Hay and forage can help ease organic transition

A program in eastern Ontario aims to help farmers going through the three-year period before certification

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Having a plan for making money from either hay or pasture can significantly ease the financial strain of transitioning from conventional to organic production.

That was one message delivered by Semican seed company agronomist Valerie Yoder, during a presentation Jan. 25 at the annual Guelph Organic Conference.

Why it matters: Certified organic crops offer a significant price premium compared to conventional, but the fact a field must be under organic management for three years prior to harvesting the first certified crop serves as a barrier to anyone considering transition.

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Yoder is one of three agronomists working on contract for Canadian Organic Growers (COG) as part of the Growing Eastern Ontario Organically (GEO-O) project. “As a team (also including an administrator), we try to help growers pass through transition,” she said of the program — details about which can be viewed on the Canadian Organic Growers website.

Yoder says the biggest challenge during transition is keeping track of all the rules, and maintaining an approvable paper trail proving those rules have been followed. Fields need to be managed under organic practices for 36 months prior to the first organic crop being harvested. An inspection by a certifying agency must be completed during the final year of transition.

This is the first instance in which forages may be beneficial; if you’ve previously been growing hay or pasture — typically grown without any substances prohibited under organic certification rules — it may be possible to fast-track transition on those fields.

Otherwise, even with good planning, it probably won’t be until the third crop harvested after beginning transition that you’ll be able to earn an organic premium. Until then, Yoder noted, “you follow all these organic rules” and generally incur higher-than-conventional costs of production, “but you sell your harvest as a conventional crop, or a transitional crop if you’re lucky.”

Yoder cited “chemical-free” wheat and “GMO-free” corn, as well as identity-preserved soybeans for those able to take advantage of an IP program, as possible markets demanding some level of premium for transitional crops.

Yoder says there are commonly considered strategies for transition:

  • “Business as usual” sees farmers continue the crop rotation they’ve used in the past through two or even the full three years of transition. Quite often, though, transitional producers opt either for introducing hay and/or pasture through transition, or adding small grains to the rotation. The benefits of business as usual are that you know what you’re doing, and you don’t have to seek out alternative marketing opportunities. A significant drawback, though, is that the rotation being used under conventional management is quite likely not the right one for optimal soil fertility and pest control going forward, and may not set up your fields for good soil health once organic practices are fully in place. You’ll likely also see significant yield loss on these crops if you move “cold turkey” away from prohibited-in-organics substances.
  • Adding crops not previously grown into the rotation — either forages or cereals such as oats and barley — will require, by contrast, putting additional resources into researching both agronomics and marketing. Either option, though, has fewer demands for both fertility and weed control compared to corn and soy. Additionally, when you consider planting and harvesting spring grains or hay from fields that previously grew corn, beans and wheat, there’s an opportunity to spread out the workload through more of the growing season. That workload, Yoder emphasized, is something you should definitely keep in mind when considering transition to organic.

“I was talking to one organic grower, and he told me one of the biggest changes from when he farmed conventionally is that he has to be in the field every single week (of the growing season) to do something,” she said.

“Be strong on your cash flow,” Yoder says. “When you’re losing money, it’s hard on your brain, especially in that first year (of transition). But people who have been through it will tell you, ‘the second year will be better’.”

Equally important, growers are encouraged to get off the farm and interact with others who are currently experiencing, or have already experienced, the challenges of transition. “Don’t be alone,” Yoder said. “Try to find neighbours, try to find a group of organic farmers who will help you pass through problems.”

GEO-O, funded through a $543,600 Ontario Trillium Foundation grant, formalizes that off-the-farm interaction. In keeping with the regional scale of the grant, priority is being given to interested farmers from Stormont, Dundas, Glengarry, Grenville, Prescott, Russell, Carleton, Lanark, Leeds and Renfrew. But COG’s aim is to eventually expand the “Growing… Organically” model into more of Ontario.

“There are a lot of programs in Quebec but there was nothing in Ontario,” Yoder says. “So there’s definitely a demand” for such a program in Ontario.

About the author

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Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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