17 July 1998

Minister hears organic gospel

FARM minister Jack Cunningham has been told how organic farming could be the salvation of hill farming communities at a meeting with organic producers at ADAS Redesdale, Northumberland.

At 400ha (1000 acres), ADASs lamb and suckler beef unit is one of the largest hill farms in England to convert to organic production. Its performance figures for last years lamb crop show premiums of more than 15% above average market price.

Farm manager Ray Keatinge told Dr Cunningham that organic production could offer a viable alternative for hard-pressed hill and upland farmers, many of whom could convert with minimal changes to their farming systems.

"Premiums for well presented and professionally marketed organic meats have been rising over recent years. And what was a niche marketing activity has now become an established and regular trade from primary producer through to consumers on the supermarket shelf," he said.

At the meeting, Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, said that what had been achieved at Redesdale could be rolled out over the whole of Britain.

But he warned the minister that existing EU policies and current suggestions of more environmental payments would divide the countryside into food factories and parklands.

"We dont want upland farms and their communities pensioned off and transformed into little more than parkland," said Mr Holden.

"These communities – and the farm mentality – are driven by the will to farm and produce food for a robust market. This market already exists and the multiple retailers have a strong and unsatisfied demand for organic produce.

"Organic farming offers a ready system of improving the environment while allowing farmers to do their job," he said.

What the UK now needed was a pilot project for an organic stewardship scheme which would convert the existing headage payments, which account for 60%-100% of net farm income in the hills, to payments for sustaining organic production, he added.