The Organic Question

When you step up to support your local organically certified farmer, you become the change you want to see in the world—voting for better health, ethical treatment of animals, strong community … and even the preservation of our planet.

 We all believe that eating food grown organically equals better health, but what else are you standing up for when you reach out to support your local organic farmer—in other words, what does “organic” truly mean?

On the farm, organic certification speaks to a way of life, of honouring health in all of its measures—from the wholesomeness of harvests to the well-being of workers and contentment of livestock to the sanctity of the soil, water, and wildlife it works in partnership with.

“People who are organic farmers love it,” says Michelle Tsutsumi of Golden Ears Farm, a third-generation family farm on Secwepemc land near Chase, BC. “It is a deeply held belief and philosophy for them. Buying local organic food supports farmers in being able to do this work that they love to do.”

“There are so many reasons to support organics,” says Jen Gamble, executive director of Certified Organic Associations of BC (COABC), “that it comes down to what is personally important to you—whether that’s health, the environment, or animal welfare.

“Supporting certified organic local farms is a way for consumers to recognize their important issues and address them. When you have a standard such as organic certification, this goes across the board to address so many concerns out there right now. As we all get more and more concerned about our environment and what we do in our daily lives, purchasing organic and growing organic becomes a community-building exercise.”

And with more than 3,732 certified organic farms across Canada, covering 953,000 hectares of land—according to ThinkCanadaOrganic.ca, a venture of the Canada Organic Trade Association with support from Agriculture and AgriFood Canada—it’s possible for everyone to reach out to their nearest organic grower, whether that means trekking onto the farm to meet the farmer or sourcing food at the local market.

What a difference organic can make

When Tony and Fran McQuail set foot on their newly purchased 100 acres of land near Lucknow, Ontario, in 1973, they surveyed the damage: farmed conventionally and mono-cropped for years by the previous owners, with routine drenchings of the herbicide atrazine, the soil was “in pretty rough shape and hadn’t had manure or hay crops going back into it for 10 or 15 years,” says Tony.

“In our first year, we lost a whole field to atrazine carry-over damaging our grain crop. And the next year I was even able to see a bald spot where the sprayer had stalled—nothing grew on this strip the width of a spray boom for two or three more years.

“When we first got the farm, we put out bird feeders in the winter and the seeds stayed in them all winter. Since then we’ve worked pretty hard to rebuild the soil biology and plant out trees and windbreaks. By 1975, there was a diversity of insects coming back and we had a nice variety of birds on the farm. Nowadays, they eat the seeds up pretty quickly!”

Now, certified organic for decades, Meeting Place Organic Farm bristles with life, from the pastured chickens, cattle, and pigs to orchard, vegetable, and hay crops and the team of Belgian draft horses that plough the fields in the most ecological way possible.

Horses run on homegrown fuel, produce manure to fertilize the soil, can reproduce themselves, are quieter than engines, and are less expensive to buy and maintain than a tractor, says Tony. “Plus, the carbon they release is cycled back annually into the plants they eat.”

Embracing the concept that there is a balance in nature, the McQuails welcome wildlife to their gardens, fields, and surrounding woodlot. “We had a radio crew here from CBC; the sound guy took his crew to walk around in our fields and said, ‘I’ve never heard so much insect life. It’s amazing!’—but we weren’t having many problems with insect pests, because we have a huge number of beneficial insects and other creatures that keep their numbers down.”

On many of the large conventional farms, GMO crops such as BT corn (a type of genetically modified corn bred to release toxins to kill insect pests) are reducing, in large areas, the insects that these birds eat: “When you create large areas for a short period of time without these insects—that is, until the insects develop resistance—you start starving out your beneficial birds that were helping you keep those populations under control,” says Tony, who makes the point that, left alone, nature is the most effective form of pest management in the end.

What you stand up for—when you support local organic farmers

Golden Ears Farm

As human beings, we are directly connecting to the environment in three key ways every single day, says Tony: “Every time we take a breath, we are directly connecting to the environment in bringing it into our lungs and making it part of our body.

