The long road back to nature

The route from conventional to organic farming takes dedication and years of lost profits. Is it worth the effort for farmers? Sanjida O'Connell reports

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They skittered in front of us, a tangle of black and ginger, like a crowd of unruly six-year-olds on a commando raid to the sweet shop. Piglets running amok through the countryside is a sight practically unheard of on a farm, but at Sheepdrove Organic Farm, in Lambourn, Berkshire, many of the farming techniques are unconventional.

They skittered in front of us, a tangle of black and ginger, like a crowd of unruly six-year-olds on a commando raid to the sweet shop. Piglets running amok through the countryside is a sight practically unheard of on a farm, but at Sheepdrove Organic Farm, in Lambourn, Berkshire, many of the farming techniques are unconventional.

Sheepdrove was created by Peter and Juliet Kindersley in the Seventies with five acres of land. It is now a 2,250-acre farm with 60 employees. Right from the start the Kindersleys worked with the Soil Association, converting each new plot of land as they bought it so that the farm is now completely organic. The farm has sheep, cows and chickens, turkeys in winter, and is expanding to produce its own bottled spring water, small quantities of honey, and flour from wheat and barley, which are milled on the premises.

As on any organic farm, Sheepdrove does not use chemical herbicides or synthetic pesticides, but as Paul Redmore, farm manager, says: "We're trying to push the boundaries and really go for the maximum organic sort of system." Welfare of the animals is paramount. Sheepdrove has devised a number of ways of enriching the chickens' environment. Kept in large sheds, the chicks have perches and "conservatories" - glass boxes that jut out into the farmyard so they can see the sky. "We play them noises of tractors, planes and birdsong, which acclimatises them so when they go into the fields for the first time, they don't stand there scared stiff," says Redmore.

After three weeks, the chickens have the run of a field during the day, on either side of which is a strip of herbs, so that they can medicate themselves - wild garlic and plantain are good for stomach upsets, and the rows of lavender-blue flowering chicory are dense in minerals.

Around the rest of the farm are nectar banks composed of lilac phacelia, sunflowers and magenta thistles that encourage insects, some of which are natural predators of pests such as aphids, others are food for birds. Sheepdrove has around 70 species of bird, including three types of owl and the rare red kite.

The piglets root around among the flowers, rushing back to their mothers - who are fenced in - at the first sign of trouble. The pigs are kept in family groups once they are weaned. "Because they retain their social ties, they are not aggressive so we don't need to crop their tails or remove teeth. We don't vaccinate them either, so these pigs are as natural as you are going to get," says Redmore.

The animals' short but happy lives are not marred by a traumatic journey to an abattoir - the Kindersleys run a slaughterhouse on site. The 50,000 tons of water the plant needs, plus sewage from the workers' cottages, is then filtered through a natural system of reeds. The end result is a small lake of almost pure water, which feeds back into the underground aquifer, which is then pumped up and bottled. And soon customers will soon be able to purchase carp, currently being fattened in this reed bed lake.

But how do conventional farmers turn their land into an organic farm with accepted organic certification? How, as consumers, do we know whether the food that we buy really is organic? And even if we know that we can trust UK businesses, how do we know that food imported from outside the EU is truly organic?

It takes a minimum of two years for a farm that has used chemical pesticides, synthetic herbicides and fertilisers to start to rebuild its soil. The farm receives an inspection from the Soil Association, which certifies 70 per cent of all UK organic products, or the Organic Food Federation, and will then draw up a farm management plan. From this point the farm is not allowed to use any herbicides, pesticides and fertiliser. Green manure, from plants such as vetch or clover that add nutrients to the soil, are grown to increase soil fertility instead.

After two years, organic animals can be purchased. Existing animals cannot be viewed as organic, but their offspring are organic if they are conceived on organic soil. "This is the most difficult phase," says Redmore. "You have to farm organically but you can't sell anything as organic - so your costs go up but your profits drop." For livestock farmers it can therefore take almost four years before they are able to sell meat as organic. Organic crops can be sold after two years; orchards require a three-year conversion period.

In reality, it takes up to seven years to build up a high level of soil invertebrates and increase biodiversity. Farms in the process of converting can receive grants from the Government's Organic Farming Scheme ( www.defra.gov.uk/erdp/schemes/ofs/default.htm).

Animal welfare is a crucial part of being organic. "Organic farming has the potential to offer the very highest standards of animal welfare. The Soil Association's welfare standards are leaders in the field," says Joyce de Silva, the chief executive of Compassion in World Farming. This typically means allowing the animals to live outdoors, keeping stocking densities 70 per cent lower than conventional farming, and only giving them drugs if absolutely necessary.

"If you've got a sick animal and antibiotics are the best and quickest way to relieve the suffering, then we use them - welfare comes before being organic in my eyes and the Soil Association's eyes," says Redmore, who gives homeopathic and herbal remedies to his animals whenever possible.

After the two-year conversion period, the farm can apply for certification. As well as the central tenets of soil fertility and animal welfare, most products entering the farm, such as feed for the livestock, have to be organic. This requires full traceability. "Soil Association paperwork is rigorous," says Angus Flood, chief executive of Hambleden Herbs, the UK's oldest organic brand ( www.hambledenherbs.co.uk). "But it's as rigorous as it needs to be. There is no unnecessary bureaucratic fat."

Redmore agrees. "It is a lot of paperwork, but if you're going to keep your credibility and integrity and the customer's trust, then you have to have some sort of auditing procedure that's unbiased - and that inevitably takes time. But we can trace animals right back to their mother. That traceability is all paperwork, but once the system is in place it's not that onerous."

Bob Blue had a slightly more complex certification experience. Blue is general manager and winemaker for Bonterra wine ( www.bonterra.com). Back in the Eighties, the Californian Fetzer company set aside 70 acres as a test plot for growing organic vines. The project was a success and was expanded to become the organic Bonterra label. Blue wanted to ensure that the wine, not just the grapes, was also produced to organic standards but the Soil Association had not certified a winery before.

"It was a most confusing and difficult time, between 1993 and 2000, trying to figure out the standards," says Blue, who was caught between the Soil Association, which has a very rigorous policy against the use of GM foods, and the American-based Californian Certified Organic Farmers, who were less stringent. As with any certified organic food or drink, Bonterra wine is made without chemicals. "I'm proud that we have such high organic standards compared to most wineries," says Blue. "I feel that we helped the Soil Association create a blueprint that they could use for other vineyards."

During processing of food or beverages there must be no cross-contamination. Green & Black's, for instance, produces only organic chocolate, but in companies where there are non-organic lines, such as Fetzer, the two must be rigorously separated. Currently 95 per cent of the ingredients must be organic. Thus companies that import their ingredients have to be able to prove that they are organic.

"Sourcing organic foodstuffs can be scary," says Ally Simmons, marketing manager of Green & Black's, "because you're sourcing from all over the world - we have ginger from China as well as Australia. We have to check the producers' certification, that they have met organic standards, that their food is free from chemicals, farmed sustainably and that they encourage a high biodiversity on their farms." It is of course much harder for a consumer to have the same kind of assurances about food imported from abroad, but new legislation stipulates that anything sold in the UK has to be certified by a EU certification body.

Certification is not the end of the road for food producers and processors: inspectors will carry out spot checks, and there is an annual inspection if the business wants to keep its licence. If a new product is introduced, it too has to be taken through the certification process. Green & Black's is by now used to the procedure, and in September will introduce three new flavours: butterscotch, espresso and ginger. "For us, it's a way of life," says Simmons.

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