Big business prices family-run organic farms off the land

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Family-run organic farms believe they are facing "silent cultural cleansing" as they are driven out of business by supermarkets and multinational food giants.

After decades defying conventional agricultural wisdom that "big is best", small farmers are falling victim to the financial muscle of their large rivals who are eager to cash in on the £1bn a year market for natural produce.

Patrick Holden, the director of the Soil Association, described how the world of family-operated organic farming was facing "inexorable decline".

"Times are tough," Mr Holden said. "The disappearance of small and medium-sized farms is one of the great unfolding tragedies of our time. Organic producers and their non-organic counterparts are increasingly being priced off the land - a sort of silent cultural cleansing using the instrument of price."

As many as three in four organic farms that ceased operations during the past financial year were small enterprises, the majority facing economic problems, according to the Soil Association.

There were also estimates that one in three of the original pioneers were being progressively acquired by non-organic companies.

There are more than 3,900 certified organic farms in Britain with 741,000ha under cultivation, but a growing number were finding it increasingly difficult to escape from the shadow of the industrialisation of the sector.

"Of course there is something deeply ironic about all this because we - the organic movement - are now faced with some of the same difficulties that our non-organic counterparts are struggling with," Mr Holden said.

The crux of the issue was the growing intervention of multinationals and supermarkets which have set about buying out a string of organic enterprises across the country. In accordance with the trend towards healthy lifestyles, multinationals including Danone, Heinz, Kellogg's and Nestle have bought organic or health food companies across the world.

In Britain, Go Organic, which makes soups and sauces, is owned by the Anglo-Dutch company Unilever Bestfoods UK, and Kallo Foods, renowned for its organic rice cakes, was purchased in August 2002 by the Dutch multinational Koninklijke Wessanen.

Rachel's Organic, which was the UK's first certified organic dairy farm in the 1930s, also finalised a deal last week with the American multi-national Dean Foods.

The trend has propelled organic food into the consumer mainstream, enabling more people to have access to organic food, but the ethics and practices of the new owners are frequently at odds with the beliefs upon which many organic farms were founded.

More damagingly, it is feared that organic farmers are losing their control in terms of selling produce and setting prices - which is in turn threatening their livelihood.

Mr Holden said: "The squeeze on prices is going to shake out a lot of people in the next few years and we are losing people at an alarming rate."

The days of the original pioneers of the organic farming movement were numbered, according to Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University in London.

"It is ironic that this is happening to the organic food movement but it is also predictable," he said.

"In order for it to survive, it has to try to retain vision and romance and be entrepreneurial. But at the same time, there has to be co-operation between small farms. It is important that they trumpet the joys of 'local' as well as 'organic' produce."

One significant solution to the problem of reconciling the growth of businesses with their ethical foundations lies with the consumers, according to Mr Holden.

"Consumers would certainly wish that their purchases were sufficiently ethical to cover decent living costs for the farmers," he said. "This 'industrialisation of agriculture' is precisely what organic consumers would hope to avoid."



When Tim and Jo Budden opted to switch from conventional to organic farming in 1988, they wanted to run a business that was as ethically conscious as it was sustainable. Sixteen years later, they are operating a small but prosperous organic livestock business that remains firmly in family hands in the picturesque setting of Umberleigh, Devon. But at the same time, they have been forced to confront the increasing threat of a growing industrialisation of the organic farming movement. "Today, agriculture is clearly in danger of becoming over industrialised," said Mr Budden, 43. "But the problem is that it's not just agriculture. Every aspect of culture has to be globalised and made bigger." With cattle, sheep, chicken, corn and a cider orchard on the 350-acre site, Mr Budden believes that at the heart of an organic enterprise lies a diverse selection of products. "The more industrialised a farm becomes, the less it is able to diversify and this means that the larger the enterprise, the more likely it is to lose its identity," said Mr Budden who works with his wife and two full-time employees.


The granddaughter of a woman credited with setting up the first certified organic dairy farm in Britain in the 1930s, was determined to continue the family tradition. Rachel Rowlands was "passionate" that consumers would buy organic if given the choice. Mrs Rowlands, 56, and her husband Gareth, 60, decided to diversify into dairy products in 1982. It was a decision that transformed the pioneering Aberystwyth-based business. By 1999 their line of yoghurts and fruit compotes had blossomed into a £2.4m turnover. They received an offer from Horizon,a large US organic producer the same year, the value of which enabled them to retire. Last week, the business was taken over by Dean Foods, another US multinational, which employs 28,000 across America and Spain. The current operation is virtually indistinguishable from the original family-run business and now produces 10 million pots of organic yoghurt every year. Mr and Mrs Rowlandscontinue to act as consultants to the business. They remain convinced that they have not compromised their organic priorities.