Ecological Innovations On Regenerative and Organic Farms

People often associate the word “organic” with a lack of agrochemicals like herbicides and pesticides. While restricting agrochemical use is an important aspect of organic agriculture, it is by no means the only technique that organic farmers can employ to maximize yields while minimizing harm. Each organic or regenerative farm is as unique as the farmers who keep it running, especially when it comes to dealing with organic agriculture’s most infamous challenge: weeds. 

Conventional farmers use repeated applications of herbicides to control weed growth. Many conventional farmers pride themselves on having “clean” fields, with a zero-tolerance policy for weeds achieved by this heavy application. Organic systems, however,  view weeds a little differently—for organic farmers, a pervasive weed presence is an indicator of an ecological imbalance. Nature abhors a vacuum, so weeds are nature’s way of rooting out weak plants from the gene pool or tapping into unused nutrients sources or real estates. To resolve weed issues, organic farmers will find ways to make their crops healthier to overcome any weed populations and make sure nutrients and land space are used effectively to push weed populations off of the land. Read on to learn how five organic Ontario-based farmers and researchers use different approaches to achieve this goal in weed management.

Orchard Hill Farm And Cover Cropping

Ken Laing has lived on a farm all his life. He established Orchard Hill Farm in 1979 and transitioned to organic agriculture in 1989. The farm was initially an orchard but orchards are difficult to manage organically, especially if the farm has only recently gone through organic transition. As a result, the orchard had to be torn up and replaced by a variety of vegetable crops. Ken’s daughter eventually took over the business, and in his semi-retirement he has been conducting research on organic weed management using no-till techniques for Living Lab – Ontario, a government-funded research project focused on developing and testing innovative farming techniques. 

Ken’s experiments have explored three techniques to test which of them resulted in the best yields, the best profit margins and the fewest weeds. His three tactics included: 

  • Planting directly into a winter-killed cover crop; 
  • Planting into a roller-crimped cover crop;
  • Planting into a thick layer of organic manure.

All three tactics resulted in very few weeds and didn’t require any hand weeding on Ken’s part, although the organic manure Ken purchased did have a few weed seeds mixed into it by accident. 

The success of the methods varied by crop type. For instance, winter squash did not do well when planted into the winter-killed cover crop but did wonderfully when planted into organic manure. Since squash is also a high-profit vegetable crop, it effectively mitigated the expense of the manure. Garlic did the best when planted into the winter-killed cover crop and potatoes did best when planted into the roller-crimped field. It is important to note, however, that Ken has spent many years rebuilding his soil’s health and this is in part why his experiences were successful. Organic farmers just starting in their transition should focus on rebuilding soil health before attempting these strategies. You can visit Ken Laing’s website for more information about his cover cropping research:

Eric Gallandt and Weed Cycles

Eric Gallandt teaches sustainable agriculture  at the University of Maine and conducts research on ecological weed management in diversified organic vegetable crop and grain cropping systems. 

Organic farmers often rely on cultivation or other forms of mechanical weed management to keep weed cycles at bay. Although these can prove effective and successful for many, Eric’s research seeks to dig deeper than those methods to improve cultivation tactics while also addressing the root causes of the weed cycles. 

When weeds drop their seeds, they can be buried deep in the soil through cultivation and remain dormant for decades, creating a never-ending cycle of weeds that can last for a farmer’s entire career. The solutions Eric is researching include ways to improve cultivation efficiency such as targeting weeds when they are smaller, levelling the vegetable bed so that the cultivator can have easier access, and using different cultivation tools like stacked cultivators. His research also focuses on preventative measures to bring initial weed populations down so that cultivation can be more effective. This is done through consideration of the ecological interactions of a weed throughout its lifecycle and disrupting points of the cycle using one or more of the many tactics found below.

By combining preventative measures with improved cultivation, organic farmers can disrupt weed cycles and significantly diminish their impact. 
To learn more about Eric Gallandt’s research, you can visit his website:

The Meeting Place Organic Farm and Rotational Grazing

The Meeting Place Organic Farm is a 100-acre ranch that went organic in 1975 under the management of Katrina McQuail’s parents. Katrina now raises  cattle, sheep, draft horses and dairy goats. Her fields are used both to grow grains and to serve as pastures for the livestock. 

