Old Ways, New Learning Curve,
Going Organic On The Farm.
With the recent visit of Percy Schmeiser and the movie ‘Food Inc’ many consumers are thinking about GM (Genetically Modified) food and food products in the things they eat. The truly annoying and scary thing is that there is no labelling so folks don’t know what they are eating; is it GM or not GM? There is a way to avoid the GM conundrum though. Organically certified foods are GM free as no GM crops are allowed in the certification rules for farmers. With this in mind I was interested when I heard of a local Dairy farmer who was converting to Organic. In Canada most organic dairy producers have smaller scale operations, and many make cheese, yogurt and bottle milk much like Gort’s Gouda here in Salmon Arm. They produce and market their product, which is a major undertaking and keeps them very busy, as milking is a year round, 24/7 occupation. So you can imagine, not a decision to take lightly.
The McLeods, Ken and son Jack farm next to Foothill Rd under Mount Ida and milk 125 cows which make’s them mid sized dairy farmers. As I sat at their kitchen table I learned of the changes and challenges of their new venture into Organic Farming. It takes three years to transition into Organic certification from regular farming, and Ken and Jack are well on the way with two years under their belts and one more to go. This ensures any chemical and artificial fertilizer residues are out of the soil and the animal’s environment, so as to avoid any contamination. During that time all organic rules are observed, use of organic seed and feed, only recognised cleaners and medications may be used. This means cost of production is increased while the price of the end product does not, the organic price premium does not come till the three years are completed.
The corn grown for silage is a major part of the cows ration and is now organic seed. It is planted later to ensure the maximum amount of weed seeds germinate so they can be cultivated under thus giving less competition to the corn. Ken and Jack were pleased with the yield as there was less of a drop than they had expected with the shorter growing time.
Timing as they are discovering is everything and attention to details very important. Making a mistake in regular farming can be cured with a spray or medication, but with organic management, prevention rather than cure is the goal. Ken and Jack realise they are now using knowledge that their father/grandfather used and wish they had more farming books of the 1930s 40s and 50s with tips and remedies to help them in their management practices. So you can see, it’s not just plastic and cans that get recycled.
Besides growing organic forages and sourcing organic grain for feed, bedding for the cows and calves also has to be organic. The milking cows lie on sand in individual stalls known as free stalls. This is actually very comfortable and during my visit most of the herd were comfortably snoozing and ‘cudding’ before afternoon milking. The cows that were soon to calve and the young calves were bedded with organic spelt straw; this is a kind of grain and was grown in Armstrong.
Probably the biggest change and by far the toughest learning curve will be adapting to summer grazing the milking herd while maintaining production. The organic rules insist that all stock receive four months grazing. Most all of the dairy herds in Canada never graze, you may see them out in an exercise area for a leg stretch, but never to earn their keep grazing, all are fed at a feed bunk. The McLeods need 70 acres of pasture and this was a worry until the neighbour, Ken’s brother John, agreed to rent them his land and buildings. Now you can see new fencing in fields adjacent to the road and next year there will be the photo opportunity of contented cows grazing and snoozing in the fields, making for a truly pastoral scene. This will require a new skill, that of rotational grazing one which Ken and Jack are keen to learn. The obvious advantage is healthier animals but also money saved as the animals harvest the crop and feed themselves, meaning a third less hay and silage making for the McLeod’s. In turn this means a smaller carbon footprint on the milk as less fuel is used to produce it. A win-win for everyone and the environment.
Once they are fully organic the milk will be handled separately to keep its organic status. The milk will be picked up by a truck that only handles organic milk, and will be added to milk from another organic producer from Mara, then sent to the coast for processing. It would be nice to see it stay here and be made into cheese, yogurt and fresh bottled milk, but Ken and Jack say they have enough on their plate for the moment. (Of course if you would like to start a dairy and process their milk I am sure they would be glad to talk to you.)
The big question I had to ask was why go organic? Especially with all this extra expense and three year transition period along with a mountain of stress and paper work. There was silence around the table, then some smiles and nods of heads. The main reason they both explained was they had come to a point when they realised there had to be a better way. All the expensive chemical inputs and fertilizers, none of which Ken’s father and grandfather had used and they farmed just fine. They were tired of the ‘agribusiness’ way and were wanting to do the right thing. With modern trends and consumer thinking they feel happy they have made the choice to go organic. With their obvious dedication, determination and enthusiasm I have no doubts they will reach their goals and I look forward to talking to them when they are fully certified.