Comments on the 2014 Guelph Organic Conference

I attended the Guelph Organic Conference at the University of Guelph on Saturday February 1, 2014. Jodi Koberinski, executive director of the Organic Council of Ontario, asked for my observations on the conference. Here are some:

1.       Based on the large attendance (500+) and large number of exhibitors (170) this event must be judged a major success. If the weather had not been so nasty on the Saturday of the conference, the attendance would undoubtedly have been even higher.

2.       In some ways it resembles the Ontario Plowing Match with many exhibitors selling/promoting just about anything and everything. However, the speaking program is much more important at the Guelph Organic Conference.

3.       Both the audience and the exhibitors were highly diverse and included: profit-oriented farmers (a distinct minority, I believe), farm suppliers and farm produce buyers, organic food wholesalers and retailers, organic farm certifiers, book and publication marketers, educational/research institutions, advocacy and farm groups, some snake oil and trinket sales people, students, and a large number of gardeners and homeowners. My guess is that gardeners, homeowners and the exhibitors themselves represented the largest percentage of the conference attendees.

4.       I could only attend a few of the speaker presentations since several of these occurred simultaneously. I am relying on written summaries of presentations I did not attend for some of my observations. In my opinion, the presentations ranged from outstanding to really weird – at least from a perspective of someone like me with a science and farm background. At one extreme was Essex County organic farmer, Roger Rivest, presenting excellent information on how to control pests (chiefly weeds) in organic farming. On the other hand, there was an organic consultant recommending phosphate soil fertility levels which were extremely (irresponsibly high in my view, 100 ppm phosphate if I heard him right) and telling the audience that 1) the sugar from GM sugar beets is less healthy than that from non-GM beets (100% sucrose in both cases) and 2) they should promote unpasteurized milk.

There was an excellent session on organic certification standards in Canada, the US and Europe, one of the best I’ve ever attended. And a hokey one on soil quality telling the audience how to tell soil pH by its physical appearance. There was a good session on the organic dairy research program at U of Guelph’s Alfred campus. But another speaker told listeners that plants derived using radiation mutagenesis are radioactive, and that corn evolved pretty much naturally up until the 19th century. (She’s probably never heard of teosinte.)

5.       I felt sorry for attendees lacking backgrounds in science and agriculture but genuinely seeking good information on how to farm organically profitably, or be better gardeners, or on how to feed their families. The conference provided a mish-mash of information and misinformation – with no guidebook for telling one from the other. Better quality control in choosing speakers for the conference in 2015 might help – if indeed that’s possible. It may not be: The organic industry seems to be a marriage of convenience between those truly wanting to produce food in a sustainable way (i.e., sustainability as defined by the original Bruntland Commission), and those who are more interested in anti-corporate/anti-modern-agriculture advocacy. The two are not the same, and the conference seems to be designed to appeal to both.

5.       The conference has obviously outgrown its space availability for exhibitors, jamming 170 exhibits into two moderate-sized rooms plus corridors – and with everyone squeezed together like sardines. By contrast, the speaker sessions did not seem to be that full – though, as noted above, bad weather was a factor. With better weather, the U of Guelph facility would have been completely swamped.

6.       I think the organizers need to do a better job in organizing that portion of the conference (program and exhibitor formatting) designed for serious organic farmers. In fairness, one section of the Saturday speakers’ program was more dedicated to farmers (done very well in 2013, not so well in 2014), but exhibits related to farmer needs are all mixed in with the other retail and consumer-interest displays, and sort of get lost. Maybe they need a dedicated space for farmer-oriented displays, ideally linked to a setting where serious farmers could meet each other and talk about common problems and solutions.

Or maybe there needs to be an entirely different event for organic farmers – perhaps like the Innovative Farmers of Ontario convention.

At one ‘farmer oriented’ session on February 1, the speaker quizzed his audience as to the size of their farming/gardening operations. The majority were under 2 acres in size. Probably less than 12 were over 400 acres. I know that high gross and net returns are possible for very specialized production on very small acreages (eg., greenhouses), but for this audience, I believe that under 2 acres mostly meant gardeners.

Organic farming is difficult. If profitability was easier and there was more of it, the province would not be such a large importer of organic foods and food-ingredients. Better catering to farmer needs would be a good thing.

