Learn how this Saskatchewan farmer managed his transition to organics after a career in the oil patch.
Two years ago, Denis Brisebois decided to come back to help his parents on their family farm in Saskatchewan after spending the past 20 years in the oil industry. Since that time the family has invested in growing their land base from farming 11 quarters (600 acres with 120 cattle) to 21 quarters (1300 acres with 170 cattle).
Denis was interested in transitioning to organic production and had the support of a certified organic neighbour who explained some of the required paperwork. Denis than made an appointment with a certifying body to get extra help with the paper work and submitted his application in May. Since his family farmed with no chemical or fertilizer, “we only needed one year in transition” Denis explained.
Reflecting on the learning process, Denis says, “I would be lying if I did not say I struggled with the idea of taking on a new challenge in my mid-40s, “but we’ve proved that age is not an excuse to go organic.”
Denis credits having organic neighbors that he could ask for help, a history of farming without sprays and synthetic fertilizers, and assistance with required paperwork as the three factors that contributed most to his easy transition to organics.
“To appreciate last year’s crop” reflects Denis, “one must know where we came from. Our 2014 crop was a bust: rain came at the wrong time, crops were 100% hailed out, and to top it off, the head gasket blew out on the good truck!”
The initial investment of time – Denis estimates fifteen hours of paperwork plus the initial cost to certify – now seems like a small commitment. Rather, one of the biggest challenges he faced was criticism from others who didn’t agree with organic farming.
“Society has forgotten the days before fertilizer, chemicals and GMO’s,” says Denis. “There is room for both ways to farm and for consumers to have a choice.”
In 2015 (the year after transition), the Brisebois’ put in 830 acres and purchased 10 additional quarters of land. “The Kamut came up beautifully and then the July rain brought up the kochia weeds,” says Denis, “which resulted in over 50% dockage.” After crunching the numbers, Denis calculated that they had come out even with a clean crop (durum) that would have been sold on the open market.
“The wheat produced 15-20 bushel/acres and even though the price came down, the cheques were still beyond my parents dreams! Those cheques in the spring”, says Denis, “breathed life, hope and drove it home that we made the right choice [certifying organic].”
Overcoming challenges through the transition year:
Denis is first to admit the anticipation of the paperwork and his first inspection gave him some anxiety. He reflects, “Once the paperwork was complete and the first year inspected, I got the feeling they [inspectors] were here to help.”
In his first year of organic production, Denis had the opportunity to learn from a mistake that could have resulted in a larger problem. He put wheat with hay that had been treated. He found a solution and resolved the issue by baling 55 acres for green feed and “moved on.”
“The inspector came back later in the year to follow up. That instilled confidence the industry has its check and balances in place. The legitimacy to the word organic is not a gimmick,” explained Denis.
Building knowledge and growing confidence
To be successful in organic production, Denis recalled, “We needed to sharpen our pencils and learn new practices such as including three to four-year crop rotations. This required a change in thinking. It’s always been wheat and summer fallow rotation, and now we have different fields that have different needs.”
“We find that going to meetings, listening to speakers, and attending field days not only helps us learn from others but gives confidence we are on the right track.”
What piece of advice you would give?
Denis offers the following advice to the farmer looking to become organic, “I would suggest pay the dues on hay land. During your transition year, break up the hay and seed a crop of no less than 160 acres. Designate organic bins. Replace your breaking by seeding transition land to hay land for better production and the three-year transition on the land will make feed for cows.”
Denis advises, “Your first year organic crop will provide the income that will motivate you to transition more land over the next two to three years, and to re-break the hay land into your next organic transition.”
Rather than transition all at once, Denis suggests doing it over a number of years, and to make sure you get out to meet organic farmers, grain buyers and service providers.
“All one has to do is attend a workshop or invest an afternoon with some one that can explain a couple of options that will help you. I find more and more articles being published with a wealth of knowledge. All people in organics can give you a phone number to people with more knowledge. Remember these people volunteer their time and are happy to help.”