Organic Farm and Direct Farm Marketing
If plant scientist Martin Entz, who specializes in organic crop research, had fallen asleep 30 years ago and just woke up in 2020, the world of organic food would seem like some make-believe Jumanji.
Organic production was still being driven by a few passionate pioneers—people who shunned conventional farm inputs for a return to Agriculture 101—when Entz first arrived at University of Manitoba in 1989. Tall Grass Bakery was a lone voice in the wilderness. Some observers regarded organic food as just a fad, something to keep the tree huggers and granola crunchers busy for a while.
But waking up, Entz would find an entire industry sprouted around organic farming: most large grocery chains now include organic produce sections, and there’s even a big box organic grocery chain called Whole Foods in larger centres. Canada has become a world leader in organic food processing with more than 1,100 companies putting organic products on store shelves. There are 5,000-acre organic farms in Manitoba in place of the small 10 – 20-acre farms that started growing organics. New wheat and oat varieties are being bred specifically for organic farming (which Entz played a key role in creating); machinery has been built specifically for the organic sector to keep both weeds and pesticides off fields and manure made into granular fertilizer is starting to be spread on fields. Although only animal manure is sanctioned under Canadian organic standards, Entz is also pioneering research in using human manure.
Looking around, Entz might insist someone slap him because he couldn’t wake from his dream in whatever colourization process replaced Technicolor from when he fell asleep.
Of course, Entz didn’t go to sleep. In fact, it’s the perfectly wrong metaphor for what he has been doing the past three decades. If anything, he should be sleep-deprived. Entz has been a very active member of the organic movement as a plant scientist at University of Manitoba, helping to make its organic research centre one of the best in the country. In 2019, he received the Leadership in Organic Science Award by the Canada Organic Trade Association.
Entz was drawn to organics by his interest in environmental sustainability. It was an easy transition after he was hired at the University of Manitoba to research forage crops in rotation—he kept bumping into organic farmers who were using alfalfa and legume crops for the betterment of their rotation. Those farmers were mostly on the west side of the province. “I would meet with ag reps (like John Hollinger, Virden agricultural representative in the early 1990s) and travel with them for a day to these different farms, and that’s how I was introduced to all these organic farmers.” One of those influential organic pioneers was Alex Scott, who founded the Organic Producers Association of Manitoba.
Today, U of M’s Glenlea research station boasts the country’s longest-running organic rotation study, going on 30 years. The plots have been used to study the long-term impact of crop rotations on organic crops versus conventional crops. Long-running programs are crucial to finding problems so they can be fixed. For example, Glenlea research found that a forage-grain rotation reduced soil phosphorus after eight years but could be quickly remedied with an application of cow manure.
The organic breeding program at U of M began in 2003, including a large oat breeding program, whereas University of Alberta focuses on breeding organic wheat, and University of Guelph on organic soybeans. Working along with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) researchers, Entz has developed three registered organic crop varieties, AAFC Tradition Wheat, AAFC Oravena Oats and AAFC Kongsore Oats. The university has also started an early selection program that includes 75 organic farmers across Canada, allowing farmers a hand in the development of new crop varieties.
New research at the university also includes using nutrients from what is called the “circular economy” (urban and animal excretions) in organic production. This full circle, as much as we are loath to confront it, only makes sense. “Humans eat, we eliminate, the nutrients are lost to agriculture,” said Entz. “They tend to go into sewage treatment plants. They get flushed down the rivers. One of organic agriculture’s contributions is it’s forcing us to think about that nutrient flow, not as a linear flow, where we mine the phosphorus in some corner of the world, use it once in our fields, consume it at home and eliminate it and it then becomes a pollution problem, but cycle that phosphorus back into agriculture” as a fertilizer to improve crop yields.
Several Canadian companies are finding ways to recover nutrients from human waste and pelletize it into a fertilizer, including a British Columbia company called Ostera Nutrient Recovery. “We’ve been doing this with animal manure all the time but the biggest feedlot in Manitoba is Winnipeg. That’s where most of the nutrients come from,” said Entz.