John Morriss: Different this Time —- Again

For some time I’ve been planning to write a column about how the global grain market is returning to the state of burdensome or near-burdensome supply which has been predominant for most years since about 1950 – notwithstanding so-called ‘expert’ opinion that this time it is “really different.” I remember hearing the same words from about 1973 through 1981, and then experiencing first-hand the price depression and damaging effects which occurred for both developed and developing world farmers during most of the 25 years which followed. Then I saw this recent editorial written by John Morriss, Associate Publisher/Editorial Director of the Manitoba Cooperator which said exactly what I wanted to say. So with his permission, I am republishing his column here. The only change I would make is that his reference should be to all Canadian grain farmers. Thanks, John.

The original column is at http://www.manitobacooperator.ca/2014/01/23/different-this-time-again/

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Different this Time —Again

This line in a Reuters story last week certainly put things in focus. “Ukraine is likely to be the world’s second-largest grain exporter in the 2013-14 season with the shipment of more than 30 million tonnes, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”

We’d seen the figures before, but considering that Ukraine and its former Soviet partners used to be Canada’s largest grain customer, putting it that way still comes as a bit of a jolt. At times in the 1980s, the Former Soviet Union was importing 50 million tonnes of grain a year. This year it will export that much.

The FSU’s massive entry into the world market and the “Great Grain Robbery” of 1972 sparked a price rise to unprecedented levels. The wheat price of $6 per bushel then equalled $27 today. The resulting prosperity sparked much optimism that good times were finally here, and here to stay. It was “different this time.”

Well, for a couple of years anyway, and soon things were back in the doldrums, with grain price wars and a series of ad hoc “Special Grains Payments” and programs with four-letter acronyms ­ WGSA, GRIP, NISA, CAIS, etc. The doldrums were periodically interrupted by a short crop somewhere in the world, and then a brief price rally ­ 1980, 1985 1993, 1996, 2006 and then in 2012-13.

During each of those blips we heard this ­ “The world’s population is growing. It’s getting more affluent, so people will eat more meat. They aren’t making any more land.”

All true, to a point. But we’ve been hearing that same line in speeches for 40 years now, and those who were around will remember that in the 1960s and 1970s, the big concern was “feeding the starving millions” in India. That brings us to another bit of news from last week, which is that India’s wheat exports are at 6.5 million tonnes so far for this crop year, and there is plenty of room to export more.

And which country was the world’s largest beef exporter last year? India.

The latest variation on the, “It’s different this time” was that it was “a new paradigm,” accompanied by the statistic we’ve heard so many times in the last couple of years ­ that the world has to double food production to feed nine billion people by 2050. That may or may not be true, but the Indian example shows that part of the goal will be met by countries feeding themselves.

A year ago at this time, crop farmers were in an upbeat mood, with a combination of a big crop and record (nominal) prices. Today, despite a record crop, the atmosphere is subdued at best. As we report this week, and which most farmers had figured out for themselves, Manitoba Agriculture’s production budgets show that the only major crop to “pencil out” this year is winter wheat, and it’s a bit late for that. Meanwhile crop farmers are in a cash flow crunch, with a combination of low prices, slow transportation and a wide basis. Imagine the pickle farmers would be in if they had a small or low-quality crop.

So it wasn’t different this time ­ again, which raises the question of how farmers and the industry should react next time there’s a price spike which gets everyone excited about a “new paradigm.”

That’s a tough one. Those who are asked to give presentations at farm meetings don’t want to be a wet blanket, especially if they have something to sell or money to lend. “Now listen everyone, times are good now, but we know these price spikes always fizzle after a year or two, so you had better keep your money in your jeans.” Who wants to be the one to say that?

And who wants to raise some of the tough questions about where Western Canada fits in supplying future world grain demand? What if U.S. winter wheat yields, currently averaging under 40 bushels per acre, start to approach those in Europe, currently over 100 bushels? What if genetic modification allows European wheat to produce high protein?

Now that most Canadian exports are being handled by the same companies that operate in the Former Soviet Union, U.S., South America and Australia, what are the implications for Western Canada, especially since it has the highest transportation costs?

This is not to say that western Canadian farmers can’t adapt to future challenges, as they have done so well in the past. But they will be able to adapt much better if they have a long-term view which realistically considers their inherent strengths and weaknesses.

Farm organizations. particularly the ones emerging from changes to the wheat board, need to think about this, not just breeding for more yield. “The world is going to take every bushel we can produce” is no basis for an industry strategy. Next time that you hear that it’s different this time, remember ­ it won’t be.