Friday, 30 September 2011

Are These the Farmers Who Need Supervision?

Anyone who decides to become a "certified" organic farmer makes a huge commitment in time, effort and money, and the payoff isn't always obvious.

This is how it was supposed to work: farmers with concerns about the environmental and health impacts of commercial fertilizers and synthetic pesticides would use more labour and smarts,  more expensive natural pesticides derived from plants and bacteria,  better land management, more humane treatment of livestock,  to produce food. Consumers with similar concerns would pay a premium to get it. It's the consumer side of this bargain that  really hasn't developed, and could be breaking down. In fact there are places like England where demand for organic food is falling, no doubt the result of the economic crisis.

Anyone who spends time with organic farmers know they are very very committed to what they're doing, it's almost a religious calling. At the same time, in order to justify the higher prices, they have to spend money to have their farms certified by an outside agency. I'm always left with the feeling that if there is one group of farmers who don't need this kind of supervision it's the farmers who can speak endlessly about organic matter, earthworms, and cover crops, and would see soil erosion as a mortal sin. I want more farmers like that, but unless the "marketplace" (and I'm talking about major food retailers not just farmers markets) send the right signals, we risk losing the very farmers we should want to keep in business.  Months ago the big food retailer Sobeys ran commercials offering organic food at the same price as conventional food.  It's hard to know whether this led to an increase in sales, but it certainly had a chilling effect on organic farmers at the time.

On PEI smart retailers like Barb MacLeod invested heavily in retailing organic food, but the store quickly closed. ADL, PEI's big dairy, made a serious effort to buy and market organic milk and cheese. The company discovered there just wasn't enough demand here to sustain paying farmers the higher price and reworking  the production line to accommodate organic rules. The cheese is in storage and improving with age,  and will be sold as markets develop, but farmers were sent a disappointing message that growing and sourcing organic feed, managing their herds a little differently, wasn't going to lead to the higher prices they were promised. And with economic anxiety high in Canada too, it's hard to see when demand will improve.

In the end it will be consumers who determine what happens.   Farmers of all kinds are very entrepreneurial and will respond to the market signals they see. I don't believe that there is some kind of moral failing in farmers who continue to use fertilizer and pesticides (they need to be used properly, kept out of waterways, etc), just business people who look at the marketplace and see they're competing with South American and Chinese labour costs, government subsidies in the U.S., and a brutally competitive food wholesaling and retail business. Walmarts steady growth in food retailing in Canada will make it just that more difficult. It's the reason I don't think government regulations mandating organic farming makes any sense.  Making sure that conventional farmers pay the full cost of what they do (carbon tax, environmental clean-up, etc), and that food imports meet the same standards, is much more important.

PEI consumers who do respect what certified organic farmers are doing get a chance to express that appreciation this weekend. The 8th annual Organic Harvest Festival will take place at the Farm Centre on University Avenue, Sunday October the 2nd, from 4 to 7 P.M.. More information here:  It will be an excellent chance to eat wonderful food, meet interesting farmers, hear some good music, and say thank you  to farmers who are trying to do the right thing with very few rewards.

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