The small-farm perspective

By Kelly Carmichael (volunteer contributor)

Arranging to interview Heather Johnson at Severn Sunset farm took a bit of coordination. After a few false starts, we eventually met over the phone. I am so glad we had an opportunity to chat. It turns out we had a lot in common. Like myself, Heather and her husband Andrew moved away from the city to join the organic farming movement seven years ago. They have a young family and find themselves juggling many commitments, including kids, to make farming work.

Heather works the farm full-time, while Andrew works off the farm. They have been learning as they go and looking for ways to innovate and grow their farm. They produce for a local CSA and have a broad range of products, including free range organic poultry and eggs, shield grazed Ontario lamb, Ontario Shetland wool, registered Shetland sheep, Khaki Campbell ducks and Ameraucana chickens.

Like many small scale farmers, they follow the Canada Organic Standard for production of their products, and they even keep records to back that up – but they are not certified. As Heather says “we have produce, the quota exemption amount of 300 broilers and we have a flock of 30 laying hens. These are all under Organic management and have been for seven years, since we started our farm. Six years ago I contacted a certifying body and inquired about certification. At that time, the cost to certify did not make sense due to the small size of our business.”

Heather adds, “Standardization is very important to me, and is one of the reasons why we go to such lengths — lengths much greater than other producers do — to ensure that we are following the standard. This has us driving across the province to buy grain grower direct, paying large sums for inputs, etc. It’s so hard to see other people selling things as “organic” that I know are not really meeting the standard. But at the same time, there is no way for us to prove that we are, either, since we are not certified. Being able to certify would certainly help our business long term – but right now it’s just not an option.”

People are starting to ask a lot more questions about the food they put on their tables.  With a greater focus in the media on clean foods that have been produced without pesticides and herbicides, many consumers and the farmers who serve them would welcome legislation that would provide stronger enforcement.

Heather can see many benefits to stronger legislation. She believes that it will ensure that Severn Sunset no longer has to compete with those who call themselves ‘organic’ but do not adhere to the rules and principles of organic production. She also believes the legislation will encourage more farmers to seek certification, and will provide consumers with more faith in the organic label. That being said, she does worry about how much a full transition to organic certification will cost.

The Organic Council of Ontario points out that this legislation is intended to be just the first step towards building a made-in-Ontario solution for small farms: as part of the process of creating a regulation, OCO will advocate for exemptions and supports to ensure small farms are not adversely affected by regulation.

This is great news for Heather, who would love to see additional help for small farmers, to help them grow and strengthen their markets. A win-win for consumers too!

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