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Organic milk— a unique opportunity for Atlantic producers

By Heather Jones, Farm Focus

An ever-increasing demand for organic dairy products throughout Canada is an opportunity for Atlantic milk producers.

The demand is increasing by 20-30 per cent across the country every year, according to Roger Henry. “All of the organic dairy products sold in the Maritimes are imported from Quebec and Ontario. As the market continues to grow, we find ourselves in a shortage situation for present markets and no product available to fill new markets.”

The Prince Edward Island agrologist expects shortages this fall and that next year “the industry will not be able to meet the overall Canadian market demand” and be open to WTO imports.

Henry is the Maritime representative for OntarBio Organic Farmers Cooperative. Its dairy products are available locally under the Organic Meadow label. Organic Meadow is working in conjunction with Purity Dairy of PEI, and other interested dairies to establish a regional organic milk industry—both producers and processors.

It could be very profitable. According to Henry, as of April 1, Ontario organic farmers will receive an 18 per cent premium for their milk and Quebec producers recently received a raise to 19%.

“This equates to an additional $1,000 a week for a farm with 50 kilograms of dairy quota or a herd of 55 cows. That’s $50,000 per annum.

“Organic producers in those provinces also received additional quota.”


TRANSITION

Henry says any dairy operation can be converted but the transition is easier for small and medium sized operations and pasture-based farms.

Making the transition from conventional to organic will take some time—up to four years depending on the history of fertilizer usage.

Land, crops and cattle all must be certified. A farmer cannot use pesticides or commercial fertilizer on his land for three years before it can be officially recognized. The agrologist points out if a farmer can document that his land or hayfields have not been treated, they could be certified sooner.

Henry says Organic Meadow will provide extension support and expertise free of charge to interested farmers.

Milk cows have to be fed organically for 12 months before the milk is certifiable. To speed up the process, a dairyman might buy organic feed for the first year. “It would increase feed costs some but it would allow them to be certified a year earlier.”

Changes in animal management, especially in herd health, will also be needed. Organic farmers cannot use antibiotics or hormone treatments.

And, organic operations generally require more labour than conventional farms. Henry says, “Labour is very specific to individual operations.”

His general rule is a farmer should expect an increase of 5-10 per cent. But, he notes, an organic milk producer saves money on fertilizer, spray and medical treatments.


PROCESSING

Certifying a dairy is not that large an issue, according to Henry, because the entire plant is stainless steel and is cleaned at the end of each day. Organic Meadow runs organic milk first each day (followed by conventional milk) through the system so there’s no need to flush out the lines.

A processor would need a separate holding vat for the organic milk. He says some cleaners might be an issue—but not a major one.

Purity Dairy will be ready to accept organic milk in 2007. Henry says, “Ideally, to start up, we will need 5-6000 litres of milk per delivery from 3-4 farms to produce fluid milk. We don’t have all the product lined up yet, but have more interest all the time.

“We’re going to concentrate on fluid milk initially. Hauling fluid from Ontario to the Maritimes is expensive, costing up to 50¢/litre. It only makes sense environmentally as well as economically to do the fluid first.”

He says, “Organic Meadow now produces a complete line of dairy products and is willing to work with regional partners by providing industry development expertise as well as packaging with UPC codes to ensure Maritime product is in Maritime stores.”

Several farmers in the region are “seriously interested” in becoming organic. Herman Meintink of Grand Pre, NS has almost completed his transition. Frazer Hunter of Antigonish and a couple PEI milk producers are in the process.

Henry says a window of opportunity is now open for the Atlantic dairy industry to develop local organic production—but it won’t be open long. Since January, competitively priced Danish organic cheese is in Maritime display cases beside the Canadian product. “The Danish Farmer’s Cooperative is buying Canadian dairy companies with distribution systems in hopes that Canadian milk will not be able to fill this market and more dairy imports will be allowed into Canada.”

Henry warns, “If we as an industry do not rise to this opportunity, there are European countries in a surplus situation that are very interested in filling this market for us.”


For more information contact Henry at (902) 886-3077 or Tom Cullen at Purity Dairy (902) 894-7125). This article first appeared in Farm Focus, and is posted here with permission.


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