Lush pastures ahead?

Sheep and lush pasture at Simon Bainbridge's Farm_74953

In a recent feature for British Farmer & Grower magazine, Rachael Gillbanks looks at the work of the NFU national Organics Forum, explores recent trends in the organics sector and introduces new regional rep, Robin Asquith.

The UK’s organic market is thriving and has done very well during lockdown with retailer sales booming by more than 18% in just 12 weeks, according to the Soil Association.
Organic products do well online, it seems, and since the start of the pandemic the market share of online shopping has rocketed to 13% – up from 7.4% before Covid-19.

Even though restrictions have eased, more than one in five households still made an online order in July, and with dedicated online supermarket Ocado boasting one of the most comprehensive organic offerings, this bodes well for organic producers.

The North East may not have the scale of organic production of other regions, notably the South West, but according to the latest Defra statistics, our region is still home to more than 460 producers, with 32,000 ha of land given over to organic production.

Motivation for embarking on an organic conversion programme differs but speak to some of our local producers and the mood is positive. Northumberland County Chairman Simon Bainbridge has farmed organically for 11 years and in that time has expanded from his original beef and lamb enterprise into organic poultry.

Like everyone, he is focused on what Brexit, ELMS and the new domestic agriculture policy will bring, but says he has no regrets about his decision to go organic. “It’s allowed us to grow the business and that’s been great for the family,” he said. “But we also enjoy short supply chains, great support from our customers (Waitrose and Chippindale), and the boost to the wildlife on our farm has been a particular high point.”

Organic for more than 20 years, Mike Stringer and his family farm on the chalk of East Yorkshire and are known for their range of organic cereal products from porridge oats to flour and bread mixes. He really enjoys the challenges of farming organically, but admits farming organically is not easy.

“Even though you have to accept lower yields, and you have to be interested in the organic approach, I find it easier to understand,” he said. And he believes the farm’s biodiversity and soil health are better for it.

Nevertheless, he sees challenges on the horizon for organic producers, especially at a time when there’s an increasing focus on what he calls ‘regenerative agriculture’. He said: “Organic production is heavily reliant on cultivation for weed control, so the move towards reducing soil disturbance is something that would be difficult.” Although with cattle and sheep on the farm too, also reared organically, he includes grass in his rotation, which helps with soil health.

He is not alone in considering how more widespread changes to farming methods might impact on the sector. Graham Tweddle is at the helm of a real North East success story – Darlington-based Acorn Dairy – which has been producing organic milk for  two years.
He freely admits he first looked at the organic option to achieve that all important ‘unique selling point’ or USP, but as organic methods are becoming more widely adopted by non-organic farms, the pressure is on to keep pushing forward to maintain important points     of differentiation.

The potential impact of Brexit is also weighing on his mind, with the price of organic milk supported by exports to the EU and US. He said: “The ‘equivalence’ agreement will be crucial. Common sense dictates that our standards should be accepted, as we have all been working to the same yardstick, but political point-scoring could put a spanner in the works.”

Just as well then that when speaking to Helen Hunt, the NFU’s organic lead, it is a clear priority for the national Organic Forum to influence trade negotiations to ensure members are not disadvantaged. She said: “We have a dedicated team working to ensure that the government’s negotiators are aware of the potential damage that could be caused by an ill-conceived trade deal. And from an organic perspective we will be pushing hard to ensure we gain equivalency with Europe and achieve new opportunities for producers post Brexit.”

Other immediate priorities include giving organics a strong voice in the development of ELMS, exploring how the sector can contribute to the industry’s net zero aspirations and upskilling key stakeholders in their understanding of organic farming practices.

“We certainly have a busy time ahead so it is great to have such a dedicated team on the Organic Forum,” added Mrs Hunt. “The market is growing strongly with the UK now the 9th largest organic market in the world. Sales are up 4.5% year on year and we are on course to grow strongly beyond £2.5 billion by the end of the year. “This bodes well for all our organic producers – especially as the latest Defra figures suggest the amount of land devoted to organic production is significantly down compared to the highs of 2008.”

Certainly local producers seem poised to take advantage of the potential. Graham Tweddle for one says he has already doubled the amount of land he is farming organically and has more in conversion. If less land is being farmed organically, he puts it down to the considerable uncertainties of the last few years, but he is not going to let that hold him back.

Robin Asquith Organic Forum 2020_74952

Introducing himself, new North East rep on the Organics Forum, Robin Asquith, writes:

I’m Robin Asquith, the recently appointed representative for the North East region on the NFU Organic Forum. I’m currently the chairman of Whitby and Castleton NFU branch and the farm manager at Botton Village, nestled in the heart of the North York Moors National Park. 

The farm has been run organically since the 1950s. We are uplands based and run a small dairy herd for our on-site cheese making, a beef herd and flock of sheep. The business also operates as a Social Farm, supporting adults with disabilities alongside the farming team to enable them to live lives of opportunity. 

To farm organically was one of the founding principles of the charity and we manage the land with the key aim of increasing its fertility to the benefit of our livestock, while maintaining the natural environment. Joining the Organic Forum offers a unique chance to make a real difference to the sector and help drive the NFU’s direction and priorities for the sector. 

As well as four meetings a year, the Forum holds farm walks, open to conventional and organic members, encouraging great discussions and cross-sector learning. This learning is so important, as both sectors can pick up a great deal from each other, and the value of organic techniques in more conventional systems is only increasing. 

The challenges the sector faces are similar to others: the uncertainty that Covid-19 brings, the target of achieving net zero, seasonal labour shortages and the unpredictability of a changing climate. 

I’d encourage members to contact me with any issues they want to discuss so I can really feedback the thoughts and opinions of the region to the Forum. Please do get in touch – all our opinions and challenges matter.

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