Organic farming making inroads in Ontario

There is a new trend in agriculture sweeping across Ontario—and Rainy River District soon will be part of it.
At the Emo agricultural research station’s annual open house last Wednesday evening and the farm tour the following day, the theme was organic farming.
And judging by results in other parts of the province, it’s an idea whose time has come.
Guest speaker Hugh Martin, an organic farming specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, came all the way from Guelph to observe developments here as well as to share his knowledge of the latest ones in southern Ontario.
Along with Eric Busch, an intern with the Rainy River District Soil and Crop Improvement Association, Martin joined a group of local farmers on a tour of the research station and the farm of beef farmer Amos Brielmann, as well as the soybean operation of association president Larry Lamb.
Of course, weather once again was a main topic. Research technician Kim Jo Bliss noted the tremendous amount of rain this spring and early summer drastically delayed many of the seed trials currently underway at the station.
In fact, she predicted some crops probably will not yield any seeds to study.
On the other hand, there has been much more heat than last year, so other crops will have a chance to recover from the late start if current trends continue.
“The prospects are not good [for some],” noted Bliss. “I think the wheat looks pretty decent, though.”
The barley trials, in particular, are in jeopardy, she said, although winter canola looks like it will make it despite heavy grazing from deer.
Also, an experimental planting of winter wheat has done well enough to invite inquiries from Manitoba, where the spring planting season was virtually washed out by the continuous heavy rains there and so a winter crop is being contemplated.
Bliss also gave an update on the hybrid poplars planted at the research station as well as at several other locations throughout the district. She noted these trees required significant maintenance initially because they do not compete well with weeds for the first five years.
The current trials were planted in 1999 and now appear to be able to coping on their own.
< *c>Farm tour
Then on Thursday, the soil and crop tour first went to Brielmann’s farm near Stratton, where an experimental program of fungal inoculation is underway in an attempt to boost the productivity of the heavy clay soil while still complying with organic certification.
Brielmann’s operation is within one year of being certified as officially organic and probably will be the first of its kind in the district.
Martin said there currently are between 500-600 certified organic farms in Ontario, with another 50-100 in transition to that status, including Brielmann’s.
Certified organic operations currently occupy more than 37,000 hectares of crops—with that number expected to increase significantly over the next few years as more operations achieve certification.
Spelt, soy, dairy, apple, and vegetable operations currently make up the bulk of organic farms.
The biggest challenge facing district farmers (apart from the climate), said Brielmann, is the heavy clay soil that underlies most fields. This presents a challenge in terms of drainage and nutrient uptake.
Brielmann has solved the former with tile drains while the latter presents another challenge. That’s why he agreed to have one of his fields inoculated with a special fungus called mycorrhizae.
This organism is found in various forms and in small quantities virtually everywhere, but it must compete with other organisms for prominence. It lives in the soil and roots of plants, where it establishes a symbiotic relationships with the host.
The fungus lives off secretions from the plant’s roots while it provides the plant with benefits.
The primary benefit seems to be in the area of nutrient recycling. It appears to improve the uptake of both phosphorus and nitrogen without the use of artificial fertilizers (which are not allowed in organic operations).
It also appears to offer some protection to the plants from other pathogens.
“It is also said to help with soil structure,” noted Busch.
The important thing, he noted, is to determine the type of mycorrhizae best suited to the soil in question. He said there are a number of different varieties and it is important to choose the one appropriate for the particular type of soil and climate.
Brielmann’s trial involves two 100’x20’ plots that have been inoculated with 40 grams of the dry material, which then leached down into the soil.
It is still too early to determine how effective it will be, but if it proves to make a substantial difference in pasture and crop yield, it could become more popular in the future.
Furthermore, because it is a natural substance already present in the soil, it does not compromise the certified organic status of the fields upon which it is applied.
Mycorrhizal inoculants currently are more easily available in the United States than they are in Canada. They are available either as a powder seed coat or a granular product.
For more information on mycorrhizal fungi, contact Busch at the Emo research station (482-2354).