ORGANIC FARMIMG:TALKING POINT BY HALEN BROWNING

THIS YEAR’S Organic Food & Farming Report, published on Nov 15  by the Soil Association, should give organic producers cautious optimism.

The organic market is still growing at a sensible rate, with sales rising by more than 10% in the year to April. In some sectors, particularly dairy, where strong brands are driving sales, demand is out-performing this average to the extent that supply and demand imbalances are beginning to be resolved.

Even more interesting is that, for the second consecutive year, sales through alternative channels such as box schemes, farmers” markets and farm shops, are growing much more rapidly than through the multiple retailers. Although supermarket sales still dominate, the alternative sector is now worth £220m, a growth of nearly 40% over the past three years.

UK FOOD

 The reasons are easy to determine. Waitrose continues to do an excellent job in at least sourcing UK food, mainly through long-term supply chain relationships, but the big four seem to have lost the plot when it comes to organic retailing. They have failed to realise that organic consumers have inherently different values, and have tended to neglect customer communication, especially around the own label offer. While engaging in their retail wars, the big supermarkets are in danger of failing to discriminate between the supposed “price driven, provenance not an issue” consumer, and the inexorably growing minority for whom the values and the story behind the product is a key reason for purchase.

Tesco, for example, is still selling Argentinean organic beef and Danish organic pork, despite domestic availability and big differences in organic pig husbandry standards. Even Sainsbury”s, which has done great work in the organic field, now appears to be almost impenetrable to the smaller-scale, innovative supplier.

No wonder organic farmers, who have always been creative and entrepreneurial, are finding new ways of meeting public desire for local, fresh, authentic produce. But we all know that direct marketing is not an easy option. What looks like a good margin, having taken out the retailer cut, can easily be lost, and more, through “inefficient” (small-scale) processing and distribution. Many producers are duplicating activities, and many considerable opportunities are being missed or under utilised because organic farmers are not yet maximising their potential.

We may criticise the supermarkets, but, much more important, we should learn from them. They have had such huge success because they have made life so incredibly easy for their customers. If farmers want to secure their futures and their independence, then, ironically, they must give up some of that independence and start working with each other. They must also develop, or bring into their businesses, the professional skills and service mentality that the big retailers have instilled within their teams.

I have heard complaints from customers ranging from small hotels to big wholesalers, most of which focus on unreliability of delivery, the complexities of ordering from several suppliers (rather than just Brake Brothers) and inconsistent product.

The Soil Association is in a prime position to help. Unlike many organisations, we can to do more than simply cajole; we aim to help unite producers on the ground and to connect them with new market opportunities. Our work with schools is a good example.

The Soil Association”s Food for Life project helps schools source local or organic food so they can serve meals that are dominated by fresh, home-made dishes. Overall, the responses from schools have been very positive. But producer engagement is still a big issue and improved infrastructure is needed so that raw ingredients can be prepared or processed locally.

GREAT CHANGE

 The food and farming industry is on the threshold of a period of great change. Despite well-founded pessimism about our ability to compete in world commodity markets on price alone, there are opportunities everywhere you look to meet the numerous desires and needs of a fragmented and complex market.

The organic movement is in a prime position to lead the way in this brave new world, but we still have much to do to get our act together.