Soil health is uppermost in the minds of organic farmers, and for that they promote biodiversity. Today, organic farms grow an average of seven crops in rotation while conventional farms grow an average of three. At Glenlea, organic rotations demonstrate higher levels of living organic matter versus conventional systems.
Entz recently penned an essay on organic farming, or “harnessing nature’s processes,” as he puts it, titled, “Organic agriculture deserves a seat at the grownups’ table.” The point is organic farming and the industry that surrounds it are legitimate and continue to grow.
Wheat, oats and flax are the big organic crops used in making organic flours and breads. La Milanaise in Quebec, the largest organic flour mill in North America, now contracts wheat out of eastern Manitoba. Organic oats have been making a big splash lately and are now a major export crop. Oats almost vanished in the mid-20th century when automobiles replaced horses but the crop has rebounded as a health food for two-legged trotters. Manitoba farmers harvested 650,000 acres in 2020 (organic and conventional). That’s behind only canola, wheat and soybeans. Entz points to the milling of organic oats by Richardson, and by Grain Millers in Yorkton, Sask., as a sign of the organic movement’s “seat at the grownups’ table.”
One emerging market is organic milk from grass-fed cows. Stoney Brook Farm, near Sarto in southeastern Manitoba, processes, pasteurizes and sells its milk right off its dairy farm, or at outlets like Vita Health in Winnipeg and Nature’s Farm in Steinbach. As an added touch, the microprocessor sells its organic milk in glass bottles. Notre Dame Creamery used to process organic milk for Organic Meadow, an Ontario co-op, but it no longer engages in organic processing since it was bought by a conventional dairy farm. Manitoba has gone from four organic dairy farms down to just one. “If you look at Europe, milk is one of the gateways into organics” for consumers, said Entz.
Some organic soybeans are grown in Canada but production is very big in Minnesota. Organic soybeans go into soy milk, and half the soy milk section is typically organic.
All organic vegetables have strong markets such as carrots, onions and potatoes. Another big market for organic production is baby food. “Just go down the baby food aisle in a grocery store and see if you can find any baby food that isn’t organic,” said Entz. They’re all pureed organic vegetables. In Ontario and British Columbia, they are making lots of organic wine from organic grapes. There is also organic beer. Meanwhile, Nature’s Farm in Steinbach retails eggs from its large organic egg-laying operation.
Another sign of acceptance is in the media. Glacier FarmMedia runs a website devoted to organic farm information, including prices, called organicbiz.ca. It draws on stories from Glacier’s stable of farm newspapers, including the Manitoba Co-operator.
On the machinery side, robotic weeders have been developed. The weeders originated in Europe, which recently started exporting the technology to North America. Entz said conventional farmers may want to kick the tires on some of the equipment as herbicide-resistant weeds become a problem. “Farmers already own this equipment in Manitoba and have for a number of years.”
Organic yields on grain crops are lower. A University of British Columbia study reported a 20 – 25 per cent yield differential between organic and conventional cereal crops. Entz said organic wheat typically yields 60 – 70 per cent of conventional wheats, and flax and sunflowers about 60 per cent, but they can reach 100 per cent in good years. The payoff is reduced costs from not having to buy costly inputs like fertilizer and farm chemicals, and prices that are nearly double those for conventional crops.
“If you look at places that have done organic longer, the longer people do it, the better they get and their yields get better,” said Entz.
Even so, you couldn’t feed the world on those yields, right? Don’t we need that production to feed an ever-expanding global population?
Entz isn’t convinced. “Agribusiness loves to feed the world. They’ve milked that line for 20 years to get all kinds of monkey business done,” he said. At some point, an industry becomes more about sustaining and profiting itself than sustaining and profiting the end user.
