Food & Drink: And now: green salmon

Orkney salmon farmers have gone organic - so now there'll be plenty more fish in the sea.

One of the most effective ways of livening up a dull dinner party is to mention organics. Within seconds, the gloves are off as everyone piles in for a verbal bundle on everything from genetic engineering to feeding the poor. Yet until recently, most farmers regarded such conversations as deluded babble, far removed from the realities of making a living from the land or sea. The smaller the farm, the harder it was to compete, unless you had a product that could be sold at a premium. You had to have the zeal of a missionary to sustain the initial cost and high risk of converting to organics - unless you happened to be a group of canny Orcadian salmon farmers.

Strung out on the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, these remote, green islands feel a million miles away from the relentless grind of feeding the country. The elements rule this small, tough community of 20,000 people.

It takes ingenuity to ensure a secure living, as Robbie Rendall, an Orcadian from Westray explains: "When my father, Stewart Rendall, had three sons, he realised that the family business of sheep and cattle farming was not going to be enough to sustain everyone, so in 1988 he decided to diversify into salmon farming by using local government grants." Others had already begun to feel that a future in salmon farming was preferable to fishing or agriculture. All low-volume producers, they decided to form a small consortium called the Orkney Salmon Company Limited.

Unlike the mainland Scottish salmon farms, who cage their fish in lochs, the Orcadians decided to anchor their large-netted fish-pens offshore, in the midst of the strong rip tides of the converging seas.

Their young smolts had to swim energetically in their pens as the fast, clean tides roared through their cages. They matured into svelte, muscular fish - far closer to wild salmon than their chubby cousins farmed on the Scottish mainland. And after a little research into agriculture standards, the Orcadians realised that they could market their fish as "conservation grade" for a healthy premium.

But the food world moves as fast as the Orcadian tides. Food fears and a plethora of different labels began to make it harder for the Orkney Salmon Company to maintain the high profile they had established.

"We began to question whether the "conservation grade" really meant anything to people," remembers Kirstie McCallum of Mainland Salmon on Rousay (another member of the OSC). "It seemed to us that only organic products were being clearly differentiated."

Discussions ensued with the salmon smokers Ghillie and Glen, who bought much of their salmon, and Sainsbury's. The latter maintained that the only way to ensure full creditability was to be certified by the Soil Association. "The problem," explains McCallum, was that in the mid-Nineties "the Soil Association didn't have any working standards for fish farming. I think they were a bit suspicious that we were trying to pull a fast one on them, because they were not used to the idea of working with the sea as a natural environment for animal husbandry. Worse still, salmon are carnivorous hunters, so the source of their feed was going to be a problem."

Francis Blake, Standards and Technical Director of the Soil Association, had already been wrestling with the problem of whether fish farming could be organic. "We had first looked at it in the late 1980s, but there wasn't sufficient interest for us to pursue it until 1996," he states. "There were several critical issues that we had to address. Firstly, the Soil Association's standards were designed for a sustainable soil-based agriculture cycle." In other words, you put in as much as you take out by introducing a nitrogen cycle from plant to animal to soil, and so on. "Secondly, could we find a sustainable source of fish feed, given that most comes from fish fry and sand eels specially caught for animal feed? The depletion of such stocks must surely affect the food chain of larger fish and birds. And thirdly, salmon are an undomesticated, migratory species, so is it ethically correct to put them in a cage?" They thought it better to tackle the problem, however imperfectly, rather than dismiss it as too difficult.

Slowly, through constant discussions with fish farmers, the first general standards for organic fish farming were drawn up. They had to encompass fresh-water farmed trout as well as salmon. Every aspect of the salmon's life had to be assessed. Artificial lighting had to mimic the Orkney daylight as the tiny salmon (parr) grew in their freshwater tanks. Photo-period manipulation for controlled growth was strictly forbidden. Handling was minimised to reduce stress. The water from the local burn had to be rigorously filtered before leaving the farm. All the waste was to be sold to local farmers as manure. The feed had to be specially developed. Shrimp shells replaced artificial colouring, while the off-cuts of white fish sold for human consumption were to replace whole processed fry. The salmon were to be stocked at half the normal density of large conventional fish farms, taking up just one per cent of their water.

With the uncertainty of a new feed, Sainsbury's and Ghillie and Glen agreed to jointly underwrite the Orkney company's first organic salmon trial for pounds 60,000. "We had never suffered from sea lice or lethal infections like Furunculosis as we already conformed to many of the Soil Association's standards" states McCallum, "but we didn't know how the salmon would fare on their new food, or whether their colour would be acceptable to the public."

They needn't have worried. At last there is a credible alternative to wild salmon, which has recently suffered from a steep decline in its numbers through, amongst other things, increased illegal netting in river estuaries. Too many people are insisting on eating its wild flesh. The first organic salmon have just arrived in Sainsbury's. Their pale pink flesh somehow looks more natural, and it tastes wonderful.

Fresh (pounds 6.89 per 450g) and smoked organic Orkney salmon (pounds 4.59 per pounds 125g) is available from Sainsbury's. The latter is also available from Waitrose, along with organic brown trout from mid-September

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
    Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

    Stolen youth

    Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
    Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

    Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

    He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
    Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

    Made by Versace, designed by her children

    Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
    Anyone for pulled chicken?

    Pulling chicks

    Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
    9 best steam generator irons

    9 best steam generator irons

    To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
    England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
    ‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

    ‘We knew he was something special’

    Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York