HOWE ISLAND - Organizations that certify and market organic foods in Ontario say they’re having a tough time meeting a growing demand for dairy products. This summer they’ll have a little more help when Howe Island farmer Peter Dowling adds his name to the short list of people shipping organic milk in Eastern Ontario.
Dowling has been growing organic crops for as long as he can remember. And after toying for a number of years with the idea of shipping organic milk, he finally made the decision last year to go ahead with the idea. He admits his timing wasn’t the greatest.
"Last year weather conditions were so wet I hardly got any crop planted," says Dowling, Ontario co-ordinator for the National Farmers Union. "I decided I was going to move to organic milk so I had to buy expensive feed."
For Dowling and other farmers who choose this to go this route, there’s no such thing as making a snap decision. Crops have to be free of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilisers for three consecutive years. Genetically engineered seeds or crop inputs are also not allowed. So, by the time the first organic milk is ready for pick-up, a farmer will have invested at least four years into the final product.
It can be a daunting process for farmers thinking about switching over, says Ray Rivers, executive director of the Organic Crop Improvement Association of Ontario. According to Rivers, the OCIA is the largest of five certification bodies that operate in Ontario. He says the organization has opened up a number of international markets for its members, including Asia, Japan, China and South America.
Among the various certification bodies OCIA has the most stringent standards, says Rivers. "We have very strict requirements about feed," he says, pointing out that some dairy farmers will shop around for a less demanding system for certification.
Rivers says that although there are different standards being used in the industry, the various groups are "getting closer together." He anticipates that they’ll all eventually conform to one basic standard.
Rivers says demand for organic foods is growing so quickly that organizations like OCIA can’t keep up with it. They’re constantly looking for more farmers who are willing to certify their crops and are trying to make the system appealing for first-time organic farmers. "Our biggest challenge is to supply somebody like the major stores so we have to have a steady supply."
Consumers traditionally have looked for organic food products in smaller health food stores. But an increasing number of large grocery chains are starting to offer organic sections.
Loblaws, for instance, carries several dairy products, including milk, yoghurt, cheese and butter, says Penny Nash, former manager of the Natural Health Foods section at the Kingston west location.
Nash says shoppers looking for organic products are generally aware they’re going to be paying more. The price for four litres of regular milk is about $3.79. Nash says that compares to more than $7 for the same quantity in organic milk.
The dairy products carried at Loblaws are produced under a brand name called Organic Meadow. It’s a line marketed exclusively by OntarBio, an organic co-operative formed by a group of farmers in 1989. The co-operative is made up of approximately 150 members. It is certified by the OCIA and another certifier well known in organic circles called Organic Crop Producers and Processors or OCPP.
The function of OntarBio is to process, condition, store and market products that are certified organic.
Gary Ferguson has been growing organic crops for the past 10 years. The Jasper farmer watched the formation of OntarBio.
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He says the coop started with a group of farmers in Western Ontario getting together to grow and sell organic products. As demand grew, he says the co-op began picking up members, like him, in other parts of the province.
Ferguson, who started shipping organic milk in 1998, says he’s had to learn to deal with routine problems on the farm in a different way since he’s been growing organic crops. Rather than calling in a veterinarian for Mastitis, for example, Ferguson has been experimenting with different homeopathic treatments. He says shipping organic milk means drastically cutting down on the use of antibiotics.
Ferguson has also learned over the years how to deal with weed problems in the absence of spraying. He says one of the most effective methods involves spreading "fully-composted" manure lightly on the crops.
"We only put on what the crops need," Ferguson explains. "If you put manure on too heavily and you put on more than the crop can handle you end up with a lot of weeds.
"You put on only what the crop can handle and that’s one way of controlling the weeds."
While most organic producers rely on an outside processor to distribute their milk, there are a handful of farmers in the province who have established their own on-site processors. Ineke Booy has a long history of involvement in the organic movement.
Booy was largely responsible for the establishment of the Organic Meadow line of products, in the early days of OntarBio. She’s also a pioneer in the area of shipping organic milk in Ontario.
In the summer of 1999, Booy built a processing plant on the family’s Elora farm near Guelph. The plant makes ice cream under the name of Mapleton’s Organic, another line that is carried in Loblaws’ natural foods section.
Booy says the milk truck still comes to the farm and milk in the tank is checked, as is customary, for bacteria and composition of proteins and fats. As well, the farm still receives a milk cheque from DFO. The difference, though, is that the milk stays on the property most days.
Booy says that unlike the system used in Alberta, where processors can hold back a portion of the tank, Ontario rules require that processors keep the whole tank or leave it for the milk pick-up. "That’s a problem for people who want to do on farm processing," says Booy. "You can’t say, ‘well, I only need 100 litres today.’ You have to set up on a large scale."
Describing the plant as a "huge undertaking," Booy says the biggest challenge is trying to stay one step ahead of market trends.
She says that although Mapleton’s Organic ice cream sells well, it’s been facing stiff competition from a sudden popularity in Soya products.
"They’ve taken off tremendously," says Booy, adding that without big dollars for marketing, small operations like her own can’t compete.
In spite of the daily challenges Booy faces, she says she never questions her decision to produce and market organic dairy products. Booy says using organic methods have always formed the basis of her approach to farming.
It’s a philosophy shared by Peter Dowling. At his Howe Island farm, Dowling’s cows spend the bulk of their days on one-and-a-half acre plots of land set aside for rotational grazing.
It’s a system Dowling plans to build upon until he has a total of 21 different sections for grazing. And it’s part of an overall plan to maintain as natural an environment as possible. Dowling says organic farming involves treating not only the land, but also the animals, with care.
"There’s a lot of emphasis on the care and comfort of the cow," Dowling explains. A lot of people have their cows tied up in stalls year ‘round.
"The idea here is that the cow has some freedom and has the pleasure of walking and eating in the grass."