Food & Drink: And now: green salmon - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

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
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
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.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week