“Every time we take a drink, we are interconnecting with the environment and incorporating it into our body. And every time we eat, we are building our own body out of that connection to the environment.”

And, says Tony, by far the biggest impact comes from eating. “That’s where we have an impact on the type of agriculture used and the way it interacts with the land to produce our food.” That’s where we can choose food from local organic growers to make a difference, he says.

Good health for all

From the workers tending crops in farm fields to the family seated around the dinner table, organically grown food promotes good health.

Organic vegetable and blueberry farmer Arzeena Hamir of Amara Farm in Courtenay, BC, says time spent working with farmers in Thailand for CUSO International cinched her commitment to organic certification and its mandate of avoiding petrochemical fertilizers and toxic persistent pesticides.

She vividly remembers how unprotected field workers there were, forced to spray highly toxic herbicides on sugarcane crops and experiencing severe stomach disorders and their fingernails falling off.

Supporting organically certified growing makes a vital contribution to the health of those who produce our food, Hamir says. “When you buy organic, your dollars make a huge difference to enabling farmers to grow organic.”

Choosing organic also allows consumers to avoid GMOs, hormones, and antibiotics, says Rochelle Eisen of Canadian Organic Growers (COG). And, she notes, a newly released extensive report filed by the European Parliament’s independent research extols wide-ranging benefits to human health from organic agriculture including

reductions in
  • type 2 diabetes
  • cardiovascular disease
  • obesity
  • antibiotic resistance
  • heavy-metal exposure
and improvements in
  • cognitive development
  • in vitro development

“Basically,” says Tony McQuail, “through crop rotation, cover crops, and adding manure, we’re trying to farm in a way that feeds the biological life in the soil and enriches the soil so it does a better job of releasing a balanced banquet of nutrients to the crops so they provide a good balance of nutrients to the livestock and humans that eat them.”

Organic certification on the farm

Canada Organic seal

Organic certification is overseen across Canada by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and where the federal regulation has been implemented within a province. Trained verification officers are hired by a variety of certification bodies across the country to conduct routine inspections right on the farm.

Complex though this may be, it doesn’t need to be anything other than clear for the consumer, says Rochelle Eisen, president of Canadian Organic Growers, a national charity offering education, training, and awareness for farmers, gardeners, and consumers. She advises, “If you can see an organic certificate identifying a certifier, trust it. If you can see a certification statement identifying the certifier on the label, trust it.”

Preservation of our planet

As we search the skies for answers to climate change and the increasing weather devastation around us, the answer may lie in the soil below our feet.

“Consumers who seek organic food—especially that grown by good local farmers—are not only acting on behalf of their family. They are helping to secure the health of the planet,” says Kristin Ohlson, author of the award-winning book The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet (Rodale Books, 2014).

The best organic farmers know their work entails far more than not doing certain things—not using chemical fertilizers, not using pesticides, and so on, she says.

“They approach farming as a partnership with nature and understand the soil is the habitat for their most valuable partners—bacteria, fungi, and other micro-organisms, which number in the billions in a teaspoon of healthy soil,” says Ohlson. “These micro-organisms have been fertilizing plants and helping them thrive for millions of years, long before human beings began agriculture. They will still provide these services if we let them.”

When farmers work with nature by respecting that soil habitat, the benefits go far beyond beautiful, healthy food, says Ohlson. They also include healthy landscapes, water, and air.

“Globally, the impact of that kind of agriculture could even reverse warming and stabilize our climate. Plants pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis to create a carbon fuel for their own growth and to share with their partners in the soil, and a portion of that carbon stays in the soil.”

Organic farming is firmly grounded in a soil-first approach, says farmer Jordan Marr of The Homestead Organic Farm in BC’s Okanagan Valley. Being certified organic requires a farmer to come up with a comprehensive soil-management plan that is reviewed every year by the certifying body.

“When I started working on an organic veggie farm,” says Marr, “I really began to appreciate the link between healthy soil and healthy food, to the extent that eating what I grew started to feel like putting soil right into my mouth.”

