Organics in Alberta – a short history
Organic production in Alberta goes back to the late 70s and early 80s. Early on there were no certification bodies, just a strong desire amongst Alberta farmers and ranchers to farm in an ecologically responsible manner. In these early years organic producers saw a need to organize themselves so they could provide a verification system, as well as to network and learn from each other. This history of Organics in Alberta traces the various associations that were formed by organic producers, and the role they have played in the development of the organic community.
Organic Alberta – formerly Going Organic Network of Alberta (GO): 2004 – present
Going Organic was formed in 2004 and was named after the annual conference. The interim board at that time included Steven Snider, Ron Hamilton, Frank Sarro, Jerry Kitt, Bernie Ehnes and Doug Craig. At the February 2005 Going Organic conference in Calgary, the Going Organic network of Alberta held its first annual AGM. There were 120 people at the conference of which approximately 50 people became members and voted in the elections. The interim board stepped down and elections including people from the floor. The new board was comprised of: Steven Snider, Ron Hamilton, Doug Craig, Dorothy Marshall, Bernice Kadatz, Marina Buchan (inspector) and Tracy Smith (consumer).
Major achievements of Going Organic during those days included successful field days, coordination of the Going Organic conference, and the securing of multiple years of grants for communications work for the sector. GO also met with the minister regarding the Canadian Organic standard.
In 2007 a strategic plan for the industry was created. This was spearheaded by Alberta Agriculture and the committee included Victor Chrapko, Ron Hamilton, Keith Everts, Frank Sarro, and other related industry players including Joe Zink from AB Milk, Kim Neilsen from the Agriculture Service Boards, and Garth Ahlstrom from the Alberta Breeders/Feeders Groups and ARD staff people. In 2009 Going Organic embarked on its Organic Harmonization project. It took this strategic plan and traveled across the province obtaining feedback on where the industry should be going and what needed to be done to get there. As a result of these consultations, Going Organic underwent organizational restructuring. They adopted the updated strategic plan and underwent organizational restructuring. Major changes included all those holding a certified organic certificate becoming automatic members, regional representation on the board of directors (2 northern, 2 central and 2 southern certified organic representatives, 2 members at large, 1 consumer member and the OFC representative), and the integration of committees made up of the membership.
In March of 2010, the Going Organic Network of Alberta formally changed their name to Organic Alberta in order to keep stride with the achievements and state of the industry – an industry that had matured and become much larger and more resilient. In 2011 Becky Lipton became the Executive Director – upgraded from interim Executive Director, a position she held since 2009.
Since then Organic Alberta has continued to lead the industry and grow the organic sector through its extensive work in communications, promotions, business development work, and education. In 2013 the organization continued to grow and with the addition of David Hobson as the Prairie Coordinator for the Bauta Canadian Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, and Marianne Stewart as the Alberta Organic Food Marketing and organic livestock value chain coordinator.
Organic Federation of Canada: 2006 – present
In 2006-07 the Organic Federation of Canada was formed. Alberta chose to hold elections in order to have a representative. Nedra Stanley held the position for the first year. Ron Hamilton was then elected for a full term and in 2011 Terry Sheehan was elected for a three year term. In 2014 Jake Drozda took over the position.
Peace Country Organic Association: 2002 - 2010
The Peace Country Organic Association was formed by Allan Weber on March 16, 2002 as a sister organization to PROPA. The group was formed because the producers needed to seek out alternative certification bodies other than PROPA, which had limited recognition and did not allow producers to export their products to the US. However, the group felt that it was important to maintain the networking, and the provision of information exchange and educational opportunities that PROPA provided and therefore had these goals as their mandate. The group was fairly active until 2006 and had their last regular meeting in the spring of 2006 in conjunction with PROPA. In the summer of 2010 the Peace Country Organic Association decided to fold and donated its remaining funds to Organic Alberta.
Alberta Organic Association: 2001 – 2003
In 2001 the Alberta Organic Association was formed by representatives of 4 organic associations coming together – the Biological Food Producers, OCIA Alberta chapter 1, the Sustainable Agriculture Association and PROPA. The AOA set to set up a single certification process in Alberta. They also continued to push for a Canadian Organic Standard and Regulation and organized the annual organic conference. The organization received federal funding ($250,000 for 3 years) and hired an Executive Director. The people involved in the AOA over these years were: Denis Vriend, Don Bogen, Victor Chrapko, Rosemary Wotske, John Day, Irene Mihailuk, Allan Weber, Allan Graff. Allan Weber later became the ED. They later hired a CEO from the Peace. The organization formally ended in the summer of 2003.
