A relevant tour of 3 organic farms in Eastern Ontario led by COG-OSO

On Sunday 9th July, 2023, COG-OSO organized the tour of three Certified organic farms in Eastern Ontario. There were about 25-30 interested people present throughout the day.

The first farm to be visited, at 9.30 am, was the farm of Paul Desrosiers in St.Albert. Paul farms an extensive grains and oilseeds operation, covering 1,200 acres of wheat, corn and soybeans. He also accepts certified organic crops from other farmers in the area. Paul was unable to be present that day, but his employees Nadine, Eric and Pascale were on hand to describe, respectively, the marketing, the field work and the buffer management. As well known, being “certified organic” poses many challenges, especially when it comes to maintaining fertility, and controlling weeds.

  • Nadine described the crop rotations, the management of the crops after harvest, including cleaning, drying, storage and transportation. The group visited their impressive centre for unloading, processing and storage of the grains and soybeans as they come in from the field and from neighbouring farms. Paul has access to rail loading facilities, to which he trucks the grains and soybeans for loading into dedicated and carefully cleaned rail cars, for shipment across Canada and the United States.
  • Eric showed us some of their specialized equipment. Pre-emergence weeds, and weeds in the crop during early growth, are controlled with a very wide tractor-mounted tine weeder.  As the crop grows, an inter-row cultivator physically destroys weeds between the crop rows, and is equipped to spread cover crop seeds in the disturbed areas between the rows.  The machine is controlled by GPS to stay exactly in line with the crop rows,  with cameras mounted on the machine itself to provide additional guidance so that the plants are never damaged by the cultivator. Finally, if some weeds escape, an electric “zapper” is driven through the field, again controlled by GPS.  This “zapper” destroys the weeds that grow above the crop canopy by sending 12,000 volts through them, the electricity being provided by a generator mounted on the tractor.
  • Pascale is a silviculturist, with responsibility for the planting and maintenance of the buffer strips that surround the fields in which the certified organic crops are grown. She described the selection of trees and shrubs that grow well in the soils of the area, and provide separation from crops being grown on adjacent non-organic fields where pesticides and fertilizers are often used. “Buffers” are required by organic certifiers to ensure that the certified organic crops are not contaminated by activities on neighbouring farms.

Nadine, Eric and Pascale describing their specialties to the tour group  [Photos by Jim Davidson]

The tour group then moved on to the certified organic dairy farm of Sam Gerstgrasser, just outside Casselman. Sam has a herd of about 65 Simmental-cross milking cows on 250 acres, of which about 160 acres are cleared and seeded to grass mixtures. The large, sturdy breed of the cows gives fewer health and calving problems than some of the more popular dairy breeds. Sam believes in keeping things simple, with an eight-stall milking parlour on the side of a free-range indoor winter barn, equipped with water beds for each cow, in stalls that they are never tied into. Winter manure is scraped daily into a liquid system, and in the summer is pumped out onto the pastures, after grazing, using a drag-line system operated by a contractor.

In the summer, and in fact whenever weather conditions allow, the cows are pastured on grassland that is not cultivated and re-seeded, but is kept in good condition by continuous rotational grazing.  He demonstrated the way in which the electric fence is moved every day to provide a fresh strip across the field.  The cows eat everything that is provided each day, and seldom go back over the areas that they have already grazed. Topping is rarely needed. He has water supplied underground along the side of the main laneway through the centre of the farm, with hydrants every 100 metres or so.  The water tanks are attached by hoses to these hydrants, so that the cows have clean water available to them at all times.

Sam does his own artificial insemination, thus avoiding having a bull on the farm.  He is also skilled at testing the milk for mastitis and other infections, and follows strict protocols for handling the milk from any cow that is infected.  As a certified organic producer, if he has to use antibiotics to save the health, or even the life, of a cow, that cow is removed from the milking herd until she is entirely healthy, and any treatment is ceased for twice the time required by the pharmaceutical manufacturer.  All the practices followed on the farm are approved and monitored by the organic certifying agency to ensure the organic integrity of the milk.

Sam and his wife Rina and their 6 children were very gracious in offering liquid refreshments to all the members of the tour group, and provided picnic tables for us to sit with them and eat our lunches, supplemented by sausages and vegetables which they provided.  They even went to the trouble of providing portable toilets for our convenience.  They were truly gracious hosts, and everyone expressed their appreciation when it was time to leave.

Tour participants view the cows behind the electric fence in their pasture    [Photo by David Townson]

From the organic dairy farm, and when lunch was over, the tour group drove to Champlain Harvest Farm, just north of Bourget. Our hosts were Lori and Pierre Demers, who operate a relatively small, but intensive farm of about 20 acres, with fruits, berries and vegetables being grown for sale at the Orleans Farmers’ Market, as well as at the farm itself.  Much of the fruit and berries is processed on site into preserves, ciders and wines.  We saw their rows of hazelnut and elderberry bushes, their raspberry, blackberry and strawberry plantings, their rows of garlic, cucumber, tomatoes and potatoes, and their apple orchard.  Some of the well-established plantings were inherited from the previous owner of the farm, but Lori and Pierre were excited about the prospects of new plantings and new types and varieties of plants. We were treated to samples of haskaps, which is a recent and delicious berry crop that has many medicinal and health enhancing properties.

The tour group was led through the various plantings, and Lori and Pierre answered so many questions they must have been exhausted!  To cap it all off, they invited us all to sample their cider, wines and preserves, and provided cheese and crackers as well.  Again, the tour group showed their appreciation when it was time to leave.

Lori Demers explaining the propagation and planting of hazelnut trees   [Photo by David Townson]

Each host was presented with a small basket of organic snacks as a very small token of our appreciation for their time and the attention they had taken to make our visits so informative and meaningful.  Donations received from the participants will be passed on to the farmers.

A highly successful and special tour, enjoyed and appreciated by all participants. 

Organic Farms Tour 2023