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