ORGANIC farming has a 1960s ring to it. But many Canadian farmers are discovering that it also has the ring of a cash register. As demand for organic food rises, the price farmers can get for an organically grown crop is at least double that for the same crop grown by conventional methods.
Jim Naish, like many organic farmers in Canada, has been surprised by his own success.
``There's no question you can make more money with organic crops,'' says Mr. Naish, who farms about 600 acres of rye, buckwheat, soybean, and spelt (a type of ancient wheat) in Mono Township, 60 miles north of Toronto. The price of certified organic grains and produce is usually two to four times the price of chemically grown crops.
Naish says the reason is simple: supply and demand.
``We are producing the Rolls Royce of the food industry. Every year there is an increase in demand for certified organic product. The eastern seaboard, Boston, Connecticut, is a very strong market and so is Japan and Europe,'' says Naish, who exports more than 90 percent of his grains. He says he plans to package his own grains in a local plant and then sell them directly to customers at home and abroad.
``Rather than shipping this huge tonnage to be processed in Japan and Germany, they'll have to buy my hull-less oats in a 2 kilogram bag that says Hockley Valley Whole Foods,'' Naish says, smiling. ``I hope to have that up and running in late '94 or early '95.''
Naish's case is not an isolated one. A recent study by Peter Stonehouse, an agricultural economist at the University of Guelph, Ontario, shows that organic farmers have more money in their pockets at the end of a year because they spend less on chemicals and machinery.
``More farmers haven't gotten into organics because they believe it's not as profitable. But my study showed that it is,'' says Professor Stonehouse, whose study included seven organic farmers, nine farmers who used some chemicals, and 11 conventional farmers who used every chemical and pesticide available.
``The farmers that came out on top economically were the organics. The farmers that came out on bottom economically were the conventional,'' Stonehouse says. ``I was blown out of the water with that. That was completely the opposite to what I'd expected.''
Producing pure organic foods, certified by the Organic Crop Improvement Association, means getting a premium price in a health-food store or regular supermarket.
``We sell more and more every day. People are starting to be aware of what they put in their mouth,'' says Nancy Urekar, manager of Harmony Whole Foods in Orangeville, near Naish's farm. Regular toasted oat flakes sell for $1.13 (Canadian; US$0.81) in her store, while the organic variety sells for $2.13. ``Having a local supplier might lower the cost. We do buy some locally but a lot of it is imported, mostly from the United States,'' she says.
But if organic farming is such a good idea, why isn't everyone doing it? A simple answer, Stonehouse says, is that organic farming requires more physical work and planning to avoid using agricultural chemicals. Most farmers use chemicals to keep down weeds that choke their pasture and crops, to kill insects that eat their valuable plants and fruit, and to fertilize the fields after years of growing the same crop.
How does someone such as Naish get rid of bugs on his raspberry and strawberry crop? He buys 100,000 lady bugs at a time and lets them do the work. It's cheaper than spraying.
Organic farming is well suited to the land near cities that has been abandoned by traditional farmers and is owned by developers or people who have weekend houses but ignore the land. The most fertile flat land can be used to grow grains, potatoes, or cash-rich crops. The hilly land can be used to graze animals.
`SOME of this land hadn't been farmed for 30 or 40 years,'' Naish says, standing in 260 acres of buckwheat that he is growing on rented fields. ``That means no chemicals. So the first crop would be certified organic so I would have immediate cash flow instead of waiting three to five years to clean the land. These abandoned farms have great value to the organic farmer.''
``City people have learned to be nervous of agricultural chemicals and welcome organic farmers,'' Naish says. ``They have no interest in farming the land but they don't want it farmed chemically. They won't rent it unless it's done under complete organic farming methods.''
Until last year, Naish's field of buckwheat was barren land, grown over with twitch grass, goldenrod, hawthorn, and willow. To see what it once looked like, just walk to the edge of the field where the scrub stretches from the buckwheat to the road.