Katrina practices rotational grazing. Pastures are fenced off into small paddocks using movable invisible fences and Katrina’s herd is allowed to graze in one paddock for only a few days before it is moved into the next paddock. The rotation process takes very little effort, once the herd is trained to expect it, they are eager to enter into the next paddock and can be moved in a matter of minutes. In Katrina’s specific rotation method, each paddock is given over 60 days to regrow its vegetation. As a result, upon entering each paddock, the herd is greeted with knee high and luscious vegetation that provides almost all of the herd’s diet. 

In addition to providing food for the livestock, rotationally grazed pastures serve as effective carbon sinks and have high levels of biodiversity and soil organic matter. The herd’s saliva, manure and urine all stimulate plant growth—Katrina will even feed her herd her cover crop seeds so that the seeds will have the advantage of germinating in the herd’s manure. 

In turn, the herd is an excellent source of weed control: whenever a weed population sprouts up in the fields, sprinkling it with salts or minerals ensures that the herd clears it away in a matter of hours. Having the herd clear away the weeds before their seed rain effectively disrupts the weed cycle. 

Grazing animals are a great way to clear away weed populations or to clean up cover crops if there’s too much green manure at the end of its growing season. For more information about The Meeting Place Organic Farm, you can check out their website:

Philips Family Organic Farm and No-Till Agriculture  

When Hugh Philips transitioned to organic farming, he initially used tillage to manage his incubation farm. He soon found, however, that this strategy was ineffective for dealing with weeds and caused damage to the soil organic matter. After switching to a no-till method, Hugh found that he had fewer weeds and his vegetables performed much better. No-till agriculture is a great way to improve soil health, which produces stronger crops that, when combined with mulch, can successfully suppress weed populations. 

No-till agriculture began as a technique for farmers to plant more seeds quickly and cheaply. A recent study found that no-till reduces fuel expenses by 50-80 percent and labour costs by 30-50 percent. One of the struggles of no-till agriculture, however, is compaction, where the ground becomes too hard to cultivate. To address this issue, Hugh uses compost and mulching but other tactics include plastic covers, winter-killed or crimped cover crops, or even using plants to break up the soil (also known as biological zone tillage). Hugh’s system is working so well that he rarely needs to even water his crop since his soil is healthy and absorbent. Hugh reports that his yields are high, his labour expenses are low and as a result, he can manage more land. 

You can learn more about Philips Organic Farm here:

3GenOrganics and Dynamic Management 

Brett Israel’s family has been farming in Wellington County, Ontario for more than six generations and operating using organic principles for the last three. Today, 3GenOrganics produces a variety of organic products including pork, flour, kale, eggs, honey and tortilla chips. Brett’s family uses a number of techniques to combat weeds including using cover cropping, winter small grains and keeping something growing in the soil as much as possible. Since the crops are mostly grains, the farm has a wide window of opportunity to establish a cover crop during the rest of the growing season. 

3GenOrganics also practices no-till agriculture in order to improve soil health. The farm has access to large equipment and Brett’s family has developed their own method to combat compaction, which has been found to be a driver of weeds for them. By releasing air from their tractor’s tires to drop the tire pressure below 10 PSI while the tractor is in the field, they are able to distribute the tractor’s weight more evenly and reduce the harm done to the soil. When the tractor leaves the field, the air is simply put back into the tires using a rapid air compressor attached to the tractor to make it safe for road travel. This tactic has been shown to help reduce compaction damage compared to the surrounding farmland, which often experiences flooding. 

Brett also reports numerous benefits of his tactics in addition to a reduced population of weeds, including reduced soil erosion, flooding and compaction, more beneficial pollinators and improved soil health. 

You can learn more about 3GenOrganics here:

Closing Thoughts

There is no single way to practice organic agriculture, especially when dealing with complicated and pervasive challenges like weed cycles. Organic weed management involves working with your farm’s natural environment and thinking outside the box. Ontario’s organic farmers have adopted a variety of innovative techniques to produce good and sustainable food while protecting their livelihoods. If you’d like to learn more about the organic farmers in Ontario, you can explore OCO’s organic Directory, which contains the information of organic farmers across Ontario.

In our next article, we will be examining the market for organic agriculture in Ontario and the opportunities that presents to farmers.

This knowledge article is part of our Organic Climate Solutions campaign. Check out OCO’s Organic Climate Solutions campaign, funded in part by the Government of Canada, to learn more about how farmers can reduce the environmental impact of agriculture and be part of the climate solution.

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