Seed diversity is also protected by the organic certification process. “Most people don’t realize that you need to purchase organic seed to be certified,” says Arzeeza Hamir.

She emphasizes that supporting seed adapted and grown under local organic conditions will ensure a healthy supply: “Most tomato and pepper seed comes from Vietnam and China, and the seed industry is really a global industry—it’s better kept local.”

Ethical treatment of animals

The Homestead Organic Farm

“When it comes to the life of a cow, our cows live a pretty darn good one,” muses farmer Tim Hoven. “The animal’s stomach is designed to eat grass and convert that grass into meat and fat—it’s not designed to eat grain—so we do everything we can to keep our cows on pasture.

“Even in winter, we keep moving them to new pasture, and you can’t believe how happy they are being able to do what cows do—which is eat grass. They are incredibly peaceful and content.

“I really believe that every family farmer loves their animals, but organic certification means a higher standard of minimum care—minimum space per animal, for example, and other standards on how to treat your animals.”

Tony McQuail’s cows are also a picture of contentment: “Our cows are sheltered on the edge of the woodlot and enjoy a corner of a fresh-running stream; they are generally left outside to relax in the fresh air in a field that is clean and not mucky.

“Fresh hay from our farm is delivered to them in the winter. In the summer, when the grass is growing, we treat them like a small herd of buffalo and move them to new grass every day so they get fresh pasture and so the pasture plants have a period of recovery to rebuild their root systems and grow—and this is also part of the way you sequester carbon into the soil with this pasturing technique.

“Pigs are put out to field to root around, as well as being fed grain, and our chickens are moved every day in their 10 x 12 foot (3 x 3.5 m) hutches (to provide protection for them), so they’re getting a chance to eat insects and fresh green growing stuff.”

The lower density requirements of organic certification play a big part in a stress-free environment for all livestock, says Tsutsumi, who says her hens love their free access to pasture.

“We don’t overcrowd, and they see the light of day every day,” says Tsutsumi. “They are out eating fresh greens and grubs and have free access to water and the fresh pea and wheat sprouts we feed them.

“Unlike layers in some conventional farms, they are not held captive in compartments over conveyor belts that take their eggs out to be washed. And keeping the laying hens is nice, because we can rotate them around the farm, and this helps with soil building and natural fertilization.”

Along with the good karma of supporting the ethical treatment of farm animals, there is another bonus for consumers. “A big finding is that pasture-fed meat is less inflammatory—and less inflammation is a direct benefit to health,” says Eisen, of COG.

What is organic farming?

As defined by Certified Organic Associations of BC, “Organic farming promotes the sustainable health and productivity of the ecosystem—soil, plants, animals, and people. Organic foods are farmed in an environmentally sustainable and socially responsible way, focusing on soil regeneration, water conservation, and animal welfare.”

Strong local community

Hoven Farms

“We need to develop local food systems so that food grown in your community is consumed in your community,” says Hoven. “It is cheaper to bring in tons of food from Mexico and China, but no one factors in the lost economic opportunity costs for us. We need jobs that will grow the local economy.”

Hoven and all of the farmers who spoke out for this article are eager to share what they are doing with their neighbours.

“We like to have an open house on the Mother’s Day weekend,” says Tony McQuail, “so that our neighbours and customers can come onto the farm and see the calves and new colt and take a wagon ride around the farm to tour the wildflowers in the bush and maybe have a stalk of asparagus that’s poking up at that time.”

After more than four decades of farming, Tony and his wife, Fran, are currently transitioning the management of their farm to their daughter, Katrina, and he reflects that community outreach is a key reason for their family’s success at what they do.

“Organic agriculture is about community, family, and collaboration,” agrees Eisen. “And it’s about transparency, diversity and respect, ecology and resilience, food sovereignty and sustainability.” This is what we are standing up for when we support our certified organic local farmers.

