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Getting on board, literally, with organic farming methods

Just as organic food has caught the attention of consumers, producers are also taking note, spotting the potential in the market.

“I think it’s become more attractive to people for quite a few years. Certainly, I’ve seen my sales rise over the past five or six years since I started growing in the region,” said Angie Koch, of Fertile Ground CSA in St. Agatha.

Organic operations are important on a number of levels. Organic produce, she argues, has a direct effect on health because it provides a chemical-free alternative to conventional produce.

In a broader sense, organic farmers try to grow healthy soil “that will allow us to grow on the same soil over a much longer period of time and without the constant need to add more nutrients,” she explained.

For those interested in such growing techniques, there are resources available through producers in Waterloo Region such as Koch, a board member of Ecological Farmers of Ontario (EFAO), stationed in nearby Guelph. By way of an introduction, the organization has arranged an August bus tour of organic operations in eastern Ontario.

The tour is not limited to certified organic growers, EFAO’s Karen Maitland explained this week. All farmers looking to incorporate organic growing methods are welcome. As well, the organization is offering four scholarships for the trip.

On the bus tour farmers are encouraged to gather ideas, glean organic growing techniques and see how other farms handle pest and disease problems native to their growing region. She offered an example:

“It’s learning something that might be applicable to their farm. [On] last year’s farm tour we went to a small vegetable farm, it’s a very wooded area in Pennsylvania, and they had a particular kind of fence to keep deer out and one of my farmers said: ‘That’s what I need!’ He picked up on the fence and he hasn’t had a deer problem since.”

Obstacles shared by most southern Ontario vegetable growers include the cucumber beetle (which also feeds on zucchini and squash and carries a virus) and the flea beetle, a tiny black insect that makes lace-work out of leafy vegetables, Koch said.

Angie Koch, who operates the Fertile Ground CSA farm in St. Agatha, is secretary on the board of the Ecological Farmers of Ontario.[ELENA MAYSTRUK / THE OBSERVER]
Angie Koch, who operates the Fertile Ground CSA farm in St. Agatha, is secretary on the board of the Ecological Farmers of Ontario. [ELENA MAYSTRUK / THE OBSERVER]
Typically, organic farmers use techniques such as crop rotations to avoid pest problems. Insects are usually selective when it comes to the foods they consume, Koch explained.

“They might eat everything in the tomato family, say, so that would be the tomatoes, peppers, eggplants. We rotate those through our gardens so that those crops are only grown in the same space every four years or even less and that keeps the insect populations from compounding.”

Growers also “hand-squish” insects, cloak their plants with special light-permeable covers and try to encourage the presence of beneficial bugs that tend to decrease pest populations.

While Koch has seen her organics attract special customer bases – people who are changing their eating habits or have specific dietary needs – she notes that organic farms can grow beyond a niche market.

Citing studies by the Rodale Institute and Cornell University, she said organic farms can be more sustainable than conventional ones and can help feed growing global populations. The studies have also observed established organic operations producing the same yields as conventional farms over a longer period of time, and while organic farms don’t have the same growth spikes some years, they also don’t experience the harsher downward trends.

“In droughts, organic farms often fare better than conventional farms and over time, [we are] building the fertility of the soil as opposed to depleting the fertility of the soil. Growing in the same space organically over decades, your yields will be higher,” she said.

Organic farms have the potential to be “high-tech and low-impact,” growing almost as much produce as conventional methods while better preserving precious resources, states the Worldwatch Institute website run out of Washington, D.C.:

“It is true that farmers converting to organic production often encounter lower yields in the first few years … but the longstanding argument that organic farming would yield just one-third or one-half of conventional farming was based on biased assumptions and lack of data.”

Organic grow-ops also tend to optimize on space and grow more food on smaller plots of land.

Fifty farmers will tour farms such as the Limestone Creamery in Kingston and the farm of retired scientist Ann Clarke, where she uses techniques created by animal scientist Temple Grandin. Scholarship applicants are asked to submit a 500-word letter with a brief introduction about themselves, their farming interests, and why coming on the tour will benefit their farms.

For more information about the bus tour or the scholarship application, visit www.efao.ca, contact their office at 519-822-8606 or info@efao.ca.

 

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