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by Mike Beretta
Those of you involved in ecological or organic farming know that one of the main obstacles faced in converting from conventional farming, was your neighbours. Peer pressure is as alive and kicking in the agricultural community, as it is in the schoolyard. One of the stigmas attached to organics (and used regularly by our next door neighbours) is that it can't be done on a conventional scale. How often do we hear it's for "hobby" or "part-time" farmers! The farm of Martin de Groot and Ineke Booy is living proof that an organic farm can work on a scale considered both conventional and full-time.
Located about ten minutes south of Harriston, Ontario, the farm covers 500 acres. All are OCIA certified except the last 30 acres in transition. Martin and Ineke share the workload, but also have help from their four children. They are currently milking 55 Holsteins which will be certified by the coming fall, and their milk will help supply that used for Country Meadow organic cheeses. The dairy herd provides additional income through the sale of bred heifers, many of which are sold to the U.S. and Mexico.
They have also chosen to raise their bull calves for red veal till about six months of age or 500-550 lbs. This may seem somewhat of a contradiction within the organic movement. However, raised in groups on straw bedding and fed organically grown corn, is a far cry from selling them only days old to a conventional "vealer." Bull calves are a by-product of the dairy industry and with the premiums now received for organic milk, it is high time dairy farmers see these calves as a potential meat source as well. Martin is quick to point out that there is some real money in red veal.
Cash crops are also a large part of their operation. Crops grown include: soybeans, corn (which Martin feels is the easiest of the bunch to grow organically), spelt, oilseed radish and sunflowers. The majority of these crops are marketed through OntarBio, the organic grain co-operative to whom they are also linked through Ineke's role as vice-president.
Martin and Ineke have been on the farm for fourteen years, having come straight from Holland where neither were involved in farming. For the first eight years they worked their land according to standard conventional methods. Martin feels that it was the excessive spraying and the increasing inputs that compelled him to seek an alternative. The main challenges (other than the neighbours) were the unknowns, such as weeds and fertility. The first step was convincing themselves it could be done. Once the initial conversion was accomplished, it was only through the experience of the past six years that they achieved their desired end result. Granted, support is essential, and Martin and Ineke found it through other organic farmers - the EFAO and OntarBio. Coming to the realization that the whole thing was possible was their first, and most important step. but ultimately their convincement was their first and biggest step.
I would not do them justice by writing down their recipe for success - the ingredients are either hard to come by, or too many to count. Simply said, they have proven that using a field by field transition, the conversion of 500 acres is achievable. The long term or sustainable approach so key to organic farming is no different on 50 acres than 500. What is different is the ability to switch quickly according to market trends, since cutting corners to take advantage of premiums is asking for disaster in organics. Once established, the rotation (with some room for variability) dictates the farm's production.
Details such as their crop rotation, or the secret to growing organic corn are better heard from Martin and Ineke themselves. Their tour on July 23 will be your chance to do just that, and to see this conventional sized organic farm. This opportunity is not only for those of you already convinced, but for some of the sources of peer pressure around you who still maintain it can't be done. Besides crop production, Martin's interest in baleage and rotational grazing will also be discussed. Other aspects of the farm may also be of interest. Their farm has been involved in the Ecological Farm Planning program and areas identified as sensitive have already benefited from measures to enhance wildlife. Areas along ditches and steep hills have been pulled out of production and trees and shrubs native to the area have been planted. Windbreaks are presently being established as well.
Further details and maps will be provided in the next newsletter, but mark that date down now, N.B. this is different than scheduled on the annual calendar.
Copyright © 1995 Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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