Organic farms need brass to make the most of muck

A meagre government conversion grant keeps us lagging behind our EU partners, reports Mark Rowe
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The Independent Online
It is an area of huge potential growth for farmers. The demand from the public is strong and growing. But the output from organic farming in Britain remains among the lowest in Europe.

Now the European Union's farming commissioner, Franz Fischler, has told British farmers they are "failing to capitalise" on the demand for organic produce. "In some member states the success of organic farming is overwhelming. In others, like the UK, it unfortunately still lags behind," he told a recent conference on organic farming in Oxford.

Demand for organic food is increasing by 30 per cent every year and the UK market has risen from pounds 40m in 1987 to pounds 150m in 1994, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Yet organic produce accounts for less than 0.5 per cent of all fruit and vegetables grown in Britain. As a result, retailers import 70 per cent of the organic produce sold in Britain.

In contrast, organic farming represents 10 per cent of all farming in Austria, while in Germany, Denmark and Sweden the figure is more than 5 per cent, according to the Soil Association, a charity which lobbies for greater use of organic farming methods. Market analysts predict that organic food will take a 10 per cent share in highly developed countries within the next five years.

The traditional problem with organic food is that it is highly perishable and vulnerable to attack by pests, leaving farmers with lower profit margins. Retailers encounter higher costs, sporadic availability and unappetising blemished skin on some produce.

But the benefits are numerous, according to Simon Brenman of the Soil Association: food is tasty, nutritious, grown without chemicals or genetic modification, and is good for animal welfare and the environment.

The Soil Association last year opened a helpline for farmers looking at adopting organic methods, but the number of organic farms - 1,000 - is tiny compared with the 200,000 conventional farms in Britain.

The major stumbling block is the size of government grants to help farmers through a conversion period to organic methods. There is a two-year period in which farmers must grow or feed produce using organic methods, in which time they can see profits evaporate, making many reluctant to convert.

Farmers get a grant of pounds 50 per hectare per year for five years - a typical farm runs to around 145 hectares - but this is under review. "For arable farmers this does not come near to meeting the drop in income. The grant is less than one-third of the European average," Mr Brenman said.

The National Farmers' Union is also pressing for an increase in conversion grants. "The demand is there and organic farming is a vast marketing opportunity for farmers, but it is still expensive to convert," said a spokeswoman.

Gareth Rowlands and his wife, Rachel, run Rachel's Dairy, in Dol-Y-Bont, near Aberystwyth, which has been an organic farm since 1946 and is one of Britain's largest organic dairy farms.

"We are working with nature as opposed to working against it," said Mr Rowlands.

The Rowlands' farm comprises 300 acres and incorporates 100 head of beef, 200 sheep and 30 acres of cereal crops as well as 80 milking cows.

"We don't use pesticides," Mr Rowlands explained. "We keep hedgerows in place because it creates a habitat for wildlife. That wildlife then creates a pest-predator relationship which takes the place of pesticides on our crops.

"There is room for more organic farming in Britain but the government's conversion grants for farmers are a joke.

"There's no getting away from the fact that traditional farmers are under tight pressure."

Supermarket chains are responding to an unequivocal demand from customers for organic food. A desire for more organic food came top of a customer survey for Sainsbury's, and Tesco has seen demand and sales of organic food treble over the past few years. It stocks up to 30 lines, amounting to 4 per cent of the chain's turnover for fruit and vegetables.

"We are very excited by organic farming," said a Tesco spokesman, David Sawdey. "It's an area that is continuing to expand.

"The key is that organic goods are price sensitive. We can sell the goods by subsidising the farmers, so they don't lose out and our customers don't pay any extra - we can still make a profit on that."