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Organic farmers receive higher financial returns than conventional farmers, according to preliminary studies that compared farming methods.
The study by University of Guelph agricultural economist Peter Stonehouse compared seven organic farmers with nine farmers with reduced chemical inputs and 11 conventional farmers. In terms of economic success, the study found that organic farming scored highest and conventional farmers scored lowest.
Organic products attract a premium price in the marketplace, but profitability is also increased by lower costs for production and machinery. As Stonehouse notes: "Organic farmers strive to reduce capital inputs in farming.''
The study was initially funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Food Systems 2002 program which strives to reduce dependency on chemical pesticides by 50 per cent by the year 2000.
The study has been criticized by some in the agri-food industry because of its small sample size and variations in size of farm operations, types of livestock and crops debt loads and farm practices. Stonehouse, who would like access to more organic farming data, defends the study by emphasizing that such information is needed to safeguard environmental and human health, and to determine why some conventional farmers are switching to organic farming.
Despite organic farming's financial rewards, Stonehouse is quick to point out that it is probably not the way of the future. He predicts that about 10 to 15 per cent of farms will eventually support organic methods. Organic farms now make up only about two to three per cent of all Canadian farms. A consideration for the farmer is that organic farming is more labor-intensive than conventional farming, Stonehouse says. Organic farming involves a different philosophy and requires different management skills. In addition, to be certified organic, crops must be grown on lands that have been free of any chemicals for at least three years.
"Organic farming is one way to farm environmentally, but it is not for all farmers," Stonehouse says.
He believes that organic farming will gain more acceptance because the public continues to be concerned about food quality, health and the environment. Reducing dependency on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers is important for both environmental and economic reasons, he says.
Stonehouse is currently involved in a project to compare organic dairying with conventional dairying. The first round of results looked at eight organic and 130 conventional farms, and he wants to follow this with a larger representation of organic dairy farmers. He'd also like to do similar comparison studies of organic and conventional farming in beef, swine, sheep and horticultural sectors.
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