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Province assists organic startup

”We’re hoping to encourage about another 110 farmers to grow organics.”

– JOHN HOLLINGER

With demand for organically produced foods exceeding the local supply, the Manitoba government wants more farmers to consider organic farming.

It has introduced a program to help producers with the transitioning costs.

Provincial organics specialist John Hollinger said converting to an organic operation requires certification fees every year, including the three starting years required to convert the land to an organic system with no residual pesticides remaining. That certification costs money, and for those three years, producers are not able to sell their wares at organic premiums.

Hollinger detailed the program at the Organic Producers Association of Manitoba general meeting in Virden on Nov. 15, 2008.

While most of the farmers in attendance were already longtime organic producers, there was one producer who was thrilled with the announcement.

Kurt Dorward of Aurora Farms said the program was “just perfect” for him. Dorward and his family picked up an old commercial farm near St. Norbert.

The land had been farmed under monoculture for about 150 years, a practice frowned upon even in conventional farms. It will be a challenge for him to transition the farm to an organic based farm, but the graduate of agriculture and environmental studies feels he is up for the challenge.

“I’m very, very aware of what kind of residual is there,” said Dorward. He has owned the land for four years, but didn’t feel it was ready to transition until last year.

Currently the land is seeded to forage, with a large area devoted to a garden.

“We get some funny looks from neighbours,” he chuckled as all the land around his farm is heavily cropped.

Dorward said despite not being able to realize the higher premiums for his hay, he did very well this year. The plan is to get heavily into goats to market the cheese and butter organically produced.

“I am absolutely dedicated to doing it (certification) through this organization,” said Dorward.

Hollinger said that because organic farming is more labour intensive, incurring fees in the years where premiums are not realized can be “a bit of a barrier.”

“We’re hoping that reimbursing the person for the fees (up to two-thirds with a cap at $800) will encourage them to at least try organic,” said Hollinger.

Producers are eligible for the fees for the second and third years up to the year 2010 when the program ends.

“We’re hoping to encourage about another 110 farmers to grow organics,” he said.

With a small budget to encourage the business, this was seen as the best way to get more producers interested in the system.

Hollinger said grocery sales go up every year, about three per cent. Organic sales have increased about 12 to 20 per cent every year for the past 10 years.

The numbers have surprised even Hollinger, who expected a plateau. “It just keeps increasing,” he said.

And while organics is still largely a fruit and vegetable market, more people are looking for organic meats and dairy products. Members of OPAM are ready to fill the void as members have a full range of products for anxious consumers.

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