Straight from the farmers: How we can support local organic agriculture

“There is no organic farming sector without customer support. Without it, we would turn into homesteaders and have to rely on other forms of income,” says Arzeena Hamir. Here are three farmer-approved strategies for saying yes to the local organic growers in your area.

Meet and greet your local farmers

“I would really advise people to find a small local farm they can support and to get to know their farmer,” says Tim Hoven. “See how the farmer treats the animals. And use that as an opportunity to teach your own family about how animals should be treated.”

Support community supported agriculture (CSA)

“Consumers putting down money in advance and showing their commitment enables farmers to know there is an assured market and a home for their crops and products,” says Hamir, whose farm cooperative offers CSA customers weekly summer and fall boxes stuffed with delicious seasonal produce. “When consumers have our back, farmers respond!”

 

Support grocery stores that stock local organics

“Don’t be shy about seeking out your store’s produce manager to ask them about where the produce is coming from,” says Jordan Marr. “They’ll know, and will adjust their buying practices if enough customers are asking for changes!”


Inspired to learn more?

Dig into a bounty of resources, including

  • resources for young farmers
  • books, blogs, and video
  • organic farming organizations

 

Books, blogs, and video

The Canadian Organic Grower Magazine

magazine.cog.ca

The Canadian Organic Grower is Canada’s national magazine on organic production and marketing—reaching farmers, gardeners, and consumers for 37 years.

Meeting Place Organic Film

meetingplaceorganicfilm.com

Local, organic, and sustainable are words we associate with food production today, but 40 years ago, when Fran and Tony McQuail started farming in southwestern Ontario, they were barely spoken. Since 1973, the McQuails have been helping to build the organic farming community and support the next generation of organic farmers. This is a documentary about the McQuails that explores the very real ways their farm has contributed to the long-term ecological viability of agriculture in Ontario. It is a call to action for all those who believe there is a better way to take care of our planet and feed the world.

Real Dirt: An Ex-industrial Farmer’s Guide to Sustainable Eating, by Harry Stoddart

realdirt.ca

Highly recommended by American author, journalist, and food activist Michael Pollan, Real Dirt (Iguana Books, 2013) is a groundbreaking book about where food comes from. A sixth-generation Ontario farmer, Stoddart bought his parent’s swine confinement animal feeding operation two decades ago, and proceeded to convert the farm to a certified organic system and then moved even beyond that in his deeply considered exploration of what is truly regenerative and sustainable.

The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet, by Kristin Ohlson

kristinohlson.com/books/soil-will-save-us

Thousands of years of poor farming and ranching practices—especially, modern industrial agriculture—have led to the loss of up to 80 percent of carbon from the world’s soils. That carbon is now floating in the atmosphere, and even if we stopped using fossil fuels today, it would continue warming the planet. In The Soil Will Save Us (Rodale Books, 2014), journalist and best-selling author Kristin Ohlson makes an elegantly argued, passionate case for “our great green hope”—a way in which we can not only heal the land but also turn atmospheric carbon into beneficial soil carbon—and potentially reverse global warming.

Resources for young farmers

CRAFT Ontario

craftontario.ca

CRAFT (the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) is an informal, member-driven network of farmers that offer internships on their organic and ecological farms. There are several regional CRAFT nodes in Ontario with their own network of farms that offer internships.

 

Organic farming organizations

Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) Organic Certification Bodies

goo.gl/eu3IXr

The CFIA is responsible for monitoring and enforcing the Organic Products Regulations, 2009. Certification bodies are accredited by the CFIA to certify agricultural products as organic in accordance with the requirements of the Canada Organic Regime.

Canadian Organic Growers (COG)

cog.ca

COG is Canada’s oldest national charitable organic organization, providing education and resources on the environmental and health benefits of organic agriculture since 1975.

Canadian Organic Trade Association (COTA)

ota.com/canada-ota

COTA is a membership-based organization for Canada’s organic sector, bringing farmers, processors, distributors, retailers, and others together to promote and protect Canada’s growing organic sector. Check out its “THINK before you eat” campaign.