Garry and his wife Geri operate a farm near Swift Current, Saskatchewan that’s not only organic, but virtually gluten-free. They began transitioning to organic in 2000, inspired by a neighbour whose approach they admired. Like his father, an “old-school farmer” who left half his land fallow each year to boost soil nutrients, Garry was already applying less fertilizer than the norm. “So for us it wasn’t a great leap of faith,” he says.
The greater leap occurred after Geri became gluten intolerant. The couple decided to eliminate all crops that could endanger her health, including such organic mainstays as wheat and barley. Garry likens this move to an earlier time when they left behind part-time jobs to concentrate on the farm while others did the opposite: “We were like salmon swimming upstream.”
As they’ve discovered since, gluten-free crops are in increasing demand. Garry and Geri now grow oats, buckwheat, flax, lentils and mustard and are researching options such as millet and hemp. Garry has also enrolled in Grain Millers’ gluten-free and sustainability programs, eager to gain and share ideas. “As organic food producers, we really need to strive to be efficient and equitable and sustainable,” he says. “But even more important, I believe, is to keep our consumers in mind. They are the ones driving the ship that’s taking us around the world.”
Having expanded to 4,500 acres with part-time help from family, Garry is beginning to ponder how best to pass the farm to succeeding generations. As in previous life chapters, he’s thinking beyond the personal, challenging the organic sector as a whole to set the stage for successful succession. “As organic farmers retire,” he says, “we have to ensure somehow that there are new people coming on.”
What Makes Garry a Champion?
Garry is the ultimate cross-pollinator, never shy about speaking up for his style of farming. As he puts it, “I bring an apple box everywhere I go.” He helped revitalize the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate, then served four years as president of its successor, SaskOrganics. He is a proven master at tapping the diverse skills on the board to move initiatives forward, both within the province and across the prairies.
Garry also serves as a voice for organic and gluten-free producers on broader boards. He was a councillor for the Rural Municipality of Swift Current and now serves on the Saskatchewan Oats Development Commission, the Prairie Oats Growers Association and the Swift Current Research and Development Centre organic advisory board. He takes those roles seriously. “We need to be involved in other organizations, so organics has a place and a voice,” he says. “Our message is that we’re all farmers. We do things differently, yes, but there is a lot of common ground we can collaborate on, so we learn from each other.”
“POGI has been a good thing – a necessary thing. It has been able to garner support from industry players, including some very large players who need a meaningful way to invest in the organic structure. The committees formed, the projects started, the pan-prairie connections – the whole evolution gave us what the organic grain sector needed: research, development, agronomy, support to farmers. Some of the effects are still to be felt. And now the cross-Canada successor will carry on the good work that’s been done thus far.”