For example, the global population is still expanding, but it could start to fall under some conditions. There are currently about 7.8 billion people on Earth. A study for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) determined population could reach nearly 11 billion people by 2100. However, when adjusted for modern fertility rates, they projected a peak of 9.7 billion in 2064, then falling to 8.8 billion by 2100. If education for women continues to improve globally, population could even see population fall below 7 billion by 2100. The UNDP study forecasted a population of just 6.3 billion under this scenario. An optimist, Entz said, would be inclined to believe female education will stave off “runaway global population growth.”
Secondly, Entz believes if less grain was grown to feed livestock, and livestock returned to grazing and herbage diets, there would be ample cropland to feed the world on organic production. “The whole question of yield then changes because you’re not growing corn or barley to feed dairy cows. They’re getting fed alfalfa or grass. And if you look at total production, organics start to look better because you’re utilizing the land differently.”
Not that Entz foresees developed countries like Canada ever going all organic, or “harnessing nature’s processes,” as he puts it. In Canada, 2.3 per cent of farmland is currently dedicated to organic production. But he could see it one day rising to as much as 10 per cent of the land base. Fifteen countries already dedicate more than 10 per cent of their farmland base to organic production, many of them in Europe like Sweden, Austria, Italy and Switzerland, but also Uruguay and Slovenia. The European Union is much farther ahead than Canada and has set a target of 30 per cent organic by 2030, driven in large part by concerns about pollution of its waterways.
What Entz finds gratifying today is seeing the second generation of organic farmers take over, or what is called “Organic 2.0”. Many of them today are larger farms, and they are building on the knowledge and technology accumulated by Organic 1.0. “The cool thing to me is we’ve got young people who grew up on organic farms carrying on those organic farms,” he said. “They’re not going to suffer that yield penalty like Organic 1.0 did.”
He teaches organic farming course for both diploma and degree agriculture students. In the beginning, it was little more than an elective, a curiosity course for students but not one considered essential for them to complete their diploma or degree. “That’s really changed. Now, a graduate could go work at Richardson as a crop advisor, and they could be advising on organic acres as well as conventional acres.”
Entz said as the world becomes more urban, people yearn for a connection to nature. “This is where agriculture completely messed up,” he said. “It was educating the consumer on the wonders of biotechnology and stuff like that but psychologists told us, and I went to some of those early lectures, they said as you urbanize people, they’re going to look for a connection to the land because we’re wired to be close to the land. They predicted things like the increase in demand for natural and organic products. It’s one thing people can do is to make that decision in their purchases.”
Today, certified organic agriculture provides a living for about 5,500 Canadian farm families and 1,400 food processing companies, including microprocessors.
IN TERMS OF organic production, Manitoba is a relatively small player within Canada but it does have some outliers, said Entz. One of them is Poplar Grove Farm Organics, a division of potato grower Kroeker Farms of Winkler.
Kroeker Farms is well known as one of the province’s largest potato growers. The family farm of Abram and Elizabeth (Nickel) Kroeker began growing potatoes in 1943, and became incorporated in 1955 with Abram and the couple’s nine children as its shareholders. The company today, with about 200 full-time employees, continues to be owned by family shareholders as well as some employee shareholders.
Its longevity and sterling reputation indicate a well-run company, but it’s also a different kind of cat so far as companies go. Exhibit A is the idea to open an organic division in 2002. It wasn’t a top-down idea, like at a typical company but came from a group of enthusiastic employees.
“There is so much licence given to the managers at Kroekers,” said Marvin Dyck, an agronomist at Kroeker Farms. “If they have a good idea—I mean, we’re not a charity group, but if you have a good idea, and even though there’s a risk to it, and it could flop, and we’ve had many flops over the years—they’re willing to say, ‘You know what? If you believe in this and you think you can make this go, we’ll let you run with it.'”
The idea to experiment with some organic fields got tacit approval from managers but then had to go to the shareholders. Instead of being stodgy about any kind of change, some of the shareholders became very excited. The employees had posed a challenge: Could a tiger change its stripes? Could a longstanding family company like Kroeker Farms do things differently, and reach out to the segment of the market that shunned inputs like pesticides yet still be profitable? “The organic opportunity was a way to get everyone excited, everybody could kind of dream a little bit,” said Dyck.
