With some 350 certified-organic producers and processors on its membership roster, Organic Alberta has come a long way since its inception as Going Organic in 2004.
Becky Lipton, the non-profit association’s executive director, said inquiries about organic production continue to come in on a regular basis — although the recent economic downturn and surge in prices for conventional agricultural commodities did result in the loss of a handful of members.
What’s pushed organic food production from a niche market to a mainstream industry? It’s been more of a pull, said Lipton, who credits consumers for creating the demand for chemical-free foods.
“I think that has been happening probably over the last decade.”
In fact, said Lipton, Canada’s organic food market is now the fifth largest in the world. The corridor from Calgary to north of Edmonton is a hotbed of organic production and consumption, with a growing appetite for organic meats.
“Organic Alberta is working with all of our different producers who are ranchers to be able to scale up in order to fill that demand,” she said. “There’s more demand than we have supply.”
Many of Organic Alberta’s members were in Olds this week for the association’s 2013 conference. Prospective members were also on hand, and the agenda included presentations like Organics 101: Introduction to the fundamentals of organics.
Lipton said she fields a lot of questions about entering the industry.
“Getting into organics is very challenging,” she acknowledged. “There are a number of tools that you have in conventional production that you wouldn’t have access to in organics.”
Crop farmers, for example, often find it tough to control weeds without the use of herbicides.
“We deal with it by building a multi-year crop plan,” said Lipton, describing how a strategic rotation of crops helps minimize weed pressures and balance nutrient consumption.
To address the absence of chemical fertilizers, farmers often grow a cover crop that they turn back into the field rather than harvest.
“That’s a great way to feed the soil, to regenerate the health of the soil, and also deal with your weed pressures because you’re not letting them go to seed.”
In the case of livestock, there are also alternatives to chemical treatments for problems like parasites, said Lipton. Pasture land can be grazed in sections so that the next generation of pests don’t reinfect animals.
“It’s really about creating a whole management system plan, so you can pre-emptively deal with any kind of issue like that you would have.”
Information about transitioning into organic production can be obtained from the Organic Alberta website, or by calling Lipton at her Edmonton office.
Consumer information is also available through the association. Its website contains links to producers and processors of a variety of organic foods — from grains to beef, and fruits to wines.
“We’ve got kind of the whole gamut in there,” said Lipton.
Organic Alberta conducts marketing campaigns, and advocates on behalf of the industry.
The Organic Alberta website can be found at organicalberta.org.