History of Organics on the Prairies

Milestones

People Talking to Each Other

From the early 1980s to 2000, a series of publications and other initiatives helped sustain communication and foster education for those interested in organic agriculture.

1980: Earthcare: Ecological Agriculture in Saskatchewan, edited by Paul Hanley, was the first book to address organic agriculture on the Canadian prairies. It combined scientific research, farm profiles, and anecdotal information.

1989–1995: Synergy Magazine was launched. The publishers and editors, Gary Smith and Wilma Groenen, published stories about organic and sustainable agriculture and related issues relevant to the western provinces and northern U.S. plains.

1992: Agro-Alternatives: Alternate Farming Methods to Lower Input Costs, edited by Gary Smith and Wilma Groenen, combined practical advice on organic farming and included profiles of farmers. It provided both the model and knowledge base for the SOD organic production manuals.

2000: Organic Farming on the Prairies: An Organic Production Manual, edited by Gary Smith and Wilma Groenen, was published by Saskatchewan Organic Directorate with funding from Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food (SAF) and the Agriculture Development Fund.

2003: Organic Connections, a non-profit group, was established to organize prairie organic conferences and trade shows. Their first biannual conference was held in Saskatoon in 2004. People from every province as well as the United States attended, pushing attendance to a sell-out crowd of 500. Conferences in 2006 and 2008 were equally well received.

2006: Saskatchewan Organic Directorate (SOD) listserve was established on the SOD website for people interested in Saskatchewan organics. The benefits of listserve participation include outreach and membership building, promotion of transparency within SOD, and facilitation of communication between all organic producers and organic supporters.

Marketing Efforts Begin

The years from 1983 through to 2005 saw organic growers and organizations begin to address marketing and distribution. During this time various innovative and progressive programs were tried, and they laid the foundation for today’s marketplace developments.

1983–1992: The Organic Producers Marketing Co-operative (also known as the Girvin Co-op) was the first organic marketing co-operative in Canada. It sold certified organic cereal grains, oilseeds, and legumes to Canadian, American, and European markets. It established a processing plant in an abandoned school and sold directly to consumers through its retail outlet in Girvin. Marketing and price setting were still fairly new concepts in Saskatchewan agriculture at this time, and this group of organic producers was among the first to realize the importance of being “price setters” instead of “price takers” and of closing the gap between producers and consumers.

1994–2006: The Marysburg Organic Producers, a Saskatchewan grassroots marketing association, was established by members of Organic Crop Improvement Association, Chapter #5, based in Spalding. They supplied certified organic grain to wholesalers, distributors, and manufacturers in Canada, Europe, Japan, and the United States.

1995–1999: Organic Product Information Service, an electronic listing service developed to connect organic producers and buyers, was developed by Mark Gimby at the Saskatchewan Research Council. It was unique in its tracking of minimum, maximum, and average market prices for several commodities. It also published an informative newsletter on current markets and trends.

1998: The Canadian Organic Livestock Association was formed by a group of Saskatchewan livestock producers to promote the Canadian organic beef sector and raise the standard of production.

2005: Saskatchewan Organic Livestock was founded. This non-profit co-operative is dedicated to educating the public, promoting organic meat, and facilitating marketing for organic livestock producers. A group within SOL formed Clear Creek organics, a supplier of quality organic meat.

Certification Guidelines Are Established

The process of certification verifies that organic principles are implemented on an individual farm or by an organic processor. From the beginning, certification has been seen as an important way to share values and methods and to market a superior product.

1987: The first Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) chapter was established in Saskatchewan. Member–producers met in groups and toured each others farms and fields to share their experiences and learn from each other. They developed certification guidelines that evolved into standards still in use today. By 1991 there were eight chapters in Saskatchewan; a ninth was formed in 2007. OCIA continues to be an industry leader and one of the world’s largest non-profit organic certification agencies.

1988: The Organic Producers Association of Manitoba (OPAM) was registered as a formal co-operative under the Manitoba Chapter Co-operatives Act. OPAM is a provincial certification body and is active at local, provincial, and national levels in the development, teaching, and promotion of organic standards and techniques.

1990: Pro-Cert Organic Systems, a fee-for-service profit-based certification company, was formed by the agrologist Wally Hamm. In 1999 they merged with OCCP (Organic Crop Producers and Processors), an Ontario-based fee-for-service certification company.

1992: The Canadian Organic Certification Co-op (COCC) was incorporated under the Saskatchewan Co-operatives Act. It provided organic enterprises with organic certification as well as information on markets and regulations, and gave members a voice in the organic community. In 2006, COCC transferred all its certification activities to the North American management system registrar QMI–SAI Global.

1999: Saskatchewan Organic Certification Co-op (SOCA) was formed as a non-profit certification agency. It inspects and certifies organic farms and fields, and helps farmers develop production plans to become organic. In 2006, they formed a partnership with European certifier Ecocert and became the western office of Ecocert Canada.

