Organics represent a significant sector in the Canadian economy. In 2020 the value of the organic food market in Canada was approximately $7 billion. Organic exports from Canada in that year were over $600 million. The number of certified organic farmers in Canada is over 6,000. Despite its growing importance, there is still only a patchwork of support for organics in Canada, with the Province of Quebec providing the most systematic support. This article focusses primarily on support for Ontario organic farmers, with some references to the situation in Quebec.
National Organic Standards
Having a clear definition of ‘organic’ is essential for organic farmers. Canadian Organic Standards (COS) came into effect on June 20, 2009. They are a detailed set of principles, guidelines, and permitted substances that are used in the organic certification process. They are revised every 5 years, with the participation of representatives of the organic industry. The Standards are implemented at the farm level by Organic Certifying Agencies.
The COS regulates organic trade at the interprovincial and national levels. Provincial regulation/legislation governs the use of the term organic within its boundaries. Several provinces have this in place. Ontario does not, despite efforts to achieve this, so farmers can call their products ‘organic’ without being certified.
Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) is a new, unofficial U.S. certification process being promoted by the Regenerative Organic Alliance. Using the USDA Certified Organic standard as the basis, it adds emphasis on soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. While there is growing interest in Canada in regenerative farming, partly as a response to the climate crisis, there is no comparable ROC process here.
National and provincial support for organic farmers
Support for organic farmers by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) is primarily funded through its overall Canadian Agricultural Partnership program. These funds are dispersed directly or repassed to the provinces. Several organic organizations have received small amounts of this funding for specific projects. Organic dairy farmers participate directly in Canada’s supply management system, supported by government.
The Province of Quebec is a strong supporter of organic agriculture, with a program starting in 2025 to actively convert farmland to organic. Most funding for the organic sector there is provided through it’s Prime-Vert Program. Support from the Ontario Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) is much less and more dispersed by comparison. Ministry crop and livestock specialists are expected to be knowledgeable in both conventional and organic agriculture. A voluntary Foodland Ontario Organic logo, developed in 2011, provides certified organic producers some additional visibility. Provincial crop insurance offers an organic component.
Support for Organic Transition
Unlike Quebec, in Ontario, there is no direct government support for transition to certified organic. The Canadian Organic Growers (COG) had a three-year program in Eastern Ontario (Growing Eastern Ontario Organically-GEOO) that supported over 50 transitioning farmers through mentorship, financial incentives, and on-farm learning. COG is now working on a successor project: Transitioning Farmers to Regenerative Organic (TFRO). COG has also completed a national study Transitioning to Organics: A Risk Based Analysis. The Canadian Organic Trade Association also had a two-year program to support farmers in transition to organics, but that has also terminated. The various Organic Certifying Agencies (there are 7 in Canada) will also provide some support for farmers who sign up for their certifying services.
Research in Organic Agriculture
The Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada (OACC), based at Dalhousie University, Truro, Nova Scotia, funded by federal government and other partners, conducts research in organic production issues across Canada. COG also periodically secures funding for organic research-related activities, such as the ongoing Regenerative Organic Oats (ROO) project in the Prairie provinces. The Ecological Farmers of Ontario (EFAO) has a Farmer-Led Research Program which includes varietal trials and novel production practices. While not solely for organic farmers, participants in this program frequently includes them and the crops they grow.
Student and Farmer Training in Organic Agriculture
The University of Guelph offered a major in Organic Agriculture up to 2018. This was transformed to a non-degree certificate program. Trent University in Peterborough has a Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems program which is not organic but includes study of regenerative farming systems.
Alfred College, formerly part of the University of Guelph, had an organic agriculture program in French. This college became part of La Cite University in Ottawa, which now has an Agroalimentaire et Nutrition program – which includes cannabis production – but is no longer fully organic. In Quebec, the Cégep de Victoriaville offers courses on organic agriculture in French.
Organic Farmer Conferences offer important training for organic farmers. The Eastern Ontario/Western Quebec chapter of Canadian Organic Growers (COG OSO) has offered an organic farmer conference for over 40 years. After a three-year hiatus due to COVID, an in-person conference is planned for February 24, 2024. The Guelph Organic Conference, to be held on January 24-27 at Guelph University, and the EFAO annual conference, on November 29 this year in London, both feature workshops and presentations of relevance for organic farmers, primarily those in Central/Western Ontario. Until recently, EFAO has also held a conference in Northern Ontario.
Other Organizations Supporting Organic Farmers
The Organic Federation of Canada (OFC) and the Organic Council of Ontario (OCO) are both actively involved in organic advocacy and participate in the 5-year revision of the National Organic Standards. The OFC is also a partner with the OACC in promoting organic research. OCO is actively building information systems for the organic sector in Ontario and manages the Guelph Organic Conference. It was instrumental in developing the Ontario Foodland Organic logo and has recently launched outreach to consumers on organic food, including a draft logo.
A number of other organizations provide related support for organic farmers. Farmers for Climate Solutions (FCS) is a national alliance of farmer organizations and supporters that actively supports farmer solutions to climate change. FCS provided funding to COG and EFAO to develop and implement training on climate friendly practices such as cover cropping. SeedChange is a national organization that promotes ecological agriculture and partners with farmers in Canada and across the globe to strengthen local food.
Among other organizations and programs we might mention include Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS), a national program that pays farmers to deliver ecosystem services including wetland protection, and pollinator and wildlife habitat.
The internet is an inexhaustible source of information for both new and experienced organic farmers. But don’t forget your certified organic farmer neighbours. Here is a certified organic farmer map that OCO has developed for Ontario that will help you find them http://directory.organiccouncil.ca/.