A handful of staff started with 20 acres on a poor parcel of land, then 100 acres the following year, and then up 200 acres the year after that. It kept adding a couple of hundred acres every year from then on. Today, its organic operation covers 5,000 acres. Its conventional acreage totals 15,000 acres. Poplar Grove Organics is the largest organic potato producer in Canada and one of the largest in North America.
The acreage numbers are slightly deceiving when you factor in rotations. Kroeker has 15,000 acres of conventional potatoes but only grows 5,000 acres of potatoes a year. The rest is rented out for conventional grain production to adhere to a three-year cycle rotation to reduce opportunities for disease.
Similarly, the 5,000 acres dedicated to organic production will only grow about 1,300 acres of potatoes per year. It will run a rotation of organic crops starting with potatoes, grain (either dry edible beans or hemp) and green manure. The green manure is a mix of seven to nine crops including peas, oats, soybeans, forage brassica, German millet, sugar beets and hairy vetch. The mix takes advantage of plant traits which vary for canopy, rooting characteristics and temperature preferences. The purpose is to naturally build up nutrition in the soil. Staff will eventually ploughdown the green manure as a source of nutrition for the soil.
Doesn’t blanking a year with green manure crops wreak havoc on the bottom line? “You have to look at it differently,” said Dyck. “On a conventional farm, you have to spend hundreds of dollars an acre providing fertilizer out of a bag. In our green manure year, we’re simply growing our own fertilizer. It’s a year when we’re actually growing our own inputs.”
Potatoes are pretty hard on soils because you disturb the soil to dig up the potatoes at harvest time, whereas most other crops just have their tops sheared off. So it becomes vital to spend a year rebuilding the soil by encouraging the growth of fungal and bacterial biota in the soil.
To control weeds, Kroeker Farms has to use tillage until the crop creates its own canopy to suppress the weeds. With hemp, it has a camera-controlled cultivator that can do very fine weeding within rows. That allows the hemp to survive the weed competition phase, and once hemp gets started it outcompetes everything else. Hemp is a good crop to follow potatoes because it has deep roots versus the shallow roots of potatoes. So one takes its nutrition close to the surface, and the other grabs it from a deeper zone.
All organic farming is like that. You have to outfox the bad parts of nature such as weeds, pests, and disease, and sweet talk nature’s better angels. It’s like Sherlock Holmes versus Professor Moriarty. You’re constantly strategizing. It’s like your plane crashed in the forest somewhere, you’ve got a broken leg, and you have to figure out how to survive off the natural world. There are few highs like pulling it off, said Dyck.
Poplar Grove Organics also uses a cover crop for weed control and to prevent soil from blowing away because digging for potatoes leaves soil exposed. It gets a green surface on the land as soon as possible for protection over winter until spring, either with a barley or rye crop, then it is also ploughed under.
“It’s called putting armour on the land,” said Dyck. “The idea is to keep the soil covered with a living plant as much as possible.”
Even so, one would presume anyone driving by could easily tell the organic crop from conventional crop by the number of weeds. Dyck said people might be fooled. “You wouldn’t be able to tell. In fact, if anything, our organic crops are cleaner,” he said.
For potatoes and hemp, Poplar Grove Farm Organics also has very good tillage equipment. Its dry edible bean crops are hand-hoed three or four times, and hand-weeded the same number of times on onion fields.
There are also more inputs for organic growers that didn’t exist back in the 1990s, too. Poplar Grove uses its green manure plus a compost it makes from manure collected from 27 farms in the area. It also uses a pelletized fertilizer made from chicken feathers called “feather meal.” To deal with fungi, Poplar Grove stays away from potato varieties that have a heavy canopy because they are more prone to fungal disease. With a more erect plant, “winds can move down the rows and keep the humidity lower and that helps to limit fungal diseases.”
