill weeds,” he said. “You still get tons and tons of weeds.”
He planted oats during the transition years because it is very effective at outgrowing the weeds.
“We have found that oats are really a good weed killer,” he said. “They’re very competitive, you can seed them later. They just really got us through a tight spot.”
Weed control is one of the biggest challenges on an organic farm because they cannot use any chemical substances and therefore rely on mechanical methods.
After harvesting he will spend time in the field until the first snow.
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“The field work never seems to end,” Ellis said.
Higher seed density also helps with control by not leaving any room for the weeds to grow.
“White weed is almost as competitive as oats are in regards to controlling weeds with it,” he said.
Late seeding can make a difference because there will be more time to control the first and second flush of weeds.
“You will get a third flush, but nothing like the first two,” Ellis said. “So if you’re willing to wait for those first two flushes of weeds and then seed, it will definitely help to control your weeds.”
He noted organic farming requires a different way of thinking about managing the land. Last year he kept 1,000 acres on his farm for summer fallow and he will plough down a cover crop to improve soil fertility.
“It’s a tough thing to do,” Ellis added. “When you take the combine you’ll make $300 or maybe $400 an acre and you’re just pushing it all into the soil.”
A certified organic farm requires a lot of paper work to keep proper record of management practices.
“The cool part is we can tell you right back to when we started where that grain came from, as far as which field, where the seed came from, in which granary it was put into, who we sold it to,” he said. “I love the fact that it’s accountable. …. There is no grey areas in organics. It’s black and white, and I love a world like that.”
According to Ellis the biggest challenge facing anyone interested in organic farming is to make that initial decision, but thereafter it becomes really rewarding.
“The thing about organics is it’s a long-term thing,” he said. “I hope my grandson and my great grandsons will farm this way … I feel that if your heart isn’t in it, there’s no sense trying it.”
He is convinced organic farming is the future of agriculture because parents are increasingly concerned about the quality of food available to their children.
“We all want to know where our foods are coming from and we as a consumer deserve the right to know that,” he mentioned. “I always say soccer moms are the ones that’s going to change this whole thing, not me. … They don’t like their kids not being fed good, proper food.”
A number of local organic farmers attended the event at the Swift Current Library. SaskOrganics President Garry Johnson provided opening remarks and facilitated discussion after the presentation. Garry and his wife Geri operate a certified organic farm north of Swift Current in the Stewart Valley area.
SaskOrganics, previously known as the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate, serves as the provincial voice for organic producers, processors, buyers, traders, certifiers and consumers.
The organization decided at a meeting in Saskatoon on Jan. 19 to change its name as a fresh start for Saskatchewan’s organic industry association.
According to Johnson the organization has close to 1,000 members. This compares favourably with the approximately 380 members of a similar body in Alberta and the Manitoba group has even fewer members.
“Saskatchewan is the force in organic farming in the prairies,” he told the Prairie Post.
“The philosophical nature of organic farming is very strong in Saskatchewan — that philosophical idea of organic farming of working with nature and the non-use of pesticides and chemicals.”
He noted the availability of more arable land in Saskatchewan probably also played a role in the greater interest in organic farming.
“Possibly at the start of the evolution of organic farming there was more people of that mindset in Saskatchewan that desired to to this certain method of farming and then carried on,” he said.
He added organic farming is one of the fastest-growing areas in agriculture today due to a higher consumer interest in food safety.
“The demand comes from the consumer and as Randi states in his presentation, especially the young mothers want to know where the food is coming from and what they’re going to feed their family,” he said.
Johnson felt events such as the one hosted by Southwest Sask Organics are important to make people aware of what organic producers are doing.
“We try our best to reach out to our consumers and our fans as to what we do as far as food production,” he said. “The Farmer’s Market that Swift Current has on an annual basis is a very good example of how people come to some events to learn about food, to buy local food, whether it’s organic or not. I think that’s just a fantastic thing for the community. We’re just happy to be part of it in organic agriculture and we’re not a large part of it by any means, but we’re there and we reach out to people there and tell our story.”

via SW Sask News – Prairie Post – Prairie Post

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