Back to the garden

More and more people are choosing organic produce wherever possible, reports Janet Murray

With BSE, foot and mouth and the terrible flooding of 2001, British farming has undergone some lean years of late. This summer's heavy rainfall has brought more bad news for farmers, with many cereal crops ruined.

With BSE, foot and mouth and the terrible flooding of 2001, British farming has undergone some lean years of late. This summer's heavy rainfall has brought more bad news for farmers, with many cereal crops ruined.

In the organic sector, the picture has been brighter. Lower yields and the lack of nitrogen-based fertiliser meant that organic arable crops matured before the onslaught of the poor weather this year, allowing farmers to harvest most of their fields in time.

While organic farmers may be hit by the knock-on effect of the tumbling prices in the conventional market this year, as a whole the organic food industry is flourishing. Three-quarters of us now buy organic food at some time during the year. Seventy-five per cent of babies are fed organic food on a regular basis and overall sales of organic food are now worth over £1bn a year. Ten years ago, they were worth just £1m.

So why are more people choosing organic food? "There are many reasons," says Martin Cottingham, marketing director at the Soil Association, the main regulator of organic food and farming. "Organic farmers avoid using chemical pesticides and have the highest animal welfare standards. People are buying organic food because it's good for them, good for the environment and tastes great."

Crucially, the Government and the big supermarkets have made significant commitments to organic farming. In its Organic Action Plan, the Government has increased payments and support for organic producers, and is seeking to reduce imports so that that British farmers supply 70 per cent of the organic market by 2010. With the support of the supermarkets, the proportion of imported organic food fell to 56 per cent last year from 75 per cent in the late Nineties.

TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is one advocate of the organic creed. "If you buy local and organic, you have the satisfaction of knowing you have contributed to the diversity and vitality of the countryside around you - the very health of the ground beneath your feet," he says. "Since it hasn't been shipped or stored and carted all over the country, locally produced organic food can be sold fresher, or picked riper and will be more nutritious. And it is guaranteed to be free of any chemical residues that may harm you or your family."

The food industry maintains that levels of potentially dangerous substances are kept well below safety levels set by science in conventional farming, and the Government's Food Standards Agency (FSA) remains undecided on whether organic produce is actually better for us - stressing instead the importance of consumer choice.

Intensively reared dairy cows and farm animals can be fed antibiotics, hormones, anti-parasite drugs and other medicines on a daily basis, whether they have an illness or not. The consumption of these drugs may contribute to coronary diseases and high blood pressure, although once again the FSA says the jury is out on whether this is the case.

Whether or not organic food has a higher nutritional value than conventionally farmed produce is also a matter of debate (see page 4). The FSA says there is no conclusive evidence that it does. However, if you're concerned about eating genetically modified (GM) food, buying organic can be a practical solution: the Soil Association ensures GM crops and GM cattle feed are not used in organic products.

What's more, and contrary to popular belief, choosing organic doesn't have to mean huge shopping bills. Buying direct from the farmer at a farmer's market or through a box scheme can be cheaper than buying the same produce from a supermarket.

The huge growth in the variety of organic products is being celebrated during Organic Week, which takes place from tomorrow until 12 September. The week, dreamt up by the Soil Association, will see hundreds of farms, smallholdings and organic establishments holding special events. "It's an opportunity for everyone to enjoy the great taste of organic food," says Cottingham. "We've got the biggest organic food festival in Europe and lots of farms will be opening their gates for family days out. Shops will also be offering special offers on many organic products."

The Organic Food Festival in Bristol, for example, is now in its third year, taking place this weekend at Bristol's harbourside. More than 20,000 people are expected to attend. Entry to the Festival is free and will include demonstrations from celebrity chefs and the chance to take part in special tasting sessions and learn more about organic food from the experts. Highlights include an organic beer tent, festival ferry boat, street entertainment, and, of course, the opportunity to buy some prime organic food.

Supermarkets and independent organic food stores are taking part, too. Sainsbury's is offering promotions on certain lines, and organic recipes will be available in-store. Waitrose stores have already reduced their fruit and vegetables in price by 25 per cent until 12 September.

Special tasting events will be available at restaurants, pubs and wine bars around the UK. The Eden Project in Cornwall is also involved. On 9 September, it will hold cookery workshops, storytelling, folk music and an organic fashion show. Clare Gardner, organic development officer at the Eden Project, says: "We need to shift the perception that organic is a niche label trend for the fickle middle-class shopper. The aim of organic week is not to paint organic as the best or only way forward - but to provide our visitors with the opportunity to explore what it really means and have the chance to ask producers on site what the benefits of organic are."

Farm profile Hindon Organic Farm

The Webber family have been farming on Exmoor for more than three generations and, went organic in 2000, with the help of funding from the Government's Organic Farming Scheme. "We had various disasters with non-organic animal feeds, and vaccines that weren't necessary that caused abortions in our ewes," says farmer Penny Webber. "It made us think long and hard about what we were doing."

The farm, situated between Minehead and Selworthy village in Exmoor, on 500 acres of land on the National Trust Holnicote Estate, has certification from the Soil Association, which licenses farmers and processors to carry the organic symbol. It won the Soil Association's Organic Producer of the Year Award in 2003.

Penny and her husband Roger are committed to maintaining the principles of organic farming. "We care for our animals and the quality of our produce," says Penny. "We are 'hands on' and guarantee our produce is born, reared, produced and selected personally on and from our farm."

Hindon Farm is very much a family concern, with various friends and family members helping out, including daughter, Emily, who is currently running the family's organic burger trailer, taking it to local fêtes and food fairs.

Their slogan, "from the moor to your door", is apt. For the animals' welfare, there is only a short journey to a local abattoir; next the meat is hung - a minimum of four weeks for beef; it is then prepared in the farm chill-room, cut by their professional butcher Nigel, and packed, labelled and hand-delivered by Les, another family member.

"In buying our products, people are supporting an environmentally friendly way of farming, helping with the preservation of the countryside and the rural community, while promoting a good way of life for farm animals and sustainability of a farm," Penny says.

The farm's specialities include their Aberdeen Angus Beef, free-range Gloucester Old Spot pork, and lamb and coriander sausages. Local delivery is free and the Webbers also supply nearby hotels, restaurants, and bed and breakfasts. Produce can also be bought from the farm shop or the West Somerset Farmers' Market, on the first and third Friday of every month.

At the farm itself, there is bed-and-breakfast accommodation for eight and a self-catering cottage that sleeps six. Guided farm walks are held regularly and a walk is planned to celebrate Organic Week on 12 September.

"Increasingly, our guests are concerned with being ethically responsible," says Penny. "They don't want animals to be kept in a confined, intensive way. But you've got to be practical and we try to inform them of country life. It is not a theme park. It's a real living, working farm and our way of life - and we love it."

Janet Murray

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