For insects like the Colorado potato beetle, some sprays use Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a non-pathogenic bacterium found naturally in soils, that is approved for certified organic growers. Keeping the plants at optimum health is another defence. Planning two or three years in advance and making the right cropping choices also keeps bugs off their game. “People ask, why are organic food prices higher? The reason is the management is way more complicated, and the risk is way higher,” said Dyck.
“It’s also, in my opinion, way more interesting,” he added. Dyck enjoys the chess match with nature. “You have to really get into the biology of it all, the biology of your predators and of your crop.”
The organic initiative wasn’t instantly profitable. “I would say for the first 10 years, the rest of the farm carried it,” said Dyck, both in terms of finances and infrastructure, such as equipment for the organic operation.
That has switched in a big way. “I would say right now the organic program is probably doing better than the conventional side financially,” he said. Organic yields are about 80 per cent of those of conventional potatoes but, with the lower input costs and higher farmgate prices, the result is higher profitability. The mix takes advantage of plant traits which vary for canopy, rooting characteristics and temperature preferences offset that. Kroeker Farms still sell three to four times as many conventional potatoes as those grown organically by Poplar Grove. About 60 per cent of organic potatoes are irrigated, compared to 85 per cent of conventionally grown potatoes.
In fact, Kroeker staff now use some of the practices learned in organic potato production in their conventional management, and it reduced inputs on their conventional production, too.
People passing through Winkler can always visit Kroeker Farms at its Potato Store on 776 Circle K Drive. Heading west on Highway 14, turn south on Kimberley Road just before you get to the traffic lights at Southland Mall, Winkler’s main shopping centre. The Potato Store sells its potatoes, onions, other local production such as honey and some equipment such as potato slicers for making french fries. The store supports itself and is not a loss leader but its main purpose is to provide a connection to the community. “This is a direct way we can talk to our neighbours and say this is us, this is who we are and this is our product,” said Dyck. Poplar Grove Farm Organics potatoes can be found in some local stores, although most goes to the U.S. Both Kroeker Farms’ conventional potatoes and Poplar Grove Farm’s organic potatoes are sold to Peak of the Market and abroad.
ZACH GROSSART IS part of that Organic 2.0 mentioned by Entz.
Zach grew up on an organic grain and cattle farm near Brandon and went to the University of Manitoba to obtain a degree in mechanical engineering. He went to work in an office building in Winnipeg but the range beckoned and after just a year he was back on the farm. “I realized I would be more or less in an office-type setting for a lot of my career, and I kind of re-evaluated,” he said. Today, he is a second generation organic farmer.
He’s a fifth generation Canadian farmer, too. Grossart is the great-great grandson of William Bertram, who emigrated from Scotland and settled on the east side of the Brandon Hills, between Brandon and Waskada, in 1879. Within two years, their land would be part of Manitoba but when they settled it was still in what was called the North West Territories. Bertram was part of the migration that wanted no part of the undrained Red River Valley and travelled farther west to find drier land. Bertram named the farm Howpark because that was the name of their farm back in Scotland. Today, Grossart and his parents have about 2,000 acres that include pasture, hayland and 500 acres of cropland.
Grossart, 25, was designing growth chambers for plant research in Winnipeg when he decided he wanted to spend more time working outdoors and with livestock. “Some of the things we were doing organically and regeneratively on the farm interested me; how we could work land that’s been in our family for generations and improve it, rather than degrade it, so that it’s still here for another 140 years,” he said.
But the biggest factor was, “I just wanted to come back. I’ve always enjoyed working on the farm.”
Helping his dad work on tractors and equipment was what got him interested in mechanical engineering in the first place, and his education will come in handy on the farm. “There’s still lots of opportunity for different engineering on the farm, and with organics there’s opportunity to develop our own equipment,” he said.
