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Down on the farm

// Jill Stanton
// Jill Stanton

How do oats and wheat and barley grow on organic farms in Alberta? Very well. In fact, organic produce is thriving in our province. Between Alberta and Saskatchewan, who share a database of organic farms, there are more than 1400 organic agricultural producers that grow everything from lentils to lamb.

Approximately 75 percent of organic farmers in Alberta grow cereals, with oats, wheat and barley being the most common. Other agricultural products include livestock, forage crops, fruit and vegetables.

Becky Lipton is the executive director for Organic Alberta. She has worked with the organization since 2008 when they were called Go Organic, and she became interested in organics while studying for her master’s degree on women and agriculture at Concordia University.

Despite the popularity of organic foods, there remains some confusion about what the word organic really means. Lipton explains that for the word “organic” to appear on food in Alberta, it has to be certified organic. This means that the food is grown according to the requirements set out in the Canadian Organic Regulation.

There is some confusion over the word organic, because it is often confused with other non-regulated terms such as “grass fed,” “local” or “natural.” These terms are not the same as organic. In order to obtain an organic certification, a farmer must apply to a certification board that is accredited by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. So those organic labels in the grocery store really do mean that the food was grown according to specific regulation.

The Canadian Organic Standard ensures that contamination on organic farms is very unlikely. This is because of practices such as an eight-metre buffer zone, which would help prevent pesticide drift. The organic standard and the annual third-party inspection is an effective means of identifying and eliminating any products that could be contaminated by prohibited substances.

Here in Edmonton, on an icy Saturday morning, it’s a blustery -19 C, but the winter scene fades inside the Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market. Kristine Vriend and her mother-in-law Ruth are tending shop at August Organics. At 11 am the place is packed and their stall is brimming with potatoes and carrots. As the day goes on, when the selection wanes and the customers slow to a trickle, Vriend has time to speak. She says that August Organics was the first organic farm in Alberta and they have been selling organic produce for 35 years.

What has changed in that time? “Well things have gotten a little bit larger since they first started,” Vriend says. This is due, in part, to the fact that people are more educated about organic food than they used to be.

“Of course the customer base gets larger and more people are getting more educated on organic than they were 35 years ago,” she adds. “There’s much more of a demand.”

There have also been some innovations on the Vriend farm over the years. When Dan and Kristine saw the toll that manual labour had taken on his parents—who ran the farm until Dan and Kristine took over in 2005—they decided there needed to be some changes.

“We’ve done a lot more automatization than they used to do,” Vriend explains. “They used to do a lot more physical labour and we saw how their bodies were breaking down, so we were like, “OK, we are going to be in trouble if we don’t do something.”

One of the changes they have made involves how potatoes are harvested in the fall.

“They used to harvest potatoes into a potato sack and then tie the potato sack and throw it onto a wagon, take the wagon into the yard and then unload each potato sack separately and put in on a pile,” Vriend says. “Now we harvest it straight into a box. … So that saves a lot of physical labour.”

Transitioning to an organic farm from a regular farm takes 36 months.

“There’s definitely paperwork involved in organics,” Lipton says. “It’s a rigorous standard and we want consumers to know that the integrity is being met at all times. Farmers have to keep track of a number of different things.”

That sounds a little daunting, but Vriend doesn’t think the paperwork is that challenging.

“You know, the regulation is a small thing,” she says. “A lot of people say they don’t do it because it’s too expensive. It’s a lot of paperwork in this time of year to sit down and figure it out, but it helps you be aware of what you are doing and you learn a lot by keeping the records that you have to keep.”

As for labour, it is common in both organic and non-organic farming to have temporary workers for the growing season. But for August Organics, instead of temporary foreign workers, they pair with students from Olds College.

“We used to be able to have no problem finding Canadians to work, but nowadays that’s very difficult because most kids want to sit on their iPods and we don’t allow that in the field,” Vriend says.

Still, she prefers working with students in order to share the knowledge of organics.

“It’s more of a teaching farm,” Vriend adds.. “Hopefully it creates a better atmosphere. It’s not just ‘I’m using you to get this work done quickly.’ We had one student last year, we just went to visit him in Mexico, and he’s actually taking a lot of the stuff he learned from our farm and he’s planting things on his farm now that he never even thought he would do before.”

In the quest for fair and sustainable organic practices, there are many considerations, lots of record keeping and the mercurial Alberta weather to contend with. Still, Vriend says it’s definitely worth it.

“You see these happy faces every Saturday. I have 400 to 500 regular customers that say to me, ‘thank-you for the food,’ and it makes you feel good. You are feeding a generation of people.”

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