Organic Growing Winter Musings

Canadian Organic Growers
by Jeff Johnson
November 18, 1999

Tom and Donna's web site is about gardening, all types of gardening. However, there's one time of the year - now, winter - when we can't garden. So we dream about next season's garden, reminisce about last year's garden, and thumb our way through seed and tool catalogues. And we eat what's left of our bounty. If you grew your crops organically last year, you'll probably grow them organically again next season. But what can you do about the foods you'll buy and eat this winter? Where can you find organically grown crops, and how can you be sure they were grown without chemical poisons and fertilizers, using methods that maintain the fertility and stability of the soil while reducing erosion and water pollution? Read on and you'll find out.

Canada has many organic farmers and market gardeners. Unfortunately, they, like you, are restricted by climate conditions. However, most grow large amounts of crops, and often have supplies through the winter, especially root crops (carrots, rutabaga, beets, onions, potatoes), apples and other hardy fruit, and winter squashes. And some have greenhouses, which allow them to extend the season in the fall, and begin it early in the spring. Many would be more than happy to sell their crops to you. All you have to do is find one.

Most organic market gardeners live a reasonable distance from a major city. Contact a natural foods store or a chapter of Canadian Organic Growers for a farmer in your area. COG chapters are Toronto, Ottawa Valley, Kawarthas, Niagara Region, Burlington/Wentworth, Guelph/Waterloo/Wellington, Brant, Durham, and the South Island Organic Producers Association in BC (contacts are listed in our web site, . Or you can buy a copy of COG's Organic Resource Guide, a listing of hundreds of organic growers across Canada, as well as retailers, wholesalers, and processors of organic foods. You can find an order form on our web site, or send $16.95 (postpaid) per copy to the address below.

Please remember to support Canadian farmers whenever you can. At some point during the winter, however, Canadian products, particularly fruits and vegetables, will run out. You'll then need to start buying imported organic products, mainly from the US. Most natural foods stores carry large ranges of organic products, including imported produce, and some grocery chains are carrying limited amounts of organic produce (including Sobey's and IGA in Nova Scotia, and Loblaws and Loeb in Ontario).

Now that you've found a supplier, you'll have to assure yourself that what you're buying is truly organic, grown without synthetic poisons and fertilizers. The best way to do that is to buy only from a farmer you know, someone you trust. If the grower tells you that everything she grows is organic, and you trust her, then you'll believe her and buy her produce. If this were the growing season, you could take a drive to the farm and check things out for yourself: is there lots of organic matter in the soil?; are there any fertilizer bags and pesticide cans lying about the barn or yard?; is there a diversity of crops growing, which can lessen the problem of pest infestation?; when you ask, is the farmer interested in telling you about her growing methods? You'll know before you leave whether you trust this farmer.

You can't do many of those things during the winter. Perhaps the best way to determine whether the farmer is legitimately growing organically is to ask him or her for a list of customers, then contact some or all of them to hear what they have to say about the food they eat and the person who grows it.

Unfortunately, if you buy your produce regularly from a natural foods store, or when you start buying imported foods, you can't visit the farmer or ask for a customer reference list. That's where certification comes in. Certification takes the place of the trust created between a farmer and his customers. Certification means that the farm resources - the fields, the soils, the animals - and the growing methods - rotations, fertilizer application, pest management - have all been inspected by an independent inspector and have met the standards of a certifying body. (In Canada, some examples are the Organic Crop Improvement Association, Nova Scotia Organic Growers Association, and the Organic Producers Association of Manitoba; many, many others exist.)

If the product you are buying is not certified organic by a certifying body (a farmer who passes the inspection and is certified is allowed to identify her products by using a sticker with the logo and name of the certifying body), you should be wary of it. There have been cases of farmers selling their products as organic when they were not.

Many products from the US (particularly packaged goods) say that the ingredients have been grown in accordance with the California state organic foods law. Please note that this is a minimum standard, a bare minimum standard, and many of the practices accepted under this standard are not sustainable, let alone regenerative of the soil. Of course, most of what is grown in California, and in Arizona, is not sustainable due to the massive amounts of water needed for irrigation. US taxes subsidize this water; if it was not subsidized, broccoli grown conventionally (not organically) would cost over $10 a head (organic would cost at least $15 a head).

When the root cellar and freezer supplies start to dwindle, and the ground is still weeks from thawing, organic vegetables from a local farmer or the nearest natural foods store will seem mighty tempting, at least until those first salads start tingling your taste buds! Canadian Organic Growers, Box 6408, Station J, Ottawa ON K2A 3Y6.

Contributed by: Jeff Johnson

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