Their crops are wheat, oats and flax, and they also grow alfalfa mixes for their cattle. Their cover crops, which they grow as part of the rotation, are a mix that includes peas, vetch, forage oats, and buckwheat. They also grow cover crops at the same time as cash crops but at a lower seeding rate. Those cover crops stay behind after the main crops are harvested to stabilize and add nutrients to the soil. Cover crops will be cut for hay for their cows, or cows will be allowed to graze it, or Grossart will disk it down in spring for the soil’s betterment. The diverse mix of crops photosynthesize and excrete sugars through their roots that feed soil microbes that then produce nutrients that feed next year’s cash crop. “The more species you mix, the more different sugars and different microbes you can stimulate. It helps increase fertility,” Grossart said.
What about the greater risk in organic farming? Do they ever lose a crop to weeds?
“Oh, yeah. It’s organic farming. Every once in a while, there’s a field where you’ve got way more weeds than you want. Though, sometimes when you end up combining there’s more crop underneath than you think.”
Being a mixed farm helps them hedge their bets. If they start losing the weed fight, they have the option of letting cattle graze it or cutting it for hay. A diverse mix of crops also mitigates risk. They still use some tillage, albeit reluctantly, to control weeds.
They sell their cash crops to different companies, including organic oats to Grain Millers Inc. in Saskatchewan, and flax to the Pizzeys in Angusville. His dad still handles most of the marketing side, which requires more planning than with conventional crops. Price premiums for organic product make up for lower yields, as do lower input costs and having to make fewer passes on fields.
They sell about 85 calves and 30 – 40 grass-fed steers per year, many of which he sells directly to customers in Westman and Winnipeg. They sell a lot of calves to Bryce Lobreau of Pristine Prairie Organics in Pipestone.
JONATHAN STEVENS OF Jonathan’s Farm near Lockport represents a new breed of farmer: the direct farm marketer.
Direct farm marketers are not organic growers per se, and that includes Stevens. He follows the rules of organic farming but has never bothered to be certified, which growers complain is a lot of paperwork and costs money. Some direct marketers are certified organic growers, some aren’t and some were at one time but have let their certification lapse. However, they all have regular customers who get to know them and trust them.
Stevens, who has no farm background, was studying saxophone at the University of Toronto when he became familiar with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF, an organization that arranges homestays on organic farms.
The idea appealed to him. Ontario is loaded with organic farms, many more than in Manitoba, possibly because of the greater population density. Stevens didn’t go through WWOOF but volunteered on his own to work on an organic farm during the summer. He was soon contemplating a career change.
He knew of people at Plum Ridge Farm near Winnipeg Beach who ran a strawberry farm (it is now under different ownership) and they agreed to let him farm an acre to try his hand at agriculture. Stevens fell hook, line and sinker.
He rented land at first and eventually purchased his own near Lockport and now farms five acres. Stevens grows every type of vegetable and sells at the Wolseley Farmers Market, where he also has a weekly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) pick-up of vegetables for subscribing customers. CSA is a production and marketing model where consumers buy shares in a farm’s harvest. He also drops off product at Organic Planet, also in Wolseley, and Crampton’s Market in Headingley.
Today, he has 440 customers: 170 full-shares and 270 half-shares. During the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted more people to seek out locally-produced foods, his waiting list swelled to more than 100. He hires half a dozen staff during the growing season and said finding labour can be a limiting factor. He hires four people in May, and then two more when harvesting starts in June.
“I feel like I make a decent living,” said Stevens, 41, who has been at it for 11 years. “It’s high value and we grow pretty intensively. We do multiple crops on the same spot.”
The plants get started in a greenhouse and then Stevens transplants them and can get two crops, and sometimes three, on the same plot. For example, he might plant lettuce and follow it with carrots, or he’ll plant broccoli and follow it with lettuce.
“Sometimes it’s stressful and a lot of work but it’s really gratifying when you see a nice crop on your field,” he said.
Does he need a second job? No, he spends his winters working on planning, obtaining supplies, fixing buildings, etc. “I don’t know how I would (keep a second job). It would just seem too much.”
