ORGANIC ON THE FARM – A PRODUCER’S VIEW
The movement to organic production was based on several factors for Bob Kerr. “The first factor in my mind was that the agricultural community as a whole has been dealing with low commodity prices and low margins. We have moved toward global commoditization,” says Kerr. “When producing a commodity and living in a global world, prices are driven to the lowest common denominator.” Kerr says it then becomes difficult to pay more than third world wages to remain competitive with non-agricultural industries around him that are willing to pay more. “We have to reinvent the business to survive into the coming era. Organic production became an important part of our plan.”
Second and tied to the downward spiral of commodity prices, Kerr is concerned about the status of agriculture within society. Worse than that farmers are suspected by some of being willing cooperators in the extensive use of pesticides, antibiotics and GMO’s. “Right now agriculture is not respected in our society. As a society we are losing contact with agriculture. The farm communities ability to produce cheap high quality food is taken for granted. As farmers we are not getting social recognition for what we have invested.” Kerr says as a result it is difficult to attract the next generation into farming.
“Although it is interesting to our children, farming does not offer the returns and balanced lifestyle that can be had in other occupations right now. Farming requires full time dedication but without the social recognition or opportunity for income many are leaving the farm. By taking this approach, I am hoping to create income and lifestyle opportunities for the next generation.” As a result Kerr said he was willing to change and look at alternative approaches. “We looked to the fringes where innovation always comes from, and were willing to look at organic production.” Kerr says organic production fits the ideal business model as it provides niche markets with price premium opportunities, limitless growth and high barriers to entry.
Third, Kerr believes the production paradigm that has been on centre stage for decades has inherent problems and is reaching the limits of progress. “When growing crops such as tomatoes we have learned to live in fear of weeds, insects and diseases. To stop these problems we apply pre-emergent and post-emergent herbicides as needed. We are so afraid of diseases in tomatoes that we spray on preventative basis up to 6 times, and when insects threaten we are ready to go to field with an insect killer.” Kerr says they have taken a different approach through organic production. “We should listen to nature and solve the underlying problems that we have been trying to solve with quick fixes. We are finding ourselves with increasing input costs to allay our fears and in the meantime our land has been getting physically harder and organic matter has been declining under the seduction of quick-fix conventional production. We needed to change our course.”
“What we have not noticed, and this is an underlying problem, is that synthetic agriculture has reduced the scope and diversity of natural microbes that naturally produce soil health.” Kerr thinks there is an opportunity using organic agriculture to create an alterative system that can produce microorganism diversity, quality food, and better health without the risk of handling products that can be dangerous to human health and the environment.
Overall, Kerr has moved to a more philosophical framework for choosing organic production. “The reasons for choosing organic production have evolved from our initial arguments based on economics.”
ORGANIC PRODUCTION REQUIRES A DIFFERENT TOOL BOX:
“We have approached the switch to organic production one step at a time and have really gone back to the basics of farming,” says Kerr. “Our focus is on prevention instead of rescue. Our focus is also on the health of the soil which is alive – it is just not a medium to help hold up plants. We try to look deeper to solve the underlying problems and have chosen to work with nature as our co-creative partner,” notes Kerr. “We are very conceited if we think we can design a better system than what nature has provided after thousands of years of testing. As a result we have become more receptive to what nature is telling us and use appropriate technology that makes farming organically more feasible.” He says this includes electric fences to contain cattle as example, and more modern equipment such as a sprayer with an air hood to improve coverage when applying compost tea and other natural products.
“We approach organic production in a different way and with a different box of tools than we use in conventional production.” He points to his pasture fed cattle as an example. “We are moving back toward what nature intended and as a result are producing cattle with healthy fats and a greater proportion of healthy components in the meat.”
As for production tools, Kerr relies on shallow incorporation of crop residue and a four-year crop rotation with tomatoes. He composts his manure, which nurtures the full spectrum of microbes, to supports a healthy soil environment. “We apply inoculant with our seed which is sourced through the compost tea that we brew on the farm.” Kerr also practices inter-row cultivation for weed control, something he says is a lost art form in agriculture. He uses Bt for insect control in tomatoes in addition to liquid fish. “It smells so bad we think it drives the bugs away.” Kerr has also experimented with hydrogen peroxide applications. “A lot of our practices are based on trial and error or on what has worked for other organic growers. We are not at the stage where we can rely on a wealth of research like we have for many conventional production tools.” The research is not there yet according to Kerr. But with advances including the establishment of a dedicated organic agriculture degree at the University of Guelph, Kerr thinks there will be progress made in the area of organic research.
For disease control, Kerr focuses on compost tea applications. “If we cover the plant with beneficial microbes, we are coating the plant with bacteria and fungi that can control the territory and deter detrimental organisms from taking hold. These same applications also re-colonize the soil as an additional benefit.” Copper is also used to control bacterial and fungal diseases.
Kerr notes that composting also reduces soil compaction as composted manure weighs less and can be spread more like fertilizer on wider passes as compared to a conventional narrow pass manure spreader. “With composting we can make the nutrient application when the soil is fit, versus timing applications to when the manure pits are full.”
ADVANTAGES TO MOVING ORGANIC:
Kerr sees several advantages from moving to organic production. “I can feel the difference walking on our soils. They are looser, spongier and feel alive. It has encouraged me to continue in our journey.” He says in some crops the yields are comparable to superior, input costs are lower and quality is better. “We have fallen into a trap where conventional agriculture is rated by volume or tonnes and not by quality. “We try to balance nutrients in the soil and in the plant to provide food that is more beneficial to human health.” Kerr says the plant uses photosynthesis to grow and also make root exudates that feed microbes in the soil – a symbiotic relationship that is critical for soil and environmental health.”
SURPRISES ON THE WAY:
Kerr says the fear of the unknown and the feeling that he was taking on additional risk faced him when starting in organic production. “You are making a leap of faith, but on balance we have been able to solve most of the problems we have encountered along the way.” Additional paperwork for audit tracability has also been a challenge according to Kerr. “Another challenge is adopting an alternative mindset that focuses on prevention and carrying out operations on time through the production cycle.”
Kerr sees several benefits from organic food production for consumers. “Side by side tasting has shown us the sweetness and flavour advantage of organic tomato products and the naturally raised pasture fed beef we produce in our operation,” says Kerr. “By consuming organic food from healthy balanced soil, we can supply the trace nutrients and minerals we need to improve our health. We can also reduce any cumulative consequential exposure to pesticides and GMO’s. Consumers can also feel good about supporting a system of agriculture that has more potential to be sustainable into the future when they are buying organic food.”
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