Organic Research Is Initiated

Initially, the needs of organic farmers were poorly understood and largely ignored by academic researchers. It was the organic farmers, themselves, who led the development of new information. More recently, however, organic research has also begun to flourish in the scientific community.

1973: The Back to the Farm Research Foundation (BFRF) became the first certified organic research and demonstration farm in Canada. Elmer Laird was president. In addition to conducting on-farm research, BFRF became well known for providing public commentary on farm chemicals and alternatives to their use and commentary on other environmental and health issues. BFRF worked with Earthcare and other organizations to sponsor conferences in the 1970s and1980s and helped form the Girvin Co-op in 1983.

1990: Brenda Frick, a researcher at the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan, began conducting weed research on the organic farms of Marc Loiselle and David Orchard, and an area of the Kernen Research Farm was designated for organic research.

1990–1992: A Saskatchewan Research Council study, Viability of Organic Farm Practices, by Rutherford, Gimby, Smith, Mair, and Coxworth, was prepared for OCIA. The study declared organics to be financially viable. One of the authors, Ewen Coxworth, was awarded an Organic Researcher award by Organic Connections for this early work and his ongoing support of organics.

Early 1990s: Karen DeMong conducted research on pea varieties on organic farms.

1992: The first organic rotation study on the Canadian prairies, known as the Glenlea rotations, were established by Martin Entz, a professor of cropping systems at the University of Manitoba.

1994: The Alternate Cropping System study was established by Stewart Brandt, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), at the Scott Research Farm in Scott, Saskatchewan. This large-scale study investigated three organic rotations. The study won a AAFC Golden Sheaf award for the breadth of its integration, and Stewart Brandt was awarded an Organic Researcher award by Organic Connections for his support to organic agriculture.

1998: The mechanical weed control project was initiated by Eric Johnson while a graduate student at the University of Saskatchewan. He continues this work at the AAFC Scott Research Farm.

1998: The Heritage Wheat Project, begun by Sharon Rempel, a wheat breeder, examined the suitability of old wheat varieties for modern organic farms.

2000: An organic wheat breeding program was begun by professor Dean Spaner, at the University of Alberta.

2001: Organic soil fertility and weed control project was begun by professors Diane Knight and Steve Shirtliffe at University of Saskatchewan. Shirtliffe was awarded an Organic Research Chair in 2006.

In 2001, research contributing to organic production also began to move into the area of statistics and analysis.

2001: The Production Statistics for Organic Agriculture in Saskatchewan for 2000 report, commissioned by SAF in partnership with SOD, was authored by Brenda Frick. The report provided the first formal statistics gathered specifically for Saskatchewan.

2002–2006: Simon Weseen, an organic trade and marketing analyst, was hired with funds from Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food to research and report on organic certification systems in Canada and abroad, and to describe the marketing implications and costs of these systems. This information was then provided as a resource to associations developing certification standards.

2002: A National Strategic Plan for the Canadian Organic Food and Farming Sector, by Rod MacRae et al., was published by the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada, Nova Scotia Agricultural College. It identified a seven-step plan to improve the viability of the sector.

The early 2000s saw the beginning of some institutional structures that supported various forms of research.

2003: Brenda Frick established a prairies presence when she was hired as a prairie co-ordinator, based in the College of Agriculture, University of Saskatchewan. Her initial work involved on-farm research but evolved into taking research results out to organic farmers.

The position was funded by Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba agriculture departments and the Canadian Wheat Board, and supervised by the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada (established 2001 as part of the Nova Scotia Agricultural College). The position evolved, with funding from Saskatchewan and Alberta, and later, with additional funding from Saskatchewan, to one focused on Saskatchewan. In 2007, supervision of the position was transferred to the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan.

2004: Saskatchewan Organic Commission (SOC) was formed to design a check-off commission for organic research projects. This would be the first check-off to be based on “method of production” as opposed to the current system of commodity-based research funding. The Saskatchewan Agri-Food Council recommended the commission negotiate the arrangement through the individual commodity groups.

2004: The Organic Crop Improvement Association established a research and education wing to support farmer-driven research on farms and at research institutions, including exploratory and demonstration projects.

National Standards Develop

Developing organic standards has been a long and involved process as passionate people with different products and different markets worked to develop an inclusive and meaningful expression of their values. Many prairie producers played a pivotal role in this process.

1990: The Canadian Organic Unity Project (COUP) began a collaborative industry and government consultation process to discuss developing industry-driven organic standards and an accreditation system to be supported by a federal regulation. In other words, this was the beginning of the process that led to the implementation of a Canadian Organic Regulation (COR) in July 2009. Today, the government consults with Organic Federation of Canada (OFC).

