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Scott Olsen

See how this farmer is down-sizing his acres under management, but making a living through organic farming starting from hay land.

Posted in Farmer Profiles
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Scott Olsen

Tell us what you do.

I am a grain farmer now but I went to school for forestry and then did land reclamation and learned about forages. My wife has a bachelor of science. We started farming with her parents 7 years ago in Fairview. We were growing canola, wheat and 800 acres of forage seed. We had 1200 acres of our own, out a total of 7,000 acres owned by the family farm.

We are handing this over to my brother-in-law and moving to Mayerthorpe where my family is. I am renting land from my uncle and neighbours, all of which has been hay land with a history of no inputs. So the opportunity is there for us to transition it into organic production. We worked it all up last fall and will be seeded to peas, oats, barley and wheat this spring. In this first year, about half will be in organic transition and half will be conventional.

How did you come to the decision of transitioning into organics?

We are hoping that going organic will be a good decision because we will be working with fewer acres. Previously, we managed large acreage and I’m used to management of something big, I’m hoping when we go smaller, with more micro management I will do a better job, and make more money on less acres.

What was the biggest challenge that you faced through the transition?

Getting started was the hardest part, but it worked out perfect. We went to the Organic Alberta conference and were starting within the year. They [Organic Alberta] answered every question and it was easy. Finding a Certifying Body was also pretty easy. After a few phone calls and some questions we really just had to pick one.

Production will be a challenge but we will be trying different things. Weed control is our biggest worry, and we bought some special equipment, including a Yetter rotary hoe, and bought some nice older equipment including a six inch spacing box drill, and tine harrows for weeding. I hope this will work for weeding.

Was there anything that really seemed like a challenge at the outset but it ended up being easily overcome?

Getting the land certified seemed like a challenge. I thought it was going to be a big production with the inspector there for days. They were really nice to deal with and spent a few hours on each field. We were fine with the cost, you have to pay people to do this, we have no problem paying yearly fees.

The biggest thing to overcome is everyone telling you it’s a bad idea saying, “you wont get any grain, you might get 15 bushel of grains and nothing but weeds”. My father-in-law has been helpful because he’s been farming since the ’70s and now he’s reminiscing about how things were. My dad was old school and I pushed him to grow canola and use fertilizer, and we didn’t have success, and now I’m paying for that decision. He’s very involved now and likes it. I am always probing the old guys for knowledge.

The hardest part is getting enough land base. Ideally, 1,000 acres of organic would be right on. Then it would match our existing equipment. We have almost too much machinery, which I guess is a good problem to have.

What is the best tool or piece of equipment on your farm?

I’m really excited to use the rotary hoe (Yetter) but haven’t got to use it yet. Youtube has been a good source. I have watched Gabe Brown videos after seeing him present at the Soil Health Conference put on by ARECA in December 2015. I watch lots of videos on how the machines work. I love machinery and driving tractors so this is awesome for me because there are lots of hours driving tractor with organic farming!

Who do you look to (regional or global) when you are stuck on a problem or need some outside advice?

I am looking to the older guys and guys who have recently transitioned like Trevor Kerschbaumer. They just got into it 4 years ago and he helped me get seed. He has shared his knowledge about what works. He said he likes plowing more than the discing, so I did half and half to see if there is a difference.

Are there any books or resources that you frequently use to help you make decisions?

I just Google a lot, for example, I have been looking at intercropping. Manitoba Research Council comes up often. I also tend to just phone people up.

What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started transitioning into organics?

I wish I knew where to market this stuff already. This is the biggest hurdle for me, I can grow stuff, but I hate marketing. So far just called Richardson in Barrhead for oats and found a buyer for malt barley for micro breweries. It has been helpful to have friends with lots of contacts.

I have lots to learn about cover crops. My plan was alsike clover, but every old guy I talk to says don’t do this. I might try a test plot and see if we can build up nitrogen.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to a new farmer getting into organics?

Don’t listen to all the naysayers, it’s fun and it’s not expensive. That’s why we choose to do it. It fits with what we want to do and has been relatively inexpensive so far. I look forward to see how it will work!