Country Lives: The thought of eating old cow doesn't appeal to me, eith er

Nigel Elgar, organic beef producer, talks to Helen Lewis
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The Independent Online
Now the public will stop eating beef and start eating something else - eggs perhaps. I bet they've forgotten all about the salmonella scare and mass slaughter of chickens a while back. Anyway, can we really be 100 per cent certain of not catching some disease from anything we eat?"

Welsh hill farmer, Nigel Elgar is furious at the Government confusion over BSE. Like other beef farmers, he faces possible ruin if the decision is made to slaughter the nation's cattle. But his cattle are raised organically, so aren't they safe? There has been no incidence of BSE in cattle born and bred organically, according to the Organic Food and Farming Centre which is confident that properly raised organic beef is safe from infection. There have, however, been cases in cattle brought into the organic system. Meanwhile the Soil Association advocates, for both organic and non-organic cattle, the culling of older cows in all herds where there has been an incidence of BSE.

Mr Elgar's farm became organic five years ago. "I went organic because the farm had little scope for other improvement. Over half the land is rough grazing heather along with scrub grass, ideal for conservation but not the plough - so taking the step into organic was quite small.

"People generally don't understand what organic farming entails. They simply assume our produce is healthier. Going organic isn't easy for us farmers. Strict rules are laid down and two years must lapse after leaving traditional farming to allow any chemical residues to wash out of the land. Only then can livestock be sold as organic.

"Obviously we're not allowed to use chemical nitrogen fertilisers, full stop. And livestock medicines can only be used when essential - if a cow has worms, we treat it, but we don't routinely dose the whole herd as conventional farmers do."

The land at Nigel Elgar's farm rises steeply from 800ft to a windswept 1500ft, where heather clings precariously to the mountainside, competing with coarse wild grasses for space. Sheep graze in abundance, appearing oblivious to the wind; only the toughest hill breeds thrive in this harsh area.

"We get organic aid payments to help overcome the income loss during the first two years," Nigel continues. "Initially, grass growth declines until the natural fertility of the land takes over. The idea is, instead of feeding fertiliser for grass growth, you get the soil working properly, giving it the minerals and nutrients required. Also, you grow clover - a natural fertiliser - which makes nitrogen for grass to feed on.

"I keep hardy Welsh Black cattle which live out all year on just grass and silage. One of the regulations with organic farming is no concentrate feeding - thank God - that's the source of BSE and there is none in my cattle. When the disease first appeared back in the 1980s, I can remember feeling horrified. The thought of dead, diseased sheep being boiled and put into cattle feed is disgusting."

Nigel's heavily pregnant cattle graze contentedly while their fate is being pondered. Nearly 10 years of hard physical work has gone into producing the first-class cattle on this farm.

"I sell my cattle to another farmer to be fattened for slaughter. I spoke to him yesterday. He's had many organic beef orders cancelled this week. However, he wasn't too down-hearted - some new enquiries came in, too. Hopefully, this means people will still eat beef but feel organic meat is safer.

"Like most organic farmers, all the replacement cows I need are bred from my own calves. I don't buy in any animals from other farms. Some organic farms though, are expanding and need to purchase young cows or calves. Regulations set by the Register of Organic Food Standards insist that all bought in stock must come from a known, clean source. Another reason why our beef should be safe from BSE.

"The demand for organic meat was way above supply before last week, so, if people prefer to buy organic, which hopefully will happen, then our position will be stronger than other beef producers.

"Personally I wouldn't buy mince or beef burgers at any time - the thought of eating old cow doesn't appeal to me - even without the BSE scare. But I'm happy eating joints of meat and of course I eat all my own beef. It would be tragic for farmers if the Government brings in a slaughter policy for all cattle as we know they are 99 per cent safe. Mind, they have to do something dramatic to get consumer confidence back; without it we're doomed, organic or not."