Editor’s note: This week, September 22-28, 2014, is national organic week. This post is dedicated to all 3 organic producers that read this site. Thank you for following along!
“My dad let me do things my way, so I’m doing the same for them,” laughs Josef Hagen, when asked what pushed his dairy farm near Alexandria, Ont., to move from conventional production to organic production. “Them” refers to his sons, Michael and Walter — Michael works the home dairy, while Walter runs an organic grain and a cattle farm (not organic) a stone’s throw from the home farm.
Josef and his wife Christine are unlike many farm parents, it seems, as they haven’t shied away from the younger generation’s wish for change. Organic production pays a premium, and it’s been a way for the family to grow its business without having to invest heavily in more land or equipment.
The Hagens are part of a growing group of organic dairy producers who have found the change beneficial for their farm business, but also a key aspect of transitioning the business from one generation to the next.
I met the Hagens on their home farm in late August as part of a farm tour set up by organic farmer (and Real Agriculture columnist) Rob Wallbridge. The small group that gathered to learn about organic production was heavily weighted to those in very similar circumstances facing the Hagens six years ago. The fellow farmers who gathered had two or more adult children back at the home farm looking at ways to add value to the existing farm business so that there would be a viable farming enterprise to transition to the next generation.
On the tour, we traipsed through land that was both hay and pasture, rich in red clover and seeded down in the spring with perennial rye, land that would be hayed, then rested, then grazed, and the cycle repeated. We learned on the tour that the transition to organic production wasn’t without challenges and required the purchase of another 50 acres to support the new system. Certain weeds, especially velvet leaf, still rear their ugly heads and take some trial-and-error to keep at bay.
Josef admits he had the toughest time putting the sprayer aside and dealing with weeds in the long term vs. right then and there. “I had an itchy trigger finger,” he says, but says they’ve moved their mindset from “control” to “management” when it comes to things like weeds and diseases.
In the barn, where they milk between 80 and 90 cows, depending on the time of year, he says milk production is slightly less than it was prior to the move to organic certification, but his cows are lasting longer and foot rot and mastitis are down. “I’m not telling you a cow never dies or gets sick,” he says, they still struggle with twisted guts and strawberry foot rot, but the time out on grass and a change in feed has been positive for their farm.
Walter raises beef cattle for the “natural”-branded market in Toronto and grows organic corn and soybeans at a neighbouring farm — providing a back up of organic hay or grain supply should the home dairy experience winter kill of pastures, as was the case this year. The soybean and corn fields certainly looked different than conventional crops, with weeds rampant between rows and velvet leaf towering over the beans, but the plants themselves were healthy and Walter says the yield drag of organic production is easily overcome by the added premium for the final product.
In the cattle barn, Walter echoes what I’ve heard western Canadian ranchers say — the impetus just isn’t there to go full organically-certified for beef. Instead, Walter uses no growth promotants and feeds organic feed. His cattle take longer to get to finishing weights by about three or four months, but he’s more than happy with the level of marbling he achieves and there’s a 20-cent/lb premium if they grade AAA and are between 800-1,000 pounds.
The numbers, right now, add up to make a strong business case for the all-natural beef, but Walter’s quick to share that his first year feeding cattle was 2003 — when he took 50-cents a pound for some of his animals.
Touring the Hagens’ farms, I’m appreciative of the warm hospitality and their willingness to share what they’ve learned in the six or so seasons of organic production: “You can’t be afraid to try something new or to fail,” says Michael.
That sentiment, combined with the eagerness to let the next generation lead, marked this farm as much different than so many others I’ve visited and that has nothing to do with any certification process at all.