Growing grains on a small scale offers unique challenges, especially in harvest and processing. Still, for people or regions who want to be self sufficient, the ability to bake a loaf of bread from grains they grew themselves or in their region is deeply satisfying.
Grains and forages are the primary commodities grown organically on the prairies and in the Peace River Region of BC. For this reason, much of the literature on large scale organic grain production in Canada comes from the prairies. Prairie organic farmers do have the expertise on grain growing, but their systems may not be ideal for BC growers in the southern half of the province. Growing conditions differ across regions, so information from one region may inform another, but should always be considered in the context of "Would that work on my farm?"
Most of the grain grown in the prairies and in the BC Peace is for export, primarily to the US and Europe. Growing for a smaller local market may be more appropriate for a small producer.
Small Scale Grain Production
Small grains such as wheat, oats, barley, rye, spelt, and specialty grains like amaranth and quinoa can be grown on a small scale, in a garden setting. This guide is for the beginner, and includes harvest and storage.
Another excellent website for small scale local production, which focuses on growing grain on Vancouver Island. This site includes information on several different grains, small scale options, including a video on harvesting into pillowcases, and diverse topics from gluten intolerance to rolling oats.
Mother Earth News also has a primer on organic grain for the beginner with lots of "how to" detail from ground preparation to milling.
Large Scale Grain Production
Generally, large scale organic grain production differs from non-organic grain production not because of the grains themselves, but because of the agronomy of production. Key elements of soil fertility and weed control are addressed through rotations, including green manures and cover crops. Diseases and insects are managed through avoidance, by rotation, staggered seeding, cultivar selection, and diversity.
Sources that deal with many aspects of agronomy:
Saskatchewan is the leading Canadian exporter of organic grain. Best organic grain production practices are summarized from interviews with 33 organic grain farmers in Saskatchewan.
The Saskatchewan government website provides an overview on organic field crops such as grains, forages, pulses, flax and green manures as well as information on soil conservation practices, fertility, weed management, insect management, disease management, crop marketing, and transitioning.
Organic Alberta has a large number of resources for organic grain producers. These include extension information on soil, weeds, marketing as well as general field crops.
Ontario offers suggestions to grain growers on their website as well.
The Maritime organic grain network, although no longer active, has some interesting research posted on their website.
The Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada has a diverse collection of articles on field crops, including production.
ATTRA offers a large collection of excellent articles on all aspects of organic field crop production, from weed management to soil fertility, from green manures to pest management, to reducing tillage. This information is US based, so it includes crops not suited for Canadian growing conditions. Many articles are free, and some are accessible for a small fee.
Soils, crop rotations and green manures
Healthy soils are the foundation of organic production. Soil health is achieved, on a large scale, by diverse rotations which include legume green manures for nitrogen, and incorporation of straw to enhance organic matter. Where soil is prone to erosion, it is important to retain green cover, in the forms of cover crops and green manures.
The following websites offer suggestions on how to maintain soil fertility on organic farms in Saskatchewan, in Manitoba, or in Oregon. Warning: The use of any inputs should be approved by your certification body, whether they are on a recommended list or not!
Robert and Steven Snider explain why rotations have been crucial to developing an organic grain operation that "works".
Rotations can be pivotal in maintaining grain quality, especially if legumes are included in the mix. Benefits can go beyond nitrogen, to phosphorus, zinc and copper.
Based on workshops with 12 expert organic farmers, this SARE book offers insights on how to plan a rotation and provides examples of rotations that work in eastern Canada and the American northeast.
Cover crops can be a valuable aspect of the crop rotation. This SARE resource is both a primer on the use of cover crops and a valuable source of information on a great variety of potential cover crops. It is written for wide use in the US, so some discretion is advisable (i.e. if it says "reduce the need for herbicide", read "improve weed control"; and be careful not to select options best suited to Georgia if this is nothing like your environment). Several legumes are described, as are barley, oats, rye and winter wheat. The following NCAT resource is available at a very small cost, and reviews the benefits of cover crops and green manures for soil conservation and weed suppression.
Other useful rotation articles include this one from North Carolina
OACC has a vast array of articles on organic soil health and fertility, from the arcane to the practical.
Advice on weed management in organic cereal crops from Steve Shirtliffe, an agronomy professor at the University of Saskatchewan is available in this Powerpoint presentation and in this video from Chris Reberg-Horton from North Carolina State University. Both deal with the basics of organic weed management, and with recent research results in this area.
This resource is not current, but it summarizes the scientific literature available in the late ‘90s that is relevant to organic weed management. It is written in a fairly accessible format, and develops basic principles.
Organic Weed Management information has been developed and made available by several government agencies. These resources are simple summaries of best practice, from the government of Saskatchewan, the government of Manitoba, North Carolina State University and Iowa State Extension Service.
The Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada’s website is a diverse grab bag of resources, including scientific papers and more accessible articles, interesting ideas, and practical suggestions. The field crop research section offers many resources, from insect and weed control, nutrient management and crop breeding. e.g. Research in Weed Control for Organic Field Crops.
