Did you know?  In Ontario – unlike Quebec and several other Canadian provinces – the term organic is not regulated, meaning anyone selling within the province can say they are selling organic products, regardless of how they are produced. So why, then, should a farmer certify if just selling in Ontario? Well, the demand for certified organic produce and products has never been higher, and we are importing a lot of organic food and feed that could be grown here. Furthermore, all organic products must be certified if selling across provincial boundaries or internationally.

COG’s Growing Eastern Ontario Organically (GEOO) program helps farmers transition to organic by providing agronomic and business support. Generously supported by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, GEOO has lots of success stories to share and a whole set of resources to continue to help others through the transition process. Jenn Doelman in Renfrew County, a field cropper and participant in GEOO, said that markets and margins were one of the attractive reasons for her interest in transitioning.

Transitioning soybeans at GEOO participant Paul Desrosiers’ large-scale field crop farm in St. Albert, ON.

In addition to organic price premiums, certification means a farmer is following a national standard with international equivalencies. This is an assurance to the consumer, and to the entire food supply chain, that no GMOs, synthetic fertilizers or pesticides were used in the production. I used to think that my food production in Guelph was organic, until I understood the Organic Standard and realized I was only about 95% there. As an example, many people do not know that the Standard has aspects pertaining to animal welfare, unlike unregulated terms like “free run” eggs.

Of course, farmers have other important reasons for going organic. At Dream Small Farm, near Alexandria, ON, vegetable farmers and GEOO participants Patrick and Anna Brunet “farm organically because we value our own health and that of those we feed. We value the health of our community and that of our land. We believe that by following organic practices to produce local food, we can support all of these.”

Fellow GEOO participant Lianne Charron at Lune du Matin in St. Pascal-Baylon, ON agrees on a greater purpose for going organic: “Incorporating good certified organic practices is part of being a good land steward. And being a good land steward is important to us. Such practices take into account the decisions we make and the impact of those decisions on the soil, water, and air we breathe. I want to pass on a sense of hope to our children and their generation. I can only do that if I take action now and employ practices which improve the earth we live on.”

Agronomist Valérie Yoder giving a workshops on soil health assessments organised by GEOO team in Alexandria, ON.

Are you or someone you know thinking about organic certification?

It is never too early to think about certification. The first step is to see if you have a field free from prohibited substances for at least 24 months–like a hay field where no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides have been applied for several years. Timing of application to certify is important. You could miss out on your first year’s harvest being certified if you do not pay careful attention to the timelines.

Visit COG’s website cog.ca/transitioning-to-organic/ to read about how certification works before calling an organic certifying body (CB). Shop around. Get quotes for the crops you grow and the physical area of your production. Ask your certified organic neighbour who their CB is, and if you already have a market for an organic product you might want to think about aligning your CB with the person/company buying your produce, but this is not a requirement.

Pricing is based on scale, so smaller producers pay less than larger ones – usually starting around $500-600 annually. CBs may have slightly different fee structures and you should make sure you understand what is included and what may trigger additional fees. Most importantly, remember that all CBs enforce the same National Organic Standard and are regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

On the field demo with the COG GEOO team [Ruth Knight, Valérie Yoder and COG's Marketing/Communication Manager Julie Lopez.

COG has resources to help farmers through transition. It has updated its Guide to the Standard and the Permitted Substances List, which walks producers through section by section in plain English or French. COG, GEOO and the Organic Council of Ontario have also produced a set of ‘cost of production’ documents for field crops, dairy, pastured poultry and salad greens. According to David and Cynthia of Crowded Table Farm in Kinburn, “GEOO has helped us focus on what was important… [and] provided the tidbits of information that the books didn’t.” In fact, there has never been a better time to transition, as there is additional support from the Canadian Organic Trade Association to offset the costs of certification.

Transitioning wheat from Paul DeRosiers farm in St. Albert, ON.

What about the time and effort to certify?

The time and labour it takes to certify can be recouped with the price premium paid for both transitional crops and fully certified ones. if you are smaller scale selling into a local market and perhaps less likely to gain as much from premium prices, the record-keeping needed for certification could better inform your farm management decisions and spark efficiencies, especially if you are not yet keeping good records of everything you do.

If you know of conventional field croppers near you that might be receptive to making more money than they are now, or any other farmers who might be interested in certification, please let them know about GEOO and contact us, Eric or David, at the COG-National office: Eric.payseur@cog.ca and david.mazur-goulet@cog.ca

— Eric Payseur, Organic Transition Manager, Canadian Organic Growers

On Firmer Ground – Transitioning to Certified Organic in Eastern Ontario