15 October 1999

Move to set up marketing scheme for organic stock

By Jeremy Hunt

HUNDREDS of livestock farmers in Cumbria and Northumberland have been sent a questionnaire canvassing their views on organic farming and the marketing of organic livestock.

Its been instigated by David Bliss, farm manager of the 2834ha (7000 acre) Castletown estate at Rockliffe, near Carlisle. Part of the estate is in its first year of organic conversion during which time Mr Bliss has become increasingly aware of the need for a new initiative to help producers market organically-reared beef and lamb.

The estate includes Rockliffe Marsh, an SSSI and high ranking nature conservation area which carries 900 head of store cattle from May to October and winters 2000 ewes.

Many farming families have been sending cattle to this 1500ha (3700 acre) salt marsh for more than 80 years. In July last year the marsh was put into organic conversion.

The marsh grazing provides 1.5ha/head, giving graziers a useful qualification for extensification payments. Agistment charges are about £50 a head.

Own stock

"The long-term aim was to have our own organic stock on the marsh but we cant source enough in a short time. If we are to continue to rely on renting off the marsh for summer grazing, the new rules proposed by MAFF may mean that cattle must come from organic holdings."

This quandary over stocking the marsh was the catalyst which encouraged Mr Bliss to take an overview of the framework of organic livestock production in the north. His plans for a more co-ordinated approach to marketing would also establish links between producers to make the most efficient use of the regions organic grassland resources.

"We need a producer group to facilitate the marketing of organic beef and lamb produced in the north-west and north-east of England.

"There are proposals that the group would work in conjunction with two major auction marts in the region. Both have already been involved in discussions about the concept and have pledged their support," says Mr Bliss, who also share-farms 400ha (899 acres) on the estate and works as a farm consultant and land agent.

He believes many producers still have a raft of unanswered questions concerning organic conversion and how it will impact on their businesses, but the logistics of selling stock remains a major hurdle.

"If an organic marketing system is to be successful in the north of England the stock has to go through an auction mart to meet the traditional needs of farmers if nothing else.

"Many producers are suspicious of getting involved with new buyers and marketing schemes run by people they only deal with over the phone and may never see; they fear the unknown and the major break with their traditional mode of selling," says Mr Bliss.

He believes that 20,000-30,000 organic lambs a year would be needed as a viable throughput to start the scheme. They would be sourced by a fieldsman and then moved to auction marts at Carlisle and Hexham which would serve as deadweight procurement centres.

"This would form the basis of a thriving marketing operation for north country organic farmers which has the potential to expand to 100,000 lambs a year."

With a Soil Association licence issued to these markets to handle organic livestock it is feasible that auction sales of organic breeding stock – both cattle and sheep – could be organised in the near future. Mr Bliss reckons the first of these sales could be underway by next autumn if producers were committed to the scheme.

"If a special sale of organically-produced store lambs was held and we could attract several thousand entries – even if we have to draw stock from Scottish farms – a 20% price premium over conventionally reared lambs would seal its success."

One of the problems many hill farmers foresee in the marketing of their store lambs is a shortage of organic lowland acres accessible to prospective buyers and finishers.

An integral part of the scheme being proposed by Mr Bliss would be to forge links between hill and lowland organic farms. "There are several estates in Cumbria which traditionally buy store lambs in autumn. They are thinking about converting to organic farming but if they knew they could be guaranteed a supply of organic lambs each year I believe they would take the plunge and convert.

Too many waiting

"But too many hill farmers and lowland landowners are waiting for someone to make the first move. A lot of hill producers are almost organic anyway. A farmer with 2000 hill ewes in the Cheviots and putting nothing on the land could earn an extra £8000 a year simply by converting to organic management. That doesnt include the premium price hed get for his lambs."

Taking the idea through to the point of slaughter, it is hoped that a Cumbria abattoir would achieve Soil Association approval and that both beef and lamb produced in the scheme would be retailed by regional supermarkets. One abattoir in Cumbria has already been inspected by the Soil Association.

"Apart from domestic consumption there is a huge market in the Lake District based on the tourist industry. Top hotels and restaurants are crying out for consistent supplies of organic beef and lamb.

"Its important that the level of regional identity is maintained to enable us to qualify for the EU funding needed to set up the scheme and to pay the salary of a marketing co-ordinator," he adds.

&#8226 Scheme in north?

&#8226 Farmer views sought.

&#8226 Hill/lowland links.

NORTHERNINITIATIVE