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Forages can help an organic transition

Seeking advice, maintaining a never-ending thirst for knowledge, and dealing with Mother Nature are all key to success as an organic farmer.

These were some of the tips that Marc Boulanger offered during this year’s Manitoba Grazing School held in Brandon Nov. 25 and 26, when he hosted an entertaining workshop on “Transitioning to Organics.” During the workshop, he told the story of how he and his family experienced their eight-year progression from conventional farming to an organic system.

“When we were transitioning to organics, we made a lot of phone calls,” said Boulanger, who still farms today on the family’s 114-year-old Boulanger Farms along with his wife and young children near Souris “You’ve got to ask questions, and work with other producers. Form alliances, fill semi-loads together – that worked well for us. You have to just keep on looking for information. By helping each other, everyone benefits.”

After checking up on organic product prices the previous week, Boulanger, who also holds an agricultural degree and works for Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, showed that that organic grains can still make a good return for producers.

Organic flax was listed at $34 a bushel, with oats at $6.50, barley at $7.40, and wheat at $18.00. Organic beef on the rail came in at $2.20 per pound. According to MAFRI, gross returns are generally 30 to 50 per cent higher for organic products than for conventional ones, but production costs for organic can be higher.

However, the road to organic status and top prices can be a rocky one, said Boulanger. For his family, the transition and early organic years coincided with a series of natural disasters, known forever in the family’s oral history as the legendary “Dealing with Mother Nature and theThree Fs– Fried, Frosted and Flooded.” This is one one of the steps that Boulanger discussed as part of his talk which included the “12-Step Program” to transitioning to organics, and it is one set of factors that can’t be controlled by any farmer – organic or otherwise.

The three “Fs”

“In 2003, we were ‘fried’,” said Boulanger. “We had BSE, drought, and grasshoppers. The land was now certified organic, but we had trouble finding feed. In 2004 we were ‘frosted.’ We had good moisture, a good spring start, and we had a flax crop that was my dad’s Field of Dreams. On August 20, we had frost, and the -5C wrecked the flax, the buckwheat was crumpled, and we disced it all down; it made good phosphate. No new truck for Dad.

“In 2005, we had a decent crop, but it got flooded, and wild mustard came in thick. We took it as greenfeed. In 2007, we had an F-3 tornado go through, but it spared the house. I had promised my wife a new house, and that could have been my opportunity.”

Boulanger and his wife Lindsay currently run a herd of 220 organically registered beef cows, and crop 300 acres of certified organic grain and oilseeds. They made the plunge into organic farming only after finally admitting that they were in trouble, he said.

“It’s kind of like that other 12-step program,” said Boulanger. “The first step is admitting that you have a problem. We could see our margins continually decreasing. Input costs were up, we sprayed for grasshoppers, and the birds and the cats got sick. Mom got sick, and we began to worry about the health of our family and friends. The second step is to decide what changes you want to make – do you want to go pesticide-free? Hormonefree beef? Organic? The third step is to search for information. Talk to farmers in your area, to OPAM (Organic Producers Association of Manitoba), to MAFRI, and the OFCM (Organic Food Council -Manitoba Chapter).”

Other steps on the road to organic certification include making the decision on how to go organic, perhaps by certifying the farm quarter-by quarter, or starting with just the livestock. Boulanger transitioned his alfalfa fields first, and looked at rotations. The use of forages is very important, he said.

The family sowed fall rye and oats, barley for greenfeed, and buckwheat for plowdown, to improve his sandy, light land. Flexibility in your cropping system is important, and Boulanger basically advised farmers in his audience to “throw out your calendar” when it came to dates, and to watch the weather instead.

“You have to have more than one option,” he said. “Some things you can change; buckwheat can be sown later.”

Later calving reduce scours

A wet spring in 2005 initiated a deadly scours problem in his mid-March-born calves.

“We tried organic remedies, and we lost five or six calves. Scour Guard vaccine is not allowed with my certifying body,” said Boulanger. “In the end we treated them conventionally, kept records, and sold them conventionally that year. We moved our calving date ahead to April 15, and now the cows and calves go out onto clean land. We haven’t had scours since,” he said.

Keeping his calves until slaughter weight requires very good overall herd health, and minimal stress on the cattle, he said. And it takes a little longer to ‘finish’ an animal.

When people ask him “what is organic,” Boulanger describes it is a farming practice that is “sustainable, and harmonious to the environment.”

“It’s not just ‘letting the land go’,” he said. “It does mean no genetically modified crops, no synthetic pesticides, fertilizer, hormones, or antibiotics. It means no irradiation, no sewage sludge, and no food additives in processing, such as sulphates, nitrates, nitrites, or synthetic processing substances.”

Boulanger is uncertain whether consumers will continue to pay $6.99 per pound of ground organic beef in these troubled economic times, versus $1.99 for regular beef on sale. But for him and his extended family, the reasons still stack up in favour of organic farming.

“Why do we do it?” he said. “We do it for the family.”

In 2005, Manitoba had 232 registered organic producers, with 70,000 acres under organic culitivation. Saskatchewan reports 1230 certified organic farmers, with 730,000 acres yielding accredited crops, said Boulanger. The Organic Livestock Handbook, published by the Canadian Organic Growers, is a good printed resource for livestock producers, said MAFRI, and is available at www.cog.ca.

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