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Canada’s organic agriculture industry is booming at home and ready to go international

The times, they are a-changin’ – back.

After years of skepticism the federal government has finally awoken to the possibilities of organic farming in Canada. With more than $1 billion in annual sales and an annual growth rate holding steady at 20 per cent, the grassroots organic movement has snowballed into an industry that demanded recognition. Organic farming, after decades of struggling and battling conventional farming to make it onto the supermarket shelves, is now the fastest growing sector in the Canadian food industry.

On June 8, federal Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Lyle Vanclief announced more than $600,000 in funding to help Canada’s organic farmers gain a foothold on the growing international market: $375,000 for an accreditation assistance program to bring national standards in line with U.S., European and Japanese standards; $130,000 to publish an Organic Field Crop Handbook, with information to help farmers reach Canadian standards; and $100,000 to partially fund the 2002 International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements World Congress in Victoria, which is expected to attract more than 1,000 delegates from around the world.

"There is excellent market potential all over the world for organic products," said Vanclief. "Canada’s organic sector produces top-notch products and is primed to seize emerging opportunities. That’s why certification is so important. To really tap this huge potential, we need to ascertain products destined for the international market meet a national standard and establish a reputation for Canada as a supplier of the highest quality certified organic products."

While Canada’s share of the international organic market barely registers, the industry is predicting a global market share of between five and 10 per cent by 2010.

The National Standard of Canada for Organic Agriculture, which is regulated by the Standards Council of Canada, has set organic guidelines for farmers that meet international standards. While most of Canada’s organic associations already meet or exceed those standards, a national standard was crucial for presenting a unified Canadian front on the world market – organic consumers are fussier than most when it comes to reading labels or questioning their food, and any deviation between standards in Ontario and B.C. could hurt the reputation of Canada’s organic industry.

Part of the funding went to Canada’s certifying organizations to cover a portion of the cost of being officially credited by the standards council.

Last week (July 12), the federal government launched an organic agriculture centre in Truro, Nova Scotia, at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College. Backed by $854,000 in funding, the new Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada will develop courses and educational content for aspiring organic farmers and conduct scientific research on organic growing and recovery techniques.

"Success in agriculture and agri-food is becoming more and more reliant on education, knowledge and technology," said Vanclief. "Organic agriculture is presenting producers with excellent opportunities and this new centre will ensure they stay on top of the learning curve and that Canada continues to enhance its reputation as a world class supplier of organic food."

Along with $1.3 million in regional funding, in the past year the government has contributed more than $2.8 million towards organic farming – a drop in the bucket, maybe, but a substantial recognition and legitimization of organic farming all the same.

While it’s easy to dismiss organic farmers as green idealists and hippies, the amount of knowledge and scientific understanding you have to process to produce a certified organic crop these days is enormous when compared to most conventional farming practices.

"It really is complicated," says Lovena Harvey, a local organic farmer who with her husband owns and operates two small organic farms. "It’s not merely growing things without chemicals, it’s about compost building, which is a science in itself.

"It’s also about crop rotations. You have to have a whole map of your land and fields, and every year you have to rotate your crops and plan your cover crops. You have to know what nutrients are in the soil and which cover crops to plant in order to give your soil what it needs for the next time that field comes into rotation.

"There’s a lot more to it than opening a can of fertililzer or herbicide or pesticide."

In other words, you have to be proactive rather than reactive with land, methodically working within nature to maximize its growing potential.

According to Harvey, organic farmers are constantly reading and researching to stay on top of the latest information.

"You’re always learning in this business. We are constantly buying new books on organic farming, or seeking out literature. The B.C. Organic Association publishes a field handbook that is constantly updated as our knowledge grows. They also publish a monthly magazine with interesting articles, sharing advice and expertise."

Harvey is also a member of an organic listserve on the Internet, which has become a valuable resource in recent years as it connects her with hundreds of other organic farmers from around the province.

"I wouldn’t say it’s necessary, but it really helps. If you have a question, you post it on the listserve in the morning, and by the afternoon you’ll usually have an answer. At the same time we can always call our organic farming neighbours for help. Everybody is generally very supportive of one another."

There were 508 certified organic farms in B.C. at last count, and the numbers are growing every year with conventional farmers going organic and more people starting organic farms from scratch.

In its annual report, Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia, said the movement was gaining momentum. "While the number of conventional farms is decreasing, the number of organic farms in increasing… Over the past year, inquiries to the COABC office have doubled," wrote COABC president Glen Wakeling.

The COABC admitted there were still roadblocks to success, notably the regulated marketing sectors’ attempts to control the distribution of organic food and the presence of certifiers from outside the province, and even the country, attempting to certify B.C. farmers "using organic standards that are inferior to our own."

Overcoming these obstacles to continue success at home and abroad means constant vigilance, keeping organic standards in this province and Canada beyond reproach.

Every organic farm is audited annually, with an outside agency inspecting farms to ensure that standards are being met. "They look at our operation, the maps of rotations, and all of our sales records," says Harvey. "We have to guarantee quality, so there has to be a paper trail back to the grower."

Harvey feels that certification practices are slowly becoming harmonized to the point where an agreed upon global standard can one day be applied to everybody – the highest standard, rather than a compromised and convenient one.

"I’m always amazed by the level of care that goes into organic farming. For example, the Helmers – local organic potato farmers – rotate their crops every six years, so their soil is always the ultimate soil. That’s five years of composting and planting cover crops, and just taking care of the soil before they plant again."

Harvey says there are currently seven organic farms in the Pemberton-D’Arcy area, out of maybe 35 farms. A few years ago there were only five farms, and she has heard that others are looking into the possibility of going organic in the future.

"Organic farming is really the only agricultural sector that is growing at all, that farmers are being profitable at," says Harvey.

She credits the change to the growing awareness on the part of consumers, and to the farmers themselves – "The farmers don’t want to eat their own crops, with chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and they don’t want to feed it to their family."

At the same time that the federal government was contributing millions to organic farming, they were cutting funding to research genetically modified foods – a GM crop research lab at the University of Saskatchewan recently had its funding pulled by that provincial government.

B.C. is currently looking into the possibility of making GM labelling mandatory to give consumers a choice at the supermarket. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, responding to increasing pressure from consumers, has issued new voluntary guidelines for new GM foods or ingredients, which are viewed as the first step towards GM labelling.

In Europe, where GM labelling has been mandatory for more than two years, governments are now pushing for GM-free zones. And European Union agriculture ministers – rocked by recent outbreaks of Foot and Mouth and Mad Cow diseases and the consumer backlash over GM foods – have said that the future of agriculture on that continent will be organic.

While most of the region’s organic farmers sell most of their produce within the area (from D’Arcy to the Lower Mainland), feeding the organic demand in local restaurants, supermarkets and the weekly farmers’ market in Whistler, more demand for organic produce from outside Canada can only be a good thing.

"Along with a growing awareness of what we are putting into our mouths, farmers are going organic out of a concern for the earth that goes beyond wanting to make money," says Harvey. "Farmers don’t make big bucks, they are generally more in it for the lifestyle. Once you become aware of the environmental problems associated with conventional farming, it’s pretty easy to make the decision to go organic."

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