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Articles - Organic - Organic growth that leaves some farmers trailing

Organic growth that leaves some farmers trailing

By Sarah Freeman, Yorkshire Post

The organic vegetable box fast became a must-have accessory for 21st-century Britain.
Along with reusable shopping bags and a dogged commitment to recycling, having your weekly fruit and veg – still covered in the requisite amount of mud – delivered to your door from the nearest local farm is a clear sign that your ethical radar is pointing in the right direction and, according to the Soil Association, more and more of us are jumping on the bandwagon.

In the last 12 months, spending on organic food and drink has increased by 22 per cent, breaking the £2bn mark for the first time. Vegetable boxes, ordered by mail, enjoyed the biggest year on year growth, rising by 53 per cent to £146m. Green-minded parents have ensured that around half of all baby food now sold is organic, and free-range and organic eggs overtook sales of eggs from caged birds for the first time.

However, while the public's appetite for organic produce has been well and truly whetted, farmers in the UK are struggling to meet the demand and, in some cases, failing to grab the opportunities offered by this growing market.

More than 50 per cent of organic cereals are imported and with the cost of livestock feed rising as a result of a poor global harvest, the amount being turned into biofuels and rising demand from China and India, the trend looks set to continue.

"The significant shortfall in UK- grown organic cereals has become a major concern in the last 12 months, forcing greater reliance on imports for livestock feed," says Nick White, of Richmond-based WKD Consulting and Agri-Connect which helps rural businesses develop and expand. "But of course it's a major opportunity for current non- organic cereal farmers to convert and supply a growing and guaranteed market.

He added: "Rises in feed and fuel prices need to be reflected in food prices at the checkout that enable farmers to get a fair return on their production costs."

"With foot and mouth, blue tongue and the floods, farmers have had a lot to contend with over the past 12 months and understandably it has made many people in the farming community nervous about the future. For some the idea of converting to an organic farm seems like too big a risk to take and many fear that it will cost too much money and they will not reap the rewards.

"We understand those fears, but there is support for farmers who want to make that leap and it's not as daunting as many people think. The continued growth in the organic market shows that it's not just a flash in the pan and what we need to do is help farmers across Yorkshire make the most of a sector which is really on the up."

The Yorkshire Organic Centre is organising a conference in Boroughbridge next month aimed at encouraging farmers to maximise production – capitalising on public support as well as reversing the shortfall in the amount of crops being grown in the UK.

One of the expert speakers taking part in the event is Mark Exelby, who began converting Hutts Farm, near Ripon, to an organic enterprise two years ago. Together with his wife Lynn, the 47-year-old father-of-three opened an organic flour mill seven years ago and, after successfully completing the conversion, now grow their own grain as well as raising organic livestock.

"I've been in farming all my life," says Mark, whose company, Sunflours, supplies caterers, bakeries and delicatessens across North and West Yorkshire. "Launching a new business can take up a lot of time, but turning organic was a challenge we couldn't resist.

"I suppose the seeds were sown after I won a scholarship to attend a course at Portsmouth University on the challenges of rural leadership. Just at the time, we had decided to diversify and a traditional stone flour mill came on the market and we moved everything, lock stock and barrel to our farm.

"There are absolutely no regrets about going organic. The main mill is almost 100 years old, but it's still going strong. Traditional technology lasts much longer than modern machines and there's a real feeling of being in touch with the past.

"From the outset, we knew there was no point in trying to compete with the conventional flour market as commercial mills have the economies of scale and can produce flour at a lower price. However, as a smaller business we can be more flexible and produce tailor-made high quality products.

"I think there are a lot of misconceptions about how difficult it is to make the move from traditional to organic farming, but in truth there's not a massive amount of change. Yes, you need a different mindset, but there is a lot of support for people who are wanting to go down the organic route."

However, even if the centre can convince farmers to make the move to an organic way of life, bigger challenges lie ahead. According to research by Whole Earth, while the demand for organic produce may be healthy, the sheer wealth of information is proving baffling.

Nearly two thirds (61 per cent) were unclear as to what was meant by macrobiotic, sustainable and genetically modified, and 37 per cent admitted they had never bought organic products because they didn't know what the jargon on packaging meant.

"Shoppers feel as though they're being duped by fancy terminology, and also that they're being forced to pay more money for what is fundamentally no different to non-organic food," explained Whole Earth founder Craig Sams.

"Organic companies needed to get their message across better because if they don't, shoppers will vote with their feet."

The Northern Organic event in Boroughbridge will take place on February 12. For more information, call the Northwest Organic Centre on 01995 642206 or email lkirby@soil association.org.

Last Updated: 03 January 2008 8:53 AM


Creation date : 03/01/2008 @ 14:07
Last update : 27/07/2010 @ 11:15
Category : Articles - Organic
Page read 6927 times


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