With consumers focusing on the environment and farmers facing a reduction in their chemical armoury, Alex Black spoke to Organic Farmers and Growers’ Roger Kerr about what the industry can learn from the organic sector
Farmers can learn from organic techniques in a changing farming landscape with business opportunities for some farmers in a growing market.
Organic Farmers and Growers (OF&G) chief executive Roger Kerr believes the future looks promising for organic food with solid growth in sales over the last seven years allowing production to react steadily.
And it was up to the sector to go out and tell people of the benefits of organic production to both farmers and consumers.
Despite some saying the organic message appears ‘complex’, Mr Kerr said it met a number of different consumer concerns around animal welfare, environmental factors and biodiversity.
This meant it can appeal to many markets, where the industry can communicate the message to them.
Younger people in particular were engaged with the issues organic delivered on, looking for more ‘ethical’ farming methods.
“Historically, we have tended to focus on things we do not do,” he said. “What we need to do is focus more on the benefits of organic food and its production and less on the features of organic systems. And, communicate this concisely.
“Being one of the most highly regulated food production systems, we need to highlight the integrity of organic food throughout the supply chain which maintains consumer confidence.”
Rising concerns about the environmental impact of food production was an additional selling point.
“I think farmers are becoming increasingly aware of environmental impact,” he added.
“A lot of farmers would like to think they have left the farm in a better place than they found it, and we know organic systems deliver from an environmental perspective. It is reaching popular consciousness. The onus is now on the sector to go out and talk about these things.”
He said looking at consumer trends, once people bought into one category of organic product
it was important they were able to buy across other categories as well.
For example, someone purchasing organic milk was more likely to also look for organic products outside the dairy section.
This meant it was important stores stocked a range of products.
“People need to see availability across the store in terms of all categories,” he said.
“We need to make sure other products are available to satisfy consumer demand for organic food.”
He said organic may not be an option for everyone, and that was true for both consumers and farmers.
“At the end of the day, you have to realise it is about choice,” he said. “We have to build links and show the opportunities from the farming side.
“Our organic farmer of tomorrow is a non-organic farmer today.”
He added there was a strong business argument for farmers who could make organic succeed, with lower variable costs and good returns providing solid gross margins.
With a growing market, the producer base was not always growing at the same rate, and he highlighted the cereals sector as a huge area for growth.
Mr Kerr said generally farmers were already moving to more ecological techniques as chemicals became less effective and regulation was increased.
And this meant there were techniques non-organic farmers could also embrace.
“There are farmers moving in that direction. Some will only go so far with it,” he said. “We want to encourage people to think about it.”
The organic sector must promote the benefits of a systems approach rather than denigrating conventional farmers.
“People are considering what they are doing and asking if there is another way.”
A new support service has been launched to help organic farmers and those considering going organic.
Abacus Agriculture and OF&G have launched the Organic Advice, Support and Information Service (OASIS) to provide farmers with information on whether organic farming was right for them and guidance for those already organic.
For information about organic conversion, visit the OASIS website at Organicinfo.org.uk, or call 0844 800 0091.