Disease, Insects, Pests
Suggestions for insect and disease management in organic grain production from the government of Saskatchewan: Insect Management and Disease Management; and the government of Manitoba:
Insect and Disease Management. Like the weeds resources above, these are simple summaries of best practice.
The Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada shares research on disease and insect management. Again the OACC site provides abundant options, from scientific articles to practical management.
Harvest and Storage
Harvesting High Quality Organic Grain - Small Grains (Acres, PDF).
Good beginners article on the basics of harvest. Some is region specific, but still applies – you may not have a problem with onions – but you may need to watch for stinkweed, for instance.
Two items I’d like to contradict: You may not want to set the combine for maximum cleaning. When screenings are going at good prices, and if you don’t want to spread weed seeds throughout the field, you may want to set the combine for minimum cleaning, and then run the crop through a quick cleaning process as soon as possible after harvest.
The advice about walking out onto the grain? If it’s in a bin, don’t! If you sink in there, you could suffocate.
Additional dangers in stored grain.
Wondering if going organic pencils out? A number of resources are available to help you determine costs and benefits of organic grain production. These help determine cost of production and realistic potential returns. Some are quite specific to their area, and have numbers based on local and stale-dated information. However, they all offer insights in how to create such budgets, and what sort of information goes into them. Reviewing this would be a good way to determine what you need to know to pencil out a budget that works for you.
- Crop planning guides from Saskatchewan
- Organic winter wheat and spelt planning guides from Ontario
- Organic barley and oats planning guides from Ontario
- Organic rotations that include wheat, durum, barley, corn, sunflower, soybeans, oats, flax, pea, millet, buckwheat, lentils, rye, and green manure, from North Dakota
Transition can be a difficult time, with a steep learning curve. Issues often arise as land and owner mindset both transform to organic status. This may be the most challenging production period, yet none of the economic benefits are achieved until transition is complete. The following articles provide information to ease this process, and to let producers know what they are "in for".
A Transition to Certified Organic Oat Production Budget for a 300 ac farm in the North Okanagan. This resource includes risk factors and a sample budget.
A Transition to Certified Organic Spelt Production Budget for a 300 ac farm in the North Okanagan. It includes risk factors and a sample budget.
A Saskatchewan based article on planning through transition of a grain farm to organics.
Marketing small grains
The marketing path for small grains often depends on the volume produced. Smaller amounts can be marketed directly to consumers at farmers markets, through CSAs and to specialty bakeries and restaurants. For these venues, some processing may be required. See the marketing section of Cyber Help for further information.
Grains are seeds, of course, and with careful handling they can also be sold into seed markets. See below under seed sources.
An alternative is to seek a feed market, such as backyard chicken producers, or hobby horse enthusiasts. Some processing, such as running through a hammer mill, may be required here as well. See Cyber-Help for livestock.
Large volumes of grain are usually sold to processors, or through brokers. A number of these processors and brokers buy on the prairies, where most of the large scale grain producers are found. Organic grain buyers generally ask for samples, and negotiate from that position. Knowing how to take a representative sample and understanding current market trends will facilitate the process.
ATTRA provides a primer on marketing organic grain. This publication discusses grain quality, marketing channels, and value adding.
Directories of processors are available across the prairies. These folks deal primarily with grain:
Alberta. Also, Organic Alberta’s marketing page lists current grain prices and provides other marketing information.
Quebec also has organic grain marketing information.
Less is usually known about specialty crops, as they are less commonly grown. This gives the producer both an agronomic challenge and a market advantage. To find out more about specialty crops that might work for you, review these “how to” sources. Once you have picked out some options, put their names into your browser for further information.
ATTRA reviews the resources needed - from land to flexibility - to grow alternative crops. The appendix on this ATTRA article lists over 20 alternate crops, with descriptions of the crops, their characteristics, uses and areas of adaptation.
Vegetable growers tend to think of seed as a specialty product that comes in small packages. When looking for grain seeds, it is good to consider that about 1000 organic producers on the prairies grow grain. They aren’t all willing to clean and ship small quantities, but they are logical people to ask about grain seed. Directories of producers are available for Alberta and Saskatchewan and for Manitoba (a bit old, but most of these folks are in it for the long haul).
Other pages of this resource (Cyber-Help) include a section on seed sourcing: Organic Seed Suppliers for Canada. This list is primarily vegetables, herbs, flowers, but has some grains, on a small scale.
Additional resources offer some grain sources: Seeds of Diversity Resource List 2013. This vast list of seed providers includes a few with organic grains.
<"https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=376" target="_blank">Suppliers of Seed for Certified Organic Production
This list of US seed providers, from ATTRA includes grain.
If you could predict the weather, you would have the advantage of one of the most important tools in farming. In the same way that some crops do better in some regions than in others, most crops have a preferred weather profile. Lentils like it warm and dry; peas like it cool and can handle a bit more moisture, for instance. And of course, short term weather also makes a big difference, especially when deciding on seeding dates, when to cut hay, or whether to swath the crop. Here are a couple of weather tools that may help.
The Weather Network Farmzone
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