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Ontario lagging the market for organic produce, say advocates

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The Organic Council of Ontario wants to know your thoughts on organic farming in the province, and what should be done to improve its space in the marketplace.

The council has published a survey, led by lead consultant, Carolyn Young, to determine interest and participation in organic production, as well as to outline the barriers that prevent farmers from making the switch from conventional to organic.

They’ve received more than 500 responses so far for the five surveys which are for nonorganic producers, nonorganic operators, organic producers, organic operators and retailers. The majority of their responses came from the nonorganic side of things, but they plan to do more target research because they’re missing the organic dairy perspective and would like to get more handlers and processors responding.

“The idea is to take all the information and to create a strategic plan for the sector for the next five years to outline what are the main barriers for the different groups, how can we address those barriers and how much will it cost us. The idea is to have this report to bring to government, to bring to the sector and to provide input on what we should be raising money for and how we might raise it,” Young explained.

She says the Ontario government has fallen behind when it comes to promoting organic agriculture. Sales for organic products in Ontario exceed $1.4 billion per year despite only two per cent of agriculture in Ontario being organic. Just crossing a couple borders, Quebec’s agriculture makes up 3.5 per cent and the U.S. has four per cent of its acreage classified as organic.

“That means that we are competing against neighbours. The less that we take up the market share for domestic supply in organic the more we are going to be competing with our neighbouring jurisdictions. So it’s important for us in Ontario whether you’re certified organic or not, you are going to be affected by those increasing competition from imports,” Young said.

The council is pushing for an Ontario organic regulation now to help grow the industry. She notes the lack of provincial support is one of the barriers keeping farmers from making the switch from conventional to organic. Also, the demand is growing so fast that it’s hard for the sector to keep up.

“Organic has been around for a long time but certification of organic is pretty new. It’s an emerging sector. There’s a lot of risk on the producers and the processors that they have to bear the costs and the risks of transitioning. It’s a three-year transition process in which you have to change practices and have increased costs but you don’t get the organic premium. Considering that lag time, if you will, it’s difficult for us to keep up with the demand,” Young explained.

Certain sectors have a closer alignment between organic and conventional, like maple syrup and mushrooms, for example, which may be easier for producers to make the change.

If farmers are willing to undergo the three-year transition, they may find there are many benefits to growing and selling organic goods.

“A lot of the organic practices that are within organic principles are about soil health and soil health will protect producers in the long run from unpredictable weather events, floods and droughts. I think there’s a big part of it there that’s a really important incentive,” Young said.

There can be economic incentives as well, but they are difficult to visualize while bearing the costs of transitioning your practices to fulfill the organic requirements.

And many organic growers also end up choosing more diversified crop rotations as a way to manage the market resilience as well because if you lose one crop due to the lack of pesticides used, you still have other crops you can rely on.

“Most Ontarians are really interested in investing back in the environment that surrounds them. They want to see a healthy province, a healthy environment, a healthy economy to contribute back to their community. I would say there are health benefits to the workers as well as potentially to the eaters. There are benefits to the environment. And when we’re looking at the survey, we’re interested in building the local organic supply and a lot of people who are interested in local should be interested in local organic.”

Producers, processors, handlers and retailers can complete the survey at www.organiccouncil.ca.

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