Area farms and growers looking to become certified as organic still have time to benefit from the Growing Eastern Ontario Organically program run by Canadian Organic Growers.

The pilot project for Eastern Ontario farmers who are looking to transition to organic began in 2019, with funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to support it through 2021. The project has been so successful that the COG is extending the program for another two years. This means anyone signing up in 2021 will be able to receive the full three years of support towards becoming certified as an organic operation.

Growing Eastern Ontario Organically provides support to its member farms through mentorship, financial incentives and on-site experiential learning. The program also provides the support and advice of business consultants and from its team of skilled agronomists.

“An important part of our program is that the farmers get a lot of hands-on experience and direct support through our business consultants and our agronomists,” explains David Mazur-Goulet, Co-Ordinator of Growing Eastern Ontario Organically, noting that the program has a specific focus. “We’re targeting farmers who are looking to transition their farm, or already transitioning their farm to (being certified) organic.”

“Ultimately we are raising the number of farms which are certified organic in Eastern Ontario.”

Farmers praise support, networking opportunities

Mike MacGillivray owns Kirkview Farms – a multi-generational property which has been owned by his family since the early 1800s and whose primary focus is livestock. Kirkview Farms is in its second year in the Growing Eastern Ontario Organically program and will complete its transformation to organic when it receives certification this summer. The move has been facilitated by information and support received from the COG program.

“They have the resources to help you transition your land away from petrochemical-based farming,” says MacGillivray. “They can teach you about soil health, how to do things naturally and basically teach you how to create a recipe to transition your land to a natural ecosystem.”

While help is available in traditional petrochemical-based farming, the resources come from companies whose interest is in having farmers purchase their products. But the interest of Canadian Organic Growers is only in helping farmers who require support in transitioning to organic methods.

“These folks are truly interested in your well-being,” MacGillivray observes. “It’s about you – it’s not about selling something.”

André Houle, owner of the crop-based multi-generational Houle Farm in Curran, was one of the first local farmers in the Growing Eastern Ontario Organically, joking that he signed up before there even was a program. Houle Farms will also be certified organic in 2021 and its owner says one of the most helpful resources has been the opportunity to network with other local organic producers.

“It’s helped us very much on the network side – knowing what’s out there and who to talk to,” explains Houle, who also teamed up with MacGillivray to present at a recent COG online forum.

Program will be extended

Any farm or grower in the region – which runs from Pembroke in the north of Ontario to the Quebec border, the St. Lawrence and west to Gananoque – is eligible to take part in the program. The cost to participants is $100 for the first year, $75 for the second and $50 for the third and final year. The fees include annual membership in Canadian Organic Growers ($25 value).

Although 2021 is the final year of Ontario Trillium Foundation funding, anyone signing up now will still receive three years of support. Canadian Organic Growers will continue to run the Growing Eastern Ontario Organically program and alternate funding is also being sought.

“It is likely going to change a little bit in terms of exactly how the support is structured (for 2022 and 2023), which will depend on our operating budget,” says Mazur-Goulet, who points out that the greatest amount of assistance is required by farms in their first year in the program. “In the subsequent years they are more established, their understanding is deeper as well and their systems are more in place.”

Goal to recruit 25 farms in 2021

Eligible applicants for Growing Eastern Ontario Organically must also be selling commercially and not currently certified as organic. The program is open to both new and established farm businesses.

“We have a goal of recruiting 25 farms in 2021 to join and for them to receive support for the next three years,” says Mazur-Goulet, who is also co-owner of COG member Heartbeet Farm in Ottawa. “They ultimately walk away from the program with a greater understanding of soil health, fertility management, pest management – all the different components that are really important to have a successful production in organic systems.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic having cut into in-person seminars on area farms, Canadian Organic Growers has developed online educational seminars for both members and non-members. There are a number of upcoming seminars in February and anyone interested can register on Eventbrite here.

“We’re here to support the farmers, so it’s not a top-down approach of this is how we think you should farm,” Mazur-Goulet emphasizes. “It’s about helping them identify what their goals are for the next three years and to work with the agronomist and team at COG to help them reach those goals.”

More information on Canadian Organic Growers’ Growing Eastern Ontario Organically program, including how to register, can be found on the COG website.

David-Mazur-Goulet, co-owner of Heartbeet Farm in Ottawa, is the Co-ordinator of the COG’s Growing Eastern Ontario Organically program.