Activity 9

Diversified cropping strategies to improve sustainability of organic crop production in the Brown soil zone


Project Introduction

The organic food market in Canada has tripled since 2006 and is now worth over $4-billion/year, with Canadian organic exports valued at $554 million (Canada Organic Trade Association 2016). There are 900,000 hectares of organic farmland across Canada. The Prairies are considered the organic breadbasket of Canada; 89% of all organic wheat and oat, as well as 85% of the rye grown in Canada, are from Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. As of 2014, there were 1,466 certified organic operations in the three Prairie provinces. Among these, Saskatchewan is the largest organic producer in Canada, where 76% of organic pulses, 93% of organic oilseeds, and 72% of organic cereals are grown, and where there are 923 certified organic operations. On the other hand, Ontario has Canada’s largest consumer market for organics, valued at $1-billion per year.

Although there is a very strong consumer demand for organic products and organic premiums are high, production has not kept pace. This shortage is a barrier to growth in Canada’s burgeoning organic processing sector and for sales into growing international markets. Grain buyers are asking for high quality organic products. Increasing the quality and quantity of organic grain from the Prairies, while preserving and improving soil quality, is imperative for keeping up with organic market demand and driving market expansion.

Current organic production constraints, the need to improve soil nutrition and quality, and climate change impacts on crop production including increases in important crop diseases and perennial weeds, can be addressed by diversifying cropping systems through sequential and/or spatial strategies. The inclusion of cover crops and/or continuous relay cropping sequences, all with species combinations that can improve soil N, bring P from lower soil depths, increase soil organic matter, and suppress weeds and diseases thereby reducing tillage, will be investigated as a means to improve yield and quality of organic cash crops.

Investigating cropping practices that can make organic crop production more sustainable, and improve resiliency, and information on energy use, carbon footprint and economic benefits of the above would be of great value to organic producers in the Brown soil zone, in other regions of western Canada, and where similar conditions apply elsewhere in the country.

Final Report Summary

Most organic producers in the Canadian Prairies rely on legume green manures for N input, soil health, and weed suppression, although some still practice summer fallow. However, there can be disadvantages to growing legume only crops as green manures for N supply. Legume species can be particularly sensitive to very dry or very wet growing conditions, they have low competitiveness to weeds and other crops, they decompose rapidly thus not contributing much to organic matter, and the most common legumes grown in the western Prairies are susceptible to Fusarium and Aphanomyces root rot. Thus, organic production based on intensive legume-only cropping for N supply might not be sustainable, especially under a scenario of climate change. There is a need to investigate practices with mixes of legumes and other crops, such as cover crop mixtures and intercrops, for their many benefits. These alternative practices would be important components of more sustainable, resilient and profitable organic crop production systems...

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Activity researchers

Name of Scientist or Technical Expert Team Member within AAFC (carrying out research) AAFC Location
Myriam R. Fernandez (Activity Leader) Swift Current Research and Development Centre
Mike Schellenberg Swift Current Research and Development Centre
Mervin St. Luce Swift Current Research and Development Centre
Julia Leeson Saskatoon Research and Development Centre
Kerry LaForge Swift Current Research and Development Centre
Michelle Hubbard Swift Current Research and Development Centre
Tim Dumonceaux Saskatoon Research and Development Centre