Project aims to study organic value chains

Scale of operation and how it fits with organics is a key consideration

Steady growth in demand for domestic organic food is set to accelerate in the post-COVID reality, according to those who participated in the recent virtual version of the Guelph Organic Conference.

A new initiative of the Canadian Organic Growers (COG), funded through the federal government, aims to facilitate bringing additional Canadian acres under organic certification.

Three proponents of what’s known as the Canadian Access Project participated in a panel discussion during the conference entitled Putting Organic on the Fast Development Track. 

Panelists included COG chair Gillian Flies, operator of The New Farm vegetable farm near Creemore, Dr. Kris Nichols, former research director at the United States-based Rodale Institute, who recently moved to Canada and was hired by COG and consultant Don Murray, who’s working on the Access Project on behalf of Harry Cummings and Associates.

Also participating in the panel discussion was Ripley-area cash cropper Harro Wehrmann.

“An organic value chain advisory committee was established at the outset of the initiative to support and guide the research,” said Murray in a later interview. Value chains for six products will be examined, from soil to consumer.

“At this point, we’ve tested the research methodology with the first supply chain — organic carrots — and we’re about to initiate the research for the other five,” he said. :As part of this process, we’ll be examining different components of the supply chain including farm production activities, food processing/manufacturing, and distribution, wholesale and retail activities.”

Organic conference panelists were first asked to identify their biggest barrier. For Flies, the scale at which the organic sector typically operates means distributors and retailers aren’t interested, or can’t meet a farmer’s needs for serving a specific type of consumer.

“We’re not a commodity. A lot of the distribution systems are set up for commodities…and it’s all based on price.”

The New Farm’s solutions include working with distributors who pick up at the farm and with retailers who share their values about the effects of conventional agriculture on global climate, and diversifying their marketing.

An example is a chain of shops in Toronto called iQ. The shops’ owners resisted a decision by The New Farm to increase the price of mixed greens because they felt they couldn’t pass on that increase to consumers, who typically purchased the greens as part of a prepared meal.

The New Farm came up with a proposal: sell the meals at the same price, but offer the opportunity to pay an extra 50 cents per meal as a sign they support the regenerative practices being used on the farm.

Eighty-five per cent of the iQ consumers opted to pay more, even though they didn’t have to.

Nichols identified an education barrier to organic growth. She argued only part of this education refers to consumers, who need to understand why prices are the way they are, and what factors go into that. 

To help medium- to large-scale farmers get into organics, there needs to be a system of information sharing so farmers don’t have to make a direct or almost-direct connection to each consumer.

Nichols described a survey done by Organic Valley in the U.S. about QR codes on product labels linking to information about the farmers. Not a lot of consumers scanned the codes and found out about the farmers. But it was important to many of them that they had the opportunity.

Arguing that “I think we have to ask ourselves what entices consumers to eat organic food,” Wehrmann gave the example of a wheat variety developed in France that makes great-tasting bread. Before launching the variety, the seed developers did the work of following it through the value chain to secure processors and retailers who could also tell the story. In that way, consumers eventually had more reasons to buy the great-tasting bread.

On his own farm, Wehrmann grows nine crops. “That requires, as a farmer, not just going out and saying ‘here’s my product.’”

They have to find processors, then ask those processors what they need in a given crop.

“You have to be creative and you have to be forward-thinking. You cannot be restrictive.”

Flies agreed. “The first thing you have to do when you don’t want to be a commodity is grow beautiful food.”

The education barrier also applies to other farmers, Nichols said. She believed there needs to be “a big umbrella” for everyone who is concerned about the impacts of agriculture, thereby allowing more sharing of ideas between organic and non-organic producers.

Wehrmann, however, fears growth won’t happen without addressing the high cost of land access, at least in Ontario. A limited rotation of soybeans and corn doesn’t lend itself to organic crop production, yet this is the model that large-scale farms often follow to finance the purchase or rental of high-cost land.

“Those are the challenges today’s generation is facing (and), at this juncture, I see no solution for organics in Ontario.”

Getting past the barriers thrown up due to organic’s inability to conform to the large-scale model will require creative thinking. Nichols said better ways to more efficiently move and market products must be devised.

Retailers may not always be able to source a consistent supply of a particular food from single farmers using diverse rotations, but that supply might be available if the farms are somehow aggregated.

Aggregating for the purpose of accessing land may also be a solution. Murray noted that if the conventional model remains at purchasing or renting 100-acre or 200-acre farms, that’s out of the reach for many potential new organic entrants.

“Can we create a cluster of farms?”

Land use rules are typically too restrictive for such an innovation, so creative thinking is definitely necessary.

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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