LA CRETE, Alta. — Julie Bernier has become the go-to person for organic producers in Alberta’s Mackenzie County, helping them deal with problems they might have on their farms.
She’s the new agronomic consultant for the area, working on behalf of Organic Alberta to set up educational workshops and address local production concerns.
“Farmers here are really looking for better ways to improve their farming,” Bernier said during an interview at her office in La Crete.
“They’ve been really receptive with ideas, though it’ll take time. There are families to feed, bills to pay and crops to grow.”
Bernier was hired in 2018 as part of the organization’s Mackenzie County Organic Success Program, a $330,000 initiative that also allows the Mackenzie Applied Research Association to conduct more plot and field research.
Since starting, Bernier said she’s noticed the needs of farmers vary, depending on the length of their careers.
Newer farmers generally need more help with the organic certification process and understanding standards, she said, while those with more experience need her advice on specific production issues.
Mature farmers who have few issues with their land want to improve their soil health and ensure the farm is sustainable for future generations.
“It’s really about providing services,” Bernier said.
“Over time, it will help us be in a better position to provide what is needed here.”
Mackenzie County is Alberta’s organic powerhouse.
The area is home to more than half of the province’s organic producers. They turn to the practice because certification tends to be faster (fresh land is broken), profit margins generally are better and it’s less costly upfront.
“I’m hoping, too, that the farmers who started organic believed in the principles and not only were doing it for the better commodity prices,” Bernier said with a chuckle.
She’s a big believer in organic practices, saying chemical sprays aren’t healthy for humans or beneficial to micro-organisms.
“There’s no reason why we can’t grow food without herbicides,” she said.
“A lot of the soil health principles are behind my thinking to integrate those practices in farming operations.”
Prior to taking on the new role, Bernier was an agriculture researcher for 19 years with InnoTech Alberta in Vegreville.
She switched gears because she was passionate about organics, deciding the move would be favourable for her career.
“It’s scary to leave a position you’ve had for so many years, but this was the perfect opportunity to do this big change,” she said.
In her role, she has also organized educational workshops and programs for producers.
For example, one program will see livestock and forage producers collaborate with one another. The partnership will see livestock producers’ cattle graze someone else’s pasture, providing benefits for both parties, Bernier said.
As well, a separate program will see some producers lime their soils to determine if it helps with acidity.
“A farmer has collaborated with us on that,” she said.
“It’ll be interesting to see how it adjusts the pH.”
Bernier will also be releasing stem-mining weevils later this summer to help tackle the area’s Canada thistle problem.
“Hopefully they’ll come back next spring and do their job, eating away,” she said.
“Like many things, why not try it out?”
By the end of the program in November 2020, she hopes Organic Alberta has a better understanding of the farmers in the region.
“It’ll be important to know what they need now and for the future,” she said.
“Once they know more, they can offer what the farmers here need.”