It only makes sense that he plays saxophone—he’s a kind of pied piper of the local food movement just by his example. “It’s a new thing where younger people can get into small market gardening,” said Stevens. “It’s economically viable, easy to get into—you don’t need a lot of land or machinery or money. You can get started on an acre and make a living.”
“Trust is everything for a direct marketer,” said Phil Veldhuis, president of the Direct Farm Manitoba. The customer is choosing to make more effort to locate and pick up product, and pay a price premium, so faith in a producer is key. “If you lose trust, you’ve lost it all. Our direct marketers are extremely focused on that.”
Veldhuis is a honey producer with 1,200 hives near Starbuck. He sells honey every weekend at St. Norbert Farmers’ Market, in addition to sales to co-operative Bee Maid Honey.
He gets a kick out of the new farm marketers like Stevens. “A lot of these folks have learned everything they know off YouTube,” said Velduis. (Stevens credited reading and plenty of trial and error for his market gardening education but agreed that many newer producers learn how to farm online.)
“There’s this interesting trend of folks wanting to farm who have no background in agriculture at all,” said Veldhuis. “I see a lot of these people. They’ve either taken a sustainable development course in university, or they volunteered in a non-profit, like a bunch go to Africa and witness other ways to farm. There are lots of paths into agriculture, and that’s exciting because these folks are willing to rethink everything.”
Veldhuis said some people start farming on five acres they borrowed from an uncle, or on a piece of land on the back 40 that’s too small for the air seeder. “That’s a story we hear quite a bit, and suddenly this kid on that acreage is a huge success,” he said.
Direct farm marketers solve the problem of farm size with intensity of production. “You have these people saying, ‘I want to make a living on five acres.’ They’re going to work darn hard, but those folks mention targets like $40,000 to $50,000 gross per acre. If you’re growing greens and table vegetables, plus maybe some sprouts and mushrooms, as a complete cycle everyone wants, it’s amazing what you can get out of an acre,” he said.
Veldhuis was interviewed at the end of the annual Manitoba Direct Farm Marketing Conference, which ran an entire week in late February 2021. Because it was held online due to the pandemic, organizers spaced sessions out over the week rather than in just two days as with its live conferences.
Veldhuis said the conference now may never go back to the way it was. It had more participation online because people weren’t constrained by geography. As well, it had the best participation ever from livestock producers, who often find it harder to take two days off their farm. “A lot of folks said they wanted to come for years and this was the first time they could,” he said. Online conferences lack personal networking, however, so organizers may try to find a blend next year: perhaps a week’s worth of online sessions and “a one-day blowout” of in-person meetings, instead of requiring a two-day trip and overnight stay. It will be interesting to see how all farm organizations with geographic challenges meet in future after the pandemic.
One takeaway from the 2021 Manitoba Direct Farm Manitoba Conference was that most farm marketers thrived during the pandemic. “A lot of these farms have been just running flat-out for a year,” said Veldhuis. Many customers were forced to reconsider where their food came from when supply chains like beef were interrupted. They also had more time to source their food, he said. On the meat side, many producers were scrambling to find additional processing. It remains to be seen whether demand is the same after the pandemic ends. However, it was a good lesson for consumers about and how to access direct marketers and pay for the product online.
Of course, one of the outlets for direct marketers is farmers’ markets, of which there are more than 50 in the province, said Veldhuis, including St. Norbert Farmers’ Market, which is open year-round except for a break around Christmas.
The 2021 Census of Agriculture was only starting as this book was being written. The previous census found about 900 farms were direct marketing, although Veldhuis suspects not all our filing agricultural tax returns and may not have been counted. The 900 figure may include side-ventures on a farm, like a beef farm that sells five or six head a year to friends and family, rather than an external marketer selling online or at farmers markets. Even so, Veldhuis would be very surprised if the number is not up at least 20 per cent when the next census is completed. Direct Farm Manitoba has seen annual membership increases of about 10 per cent in recent years.