1 August 1997

Extra incentives for organic conversion

FARMERS have been promised extra government funding for converting from conventional agriculture to organic farming. But the issue of maintenance payments for established organic producers is still to be decided.

Launching a review of the organic aid scheme on Tuesday, junior farm minister, Elliot Morley, said MAFF was committed to raise conversion incentives from the present £250/ha (£101/acre), paid over five years, which is currently the lowest rate in the EU.

But, despite his promise in January at the organic farming conference that Labour would introduce maintenance grants and set a specific conversion target rate, Mr Morley warned this week that any final decision would be taken within the context of the governments determination to keep public spending down. The UK, France and Greece are the only EU nations not to pay maintenance grants.

"At the moment it is a question of priorities. MAFFs main priority is to concentrate on conversion rates but we dont rule out maintenance grants," he added.

Mr Morley said there was considerable demand from consumers for organic products, but stressed that the high levels of production support, especially in the cereals sector, had been a major disincentive for farmers to convert.

He highlighted the govern- ments organic conversion information service, which has had 1277 enquiries and 672 follow-up visits since being launched this time last year.

Simon Brenman, OCIS spokesman, said half the farmers currently converting had used the service. The majority were dairy producers attracted by the high premiums provided by the Organic Milk Suppliers co-operative and, more recently, Milk Marque.

Farmer Helen Browning, who runs 260 cows, 120 sows, 162ha (400 acres) of milling wheat plus other cereals and field vegetables at the 526ha (1300-acre) organic Eastbrook Farm, Swindon, Wilts, said premiums for organic produce were rising.

Ms Browning said the organic milk co-op was paying producers 29.5p/litre. And Milk Marque had been spurred into action and was offering organic premiums of up to 7p/litre. Large premiums were also available in the vegetable sector from the leading supermarkets.

But she said maintenance grants – at a similar rate to current conversion aid – were essential to give farmers the confidence to convert to organic production.

Patrick Holden, Soil Association director, said that without maintenance grants the level of organic imports would continue to rise.

Consultation on the organic review closes on Sept 26, with decisions expected to be announced early next year.n

Helen Browning discusses the finer points of organic pig production with junior farm minister, Elliot Morley, during his visit to her Wilts farm.