Why Don't You Grow Organic?

The Organic Council of Ontario (OCO) wants to understand why the province can’t seem to attract farmers and processors who want to fill the growing consumer demand for organic food.

The organic market has seen tremendous growth in recent years. Ontario has more than $1 billion dollars in sales alone, about 30% of total Canadian sales. Overall, organic now makes up 4% of Canadian retail sales. About 2% of Ontario crop production acreage is organic, and that’s not enough to keep up with the needs of a market growing 10% to 20% annually. The production gap means retailers have to increasingly rely on imports from Quebec, the US and China to meet demand.

To get to the root of the problem, the OCO has launched a research project aimed at identifying barriers to growth within the sector. Carolyn Young, former Director of Sustain Ontario, will lead the project. In this interview with Real Agriculture, Young explains that the goal is to understand the barriers within the different organic value chains and develop strategies to attract farmers and processing capacity.

Recruiting farmers to grow organic can be difficult because of the prospect of lower yields and higher production risks. Organic farmers also have limited use of pesticides, fertilizers and other management technologies available to conventional farmers.

Young says one of the challenges is the three-year transition period from conventional production to organic where farmers have to follow organic practices but do not qualify for the premium typically paid for organic production.

“Other provinces and countries invest in that three-year transition period by offering subsidies and supports,” explains Young. “We’re looking at barriers within Ontario, but we’re also looking at types of supports we can implement in Ontario to overcome these barriers.”

Young also believes the organic industry has to build a strong business case to recruit new farmers. In the organic industry’s formative years, “the increases in production has come from a leading edge cohort of producers who have taken the initiative of producing and processing organic … by virtue of their passion or their philosophy or ideology,” explains Young. “We’re now starting to exhaust the number of new entrants that are coming for those purposes.”

To attract conventional farmers, Young believes the organic industry has to do a better job of defining cost and premiums. It also has to understand the role of production support and identify gaps in risk management. “We know that there are some Agricorp and business risk management programs that cover organic, but maybe not all organic products have the same supports that you have to manage your risks in other sectors.”

Young plans to conduct an environmental scan, key informant interviews, commodity-specific focus groups and a survey of both organic businesses and conventional businesses wishing to transition to certified organic. Her report will be ready in March 2017. Funding comes from Growing Forward 2 through the Agricultural Adaptation Council.

Related: Organic Sector Offering Transition Support as Grain Demand Exceeds Supply

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