Student-led organic conference packs in a diverse crowd

The first step in moving agriculture towards a more sustainable model is for farmers to stop trying to feed the world, the head of the agroecology program in the department of plant science at the University of Manitoba says.

“It’s not our job to feed the world — let Africa feed itself. That is a radical viewpoint,” Gary Martens told about 100 academics, students, farmers and homesteaders who met March 9 at the Ian N. Morrison Research Farm to discuss new research, share strategies and exchange ideas on the future of ecological and organic farming in Manitoba.

Martens kicked off the day-long conference with a call for “systems thinking” to move away from unsustainable farming practices and transition to a direct-marketing model.

Citing an example he heard at the recent MOSES organic farming conference, Martens told the story of an Ontario grower who makes $6,000 per acre selling hulless oats by hand rolling and selling them by the cup at a local farmers’ market. “This is going to be very difficult to do, but I’m saying — let’s do it anyway,” he said.

Organized by the class of six graduating students of the agroecology program in collaboration with Martin Entz and the Natural Systems Agriculture program, the conference was organized into four sections — an introduction to agroecological farming systems, followed by sessions on soil health, organic dairy and beef production and weed management.

Student organizer Megan Klassen-Wiebe said the conference grew from feedback after a summer field day organized by the university’s plant science department. “Some of the feedback was that they’d be interested in doing something like that during the winter, to allow people time to sit down and chat about these things,” she said.

General approaches

During her session entitled “Changing the way we do agriculture: exploring biodiversity,” the University of Manitoba’s Joanne Thiessen-Martens discussed ways to increase the “profitability, sustainability and resilience” of Canadian cropping systems.

“Resilience measures the amount of change a system can undergo and still retain its structure and function, its ability to recover and adapt to stresses and shocks,” explained Thiessen-Martens. “Generally speaking, our systems are highly profitable and productive, but don’t do well in terms of resilience. Is it possible to bring these three together?”

Other sessions explored ways to enhance nitrogen availability, through both cover-cropping and crop-livestock integration.

Jaqueline Huzar Novakowiski, a student at MidWestern State University in Brazil, explained how the use of livestock in cropping systems in Brazil has paid off for farmers. “Dynamic change results when you put an animal in the fields,” she said.

Practical suggestions

Several farmers spoke during the second half of the day, offering their own operations as case studies in what to do — and what to avoid — in successful organic farming.

Bragi Simundson, a beef cattle producer from Arborg and a member of the Manitoba Grass Fed Beef Association, discussed methods for keeping grass quality high in finishing cattle, and Caroline Halde, a Quebec dairy farmer and student at the University of Manitoba, gave an overview of the keys to success in transitioning from conventional to organic dairy production.

Halde joked that when the family decided to grow organic hemp on their operation near Montreal, they soon realized the crop would be a liability. “Teenagers from the suburbs were coming with big bags and harvesting it, so we lost some production to our neighbours,” she said.

Researchers and growers offered suggestions for reducing tillage without the use of glyphosate, strategic use of herbicides and mechanical weed control options.

“Timing is everything: you have to be innovative, you have to be on time,” said Marvin Wiebe of Kroeker Farms during his talk on controlling weeds in organic vegetable production. “I would like to go to the lake a little more often but one day is all it takes.”

A final session summed up the day’s conversations with a brief overview of farm-scale permaculture and its applications around the world.

“It’s interesting to see so many people hearing about permaculture and not realizing what it is, but it doesn’t have to be a niche conversation,” said Carissa de Jong, a small-scale market gardener from Clearwater, Man.

“I think the conference was a big success,” said Entz. “(Based on) the size and enthusiasm and demographics of the crowd — women, men, all age groups — and the richness of the discussion, it was probably one of the best extension events I’ve participated in.”

Participant feedback was positive, raising hopes the conference will become an annual event.

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