Growing up, Ryan Hofford wanted to be a farmer.
“My dad was a farmer, and it was something I had been around my entire life,” he said.
“I wanted the same thing for my children.”
While he pursued a different career path, he re-entered the world of farming after certain circumstances prompted him.
“When my dad retired from farming, he had seeded all of our land to hay,” Hofford said. “After several years of hay production, the fields needed to be broken up, so it was either rent out the land, or farm it ourselves.
“We ‘pulled the trigger’ on getting back to farming after my dad was diagnosed with cancer.”
Hofford made the choice to return to farming, but not in the conventional sense, as he decided to go the organic route.
“It made the most financial sense for us,” he said.
“It gave us a chance to start small and limit our risks, but still gave us the opportunity to be a profitable farm.”
Hofford farms about 800 acres of grain, hay and pasture, on land that was in his family prior to him starting.
“One quarter of our land has actually been in the family for more than 70 years,” he said.
Organic farming is an integrated system based on ecological principles. Whether you are new to farming or transitioning from conventional production, there is a steep learning curve.
The organic farming industry is highly regulated with the Organic Products Regulations (OPR) being in effect as of 2009.
This meant that the Canadian Organic Standards (COS) were mandatory, and OPR legally required organic products to be certified according to COS if they are traded across provincial or international borders.
It can take up to three years to certify part or all of an operation as organic, with a large number of inspections and agreements needing to be made.
While organic farming is often seen as using no products to assist growth, there is a list of permitted substances for use.
In the early transition stages to organic farming, it is recommended that farmers keep day-to-day records which does create more work, but is due to the demand for increased transparency and accountability from the food system. Keeping and maintaining immaculate records is something more farmers of any type are needing to do in order to stay on top of the growing trend of passing farm information to consumers.
The decision to pursue an organic farm is not an easy one, but for Hofford, it made sense, so he currently farms organic barley, wheat and oats.
“My wife, Amy, started North Country Grains as a value-added business on the farm,” he said. “This allowed her to stay home with our children but still earn a living.
“She started out milling our own organic wheat into 100 percent whole grain stone ground flour, and has now expanded into a line of whole grain mixes, which are sold in stores across Manitoba.”
Using his own organic grains has allowed this business to flourish as it eliminates the need for purchasing ingredients. Hofford also knows where the ingredients came from and knows that they are certified organic.
“The current organic standards and regulations is a large document,” he said. “We have an annual inspection where they review our farm, fields and cattle.
“They check our records, clean out logs, make sure our tracking paperwork is in order, visit every field, and review any inputs we might have had.
“We also have to maintain a ‘buffer strip’ of 10 metres around our fields to ensure there is no possible contamination (from inputs on non-organic fields),” Hofford continued.
While the work is tough and there are a lot of regulations to follow, Hofford does enjoy the task.
“The high point is being able to share this life with our children,” he said.
“The prospect of new life, whether it’s the cows or the crops, it’s an amazing feeling to see your work come to fruition in front of your eyes. It’s what keeps me going every spring.”
Still, there are challenges beyond the regulations.
“The biggest challenge for us is time management,” Hofford said. “Working full time in town, managing a farm and having two small children keeps us quite busy.
“Organic farming is fairly intensive and requires quite a bit of labour, but thankfully, I have a great job that allows for flexibility and is supportive of our farm.
“It’s not an easy job, but it is very rewarding,” Hofford concluded.