Going Organic Conference: 1999 – Present
The conference Going Organic was first held in 1999 and still occurs today. In the beginning years the conference was organized by Alberta Agriculture and the Alberta Organic Association. Conference locations have included Olds, Edmonton, Red Deer, Leduc, and Camrose. The conference continued to be organized by Alberta Agriculture in conjunction with industry, and in 2002 a conference committee was created of organic producers with Steven Snider as the conference chair. Other ARD staff who were heavily involved in the organizing were Rosalie Cunningham, Joan Hoenstien and Heather Shewchuck. From 2004 onwards Alberta Agriculture in partnership with Going Organic, now called Organic Alberta, took on the coordination of the conference. Organic Alberta is now the organization behind its ongoing coordination.
Alberta Agriculture Organic Specialist: 1998 – present
In 1998 Alberta Agriculture decided to form the organic specialist position, originally held by Mike Dolinski from 1998 until 2004. In 2003 Mike Dolinski and Keri Sharpe, who was shadowing the organic specialist position, organized regional meetings were organized to discuss the future direction and organizing of the organic industry. A desire for a representative body for organics in the province that was not tied to certification came out of these meetings. These meetings led to the formation in early 2004 of the board for the newly formed Going Organic Network of Alberta. Keri Sharpe also formally took over as the Alberta Agriculture Organic Specialist in 2004.
Sustainable Agriculture Association (SAA): 1986 – 2001
The Sustainable Agriculture Association (SAA) was founded in 1986 by Neall Coulson and Ian McPherson, owners of Sun Prairie Mills. In 1987 Neall and Sharon Rempel co-authored Alberta's organic certification standards. In 1987 SAA took the lead to bring representatives together from across Canada to write a definition of 'organic' for Consumer and Corporate Affairs. SAA was a unique group in Canada, comprised of consumers and farmers. The original board members included Nancy Finlayson, Sharon Rempel, Neall Coulson, Ian McPherson and Joe Zink. The SAA board certified farmers and processors of organic products. Directors Sharon Rempel and Nancy Finlayson received funding to set up an Organic Information Library. SAA provided certification for their members under the Alberta standard. Eventually members moved towards international certification with OCIA because of the need to sell into American markets, and SAA folded.
Canadian Organic Advisory Board (COAB): 1991 – 2001
In 1990 the Canadian Organic Unity Project (COUP), a collaborative industry and government consultation process to discuss the concept of developing an industry-drive organic standard and an accreditation system, was created. The COUP suggested that an advisory board be established to guide this process, hence the formation of COAB in the early 90s. Dexter Schmidt was the first Alberta representative, followed by Allan Graff who remained the Alberta Representative until the dissolution of the organization. The organization worked over the years to establish a national standard for organic food products but was dissolved in 2001.
Alberta Organic Producers Association (formerly OCIA chapter 1): 1990 – present
In 1989 several local farmers, interested in organic production techniques, researched the existing organic certifiers available at the time. They were interested in an organization that was farmer owned and controlled, and a not-for-profit. As such, in 1990 the 26 interested producers formed OCIA chapter 1 in Alberta. Over the years the group grew in popularity and reached 145 members in 2000. In 2003, the group decided to change their name to the Alberta Organic Producers Association to better reflect who they were. Prominent members over the years have included Dexter Schmidt, Irene Mihailuk, Allan Graff, Walter Walchuk, Steven Snider, Nedra Stanley, Otto Schaab and Victor Chrapko.
Peace River Organic Producers Association (PROPA): 1989 - present
This group was formed in 1989 and was a certification body as well as an organization that provided educational opportunities to its members in the Peace Region of BC and Alberta. The first year that PROPA certified was in 1990. People involved in its formation were Bill Smith , Richard Birley ( in BC in Ball Donnel 250-787-0635), Glenn Landry (250-759-4423), Bryan Daub, Charlie Lasser, and possibly Ed McCullough and Henry Thiessen. When 3rd party inspection became mandatory for exporting to the US PROPA lost many of its members. On the BC side producers became certified under PACS, a branch of Certified Organic Associations of BC (COABC) and in Alberta several of the larger producers became part of the Peace Country Organic Association (see below). PROPA then dissolved its certification, but still exists today with at least one yearly gathering and one program goal per year. The goal of the organization is still to be the unified voice of producers of the Peace bio-region in BC and Alberta.
Biological Food Producers: 1984 - present
Formed in 1984, a group of producers in Southern Alberta and Southern Saskatchewan came together because of their interest in chemical free farming with a focus on biological methods. After looking into other organic activities in the province, they decided to form their own organization called the Biological Food Producers and offer their own certification based on the Biological Underground Systems (BUGS). The executive at that time was made up of President Art Scott, Secretary Ray Schneider, and Treasurer Allan Graff as well as 6 other board members. In the beginning there were 92 initial members. In order to access export markets, in 1990 the BFP joined with OCIA chapter 1 organic certification and then in 1991 formed OCIA chapter 3. Later the group moved over to using Global Organic Alliance as a certifying body. The basic principles behind biological farming which the group promotes, is that soils need to be remineralized to balance their elemental mineral differences. Biological preparations are also used that enhance the plant life. Different crops need different mineral and microbial life in the soil. The group still exists today with members across Southern Alberta and Southern Saskatchewan.