By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer
Organic agriculture is still a very small player in the farming industry as a whole in Alberta, but continues to grow at a steady pace as consumer habits change and demand increases for organic agriculture products. It’s a development which is extremely satisfying to Karl Rottier, president of the Alberta Organic Producers Association.
“In terms of the farmers, there is not enough product out there,” states Rottier. “There is more demand than there is product. People are realizing that maybe some of the things happening in other areas of the farming industry are not as healthy for a person to have. People are making different choices; they are looking for a product that doesn’t have some of the chemicals or other things they put into it elsewhere.”
Large food processing companies and grocery chains have also begun to come knocking in greater numbers.
“Some companies are saying they actually want to set up some of their plants to accommodate organic all by itself,” says Rottier. “But they first want to get enough supply to be able to do that. Even with those concerns there is still quite a big demand. It’s not like you can’t get rid of your products. In stores you have aisles of organics now, whereas before you would have to really look in order to be able to find the products. So that’s encouraging.”
Rottier says certified organic producers can also sell their products at a premium price compared to non-certified commodities.
“We sell to a more specialized market, and we can charge more for our product. We do get a premium for it. It can be quite lucrative for the right person. If you are willing to put in the labour it can be rewarding. If you are in there for the right reasons, and then it can be rewarding, because of that premium.”
The labour involved, however, is quite intensive compared to what you would see in the regular agriculture industry. Rottier runs an organic dairy farm and produces his own feed and bedding for his animals. In order to keep his organic certification Rottier has to adhere to strict organic guidelines throughout his entire operation, from feed right through to milk production and cattle breeding.
“I can’t spray my land or use (in-organic) fertilizer. I can’t use hormones or drugs. If I do use drugs I have to take the cow out of production until it gets out of their system. So it does add more difficulties to my operation, but it mainly adds more intensive labour. Labour is the big thing.”
It also forces Rottier to get creative on the production end of things to ensure fertility and hold down the weeds.
“I do later seeding, but I also do some weed control with harrows after the crop get about six inches tall. Some people do it with tine harrows, but I do mine with diamond harrows. There is some new technology now where they can do in my row crops where if you have a six foot row you can do a five and half inch shank. I haven’t done that yet, but I want to.
“With the alfalfa or grass seed we seed, we have to mow it to keep the weeds under control. Once the grass and alfalfa gets established it can choke out the weeds itself, but we have to help it in the beginning.
“I didn’t realize, at first, to be certified you couldn’t use (intensive) fertilizer so that’s been a bit more of a challenge to figure out how to fertilize your land. But with cattle, I found I could spread out manure over everything instead of putting anything heavy over one piece. And I find when I put it all over, it works just as good.”
Rottier made the changeover to organic on his farm starting in 2007, and was officially certified three years later.
It’s been worth it,” asserts Rottier. “For myself and my family I felt it was a lot healthier for us to have this be an organic operation. We have the same kind of concerns that way as our customers.”
The biggest challenge his industry continues to face today is having its voice heard. Afterall, organic is still a very small fish in a very big pond.
“We definitely have to yell a little louder sometimes to get our concerns heard as an industry,” confirms Rottier. “We are so small it is easy to overlook us. We don’t have the money the regular agriculture has, like Monsanto, to put into things. It’s hard to get money for research and stuff for organic. There are no big companies to back us up.
“There are also times you feel like (as a farmer) you don’t have support for what you are doing. My neighbours all don’t do it; so there is nowhere to turn to for support. There are other organic producers out there, but it’s not a huge industry yet in Alberta. But it is growing.”