It’s Not Your Grandparents’ Farm

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Katherine Stanley, Manitoba Organic Alliance’s new extension organic agronomist spoke at Ag Days. | Photo: Lorraine Stevenson

Ag Days talk highlights advancements being made to support modern organic farmers

It’s often said Grandpa’s farm was organic — just because he used no chemical inputs.

But how a past generation ran a farm and what present-day organic farmers do aren’t just years apart.

Producers operating organic production systems now make science-based management decisions, thanks to the considerable advancements that have been made in technology and research supporting organic, said Katherine Stanley, Manitoba Organic Alliance (MOA)’s new extension organic agronomist who spoke at Ag Days.

Don’t think of organic farming as ‘like Grandpa did,’ because it’s not, she told a sizable audience in the MNP theatre Jan. 18.

“It’s become a little bit more complicated and little more evolved than that,” she said.

Particularly in the past five to 10 years there’s been a focused effort to advance the sector in terms of new technological developments, and a deepening understanding of soil management.

Mechanical weed control

A lot of this work has been done in collaboration with growers and will continue to be done with growers, with researchers and mechanical engineers following up on their innovations, Stanley said.

Her talk was an overview of some of those efforts and the outcomes.

Over the past five to 10 years we’ve seen quite a bit of research as well as real technological developments. – Katherine Stanley

It’s somewhat striking, she noted, that certain concepts haven’t actually changed much in a century. She recently came across a 1918 German agricultural manual depicting diagrams of early inter-row cultivators.

“Other than the size and we’re not pulling equipment by horse very often anymore, a lot of the general functionality of these weed control tools haven’t changed,” she said.

But the way we use them certainly has, thanks to the technological advancements added to match these tools to the requirements of the modern farm.

An example is camera-guided inter-row cultivators, like the Garford Robocrop, souped up with video cameras and colour and pattern recognition software that identify weeds to precisely guide the weeding rotor.

“This is an example of European technology and tools that we’re seeing being brought to the Canadian Prairies quite a bit more,” she said. They’re now in use on large-scale organic farms such as Poplar Grove Farm, a division of Kroeker Farms Ltd. near Winkler.

Another recent advancement in mechanical weed control is the Comb Cut, an implement that looks and works much as its name implies, by selectively combing through a standing crop and cutting weed heads above crop canopy to set back further weeds from developing.

Tests done with the Comb Cut in fields infested with thistle have found it set back the weed enough to see a 50 per cent yield difference between test plots, she noted.

The research community is also developing tools to address limitations of other more traditional methods, such as the rotator harrow which combines the action of a rotary hoe and a harrow.

“It’s a little more aggressive and addresses the time limitations of those two implements,” she said.

Plant breeding

Today’s organic farmers also benefit from advancements in plant breeding, including new crop varieties developed for suitability for organic systems. AAC Tradition is a wheat variety developed specifically for organic production by the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and University of Manitoba joint organic cereal-breeding program.

Meanwhile we are continuing to develop sophisticated approaches to intercropping, soil fertility management, and a better understanding of nutrient flows on and off farm.

A budgeting tool created by University of Manitoba, for example, can now help organic farmers assess and balance nutrient imports and exports and enable them to create a plan for an entire rotation.

“When we think of advancements of agriculture and science and technology, often organic or ecological farming are not the first things that come to mind,” Stanley said.

“But over the past five to 10 years we’ve seen quite a bit of research as well as real technological developments.”

There is new interest in organic farm management, with a panel discussion in Brandon that included three different farm owners, including well-established organic farmers and new entrants to the sector.

The seminar also featured producer Colin Rosengren who has devised sophisticated intercropping approaches on his farm near Midale, Sask.

MOA is working to support new and existing organic producers. Stanley, who joined the organization last fall, is working on a variety of extension programming, including ‘organic agronomy coffee shop talks’ which are one-hour conference calls with a guest speaker.

Stanley is also starting up farm clubs later this spring and will help MOA publish its new monthly newsletter Growing Organic! which highlights new research, production topics, and existing resources and events of interest to either transitioning acres or thinking about it.

The second Prairie Organics; Think Whole Farm conference takes place Feb. 23 and 24 in Brandon and will include a large trade show featuring many of the new tools and technologies discussed during the Ag Days seminar.

This article was originally published in the Feb. 1, 2018 issue of the Manitoba Co-operator.