  • 1990: COUP (Canadian Organic Unity Project) begins consultations with government.
  • 1992: COAB (Canadian Organic Advisory Board) replaces COUP
  • 2001: CNOC (Canadian National Organic Coalition) replaces COAB
  • 2003: ORC (Organic Regulatory Committee) an ad hoc committee replaces CNOC
  • 2006: OFC (Organic Federation of Canada) replaces ORC.

1995: The first National Organic Standard was developed by the Canadian General Standards Board working with the Canadian Organic Advisory Board. This standard was voluntary and was another important step in the progress towards a nationally regulated system.

1996: After six drafts and two ballots, the voluntary consensus (standard) was formally adopted by the Standards Council of Canada under the National Standards system.

2006: The proposed Organic Products Regulations were published in the Canada Gazette, however implementation was delayed until June 2009.

Continuing National Efforts

Building on the momentum of the of the Canadian Organic Regulation process, a number of national projects have emerged to promote organics in Canada. Canadian Organic Growers (COG) is formed as a national organization based in Ontario. Its mission is “To lead local and national communities towards sustainable organic stewardship of land, food and fibre while respecting nature, upholding social justice and protecting natural resources” .  COG publishes a quarterly magazine, sponsors organic research, has an extensive lending library, and works with other organizations and governments on policy matters.

2006: National Organic Value Chain Round Table (OVCRT) was formed to bring together industry leaders––producers, processors, retailers, and others––with governments to build and implement a shared strategic vision for organics in Canada.

2006: The Organic Federation of Canada (OFC) was formally established as an official forum to unite, consult, and promote the interests of all stakeholders in the organic sector. OFC includes members from each province and from the Yukon.

Provincial Organic Umbrella Groups

Provincial umbrella groups on the prairies have been instrumental in sustaining the organic sector by providing a single point of access for government and a strong voice for the organic community.

Saskatchewan

1991–1997: Saskatchewan Organic Industry Development Council was formed. This was the first organization of its kind in Canada and its mandate was promote the organic industry and sustainable agriculture. It was renamed Saskatchewan Organic Development Council (SODC) in March 1994.

1998: Saskatchewan Organic Directorate (SOD) was established after a brief period of inactivity by SODC. It was based on the structure and membership of SODC. SOD was structured as an umbrella group, an organization of other like-minded organizations.

2003: SOD established an Organizational Review Committee, chaired by Gary Storey, an agricultural economist at the University of Saskatchewan, to examine the organizational needs of the organic sector. The proposals were seriously considered by the SOD board, but after considerable debate, the SOD board decided to retain SOD’s organizational structure and to explore means of increasing funds that did not include a check-off.

2010: SOD restructured its governance model from a collection of producer groups to a one-person one-vote system.

2015: SOD restructured its governance model declaring all certified organic entities (farmers, processors, marketers, etc) in Saskatchewan as members and changed its name to SaskOrganics Association Inc. (SaskOrganics).

Alberta

1990s: Alberta Organic Association was created as a provincial umbrella organization. With Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (ARD), the association held Going Organic conferences in Olds, Edmonton, and Red Deer.

2004: Going Organic (GO), a new provincial body, was formed. It adopted its name from the name of the successful organic conferences of the nineties. The GO network, working with ARD-sponsored conferences and field days, publishes a newsletter and has developed a website, and holds annual conferences, some in partnership with other organizations and some as stand-alone events.

2008: The Alberta Organic Harmonization project, coordinated by Becky Lipton, a food security consultant, worked to bring stakeholders together from across the organic sector, which resulted in bringing all certified organic producers into its membership. It works under the umbrella of Organic Alberta and functions as an advocate for and educator in the organic sector. It also adopted a new form of regional representation and an integration of various committees into its structure. Funding from Alberta Agricultural Initiatives supported development of a broader communications plan that included a greater advocacy and education role.

2010: GO changed its name to Organic Alberta, to reflect a more mature, resilient, and robust image. It continues to support and enhance the organic industry through leadership, networking, education, communication, and advocacy.

Manitoba

2000: The Organic Food Council of Manitoba (OFCM) was established to build organic agricultural skills and understanding in the province. As a chapter of COG they run Growing Up Organic, a program to bring organic food to childcare facilities, and Manitoba Farm Mentorship, a mentoring program where experienced producers share skills with new producers. Together these projects aim to increase the growth and accessibility of organic food in Manitoba.

2009: OFCM–COG was a founding member of the Manitoba Organic Alliance (MOA), a provincial umbrella group representing organic producers, processors, consumers and others involved in bringing Manitoba organic food to the table. MOA focuses on organic standards and regulation development, effective local certification options, promotion of and education about organic certification, and building an effective organic lobby.

Excerpt from Organic Farming on the Prairies, 2nd Edition (2013)

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