30 July 1997
Organic profits rival conventional

By Boyd Champness

A SEVEN-YEAR organic farm trial by the Co-operative Wholesaling Society (CWS) has found that organic farm profits are on a par with those of the “average” conventional farmer.

The finding may come as a bit of a blow to organic farmers throughout the UK, who are pushing the government to introduce maintenance payments as an on-going safety net for farmers who abandon pesticides.

Yesterday, the government announced that it would review the payments made to farmers during the five-year conversion period with the idea of increasing them. But the government has previously said that it wont be introducing the ongoing maintenance payments which already exist in 12 other EU states.

British Organic Farmers chairman Helen Browning insists that maintenance is essential because converting to organic farming is a “long-term commitment”. Farmers conveting would need to know that the government was committed to their cause, she said.

The CWS trial in Leicestershire reveals that, from 1989-96, the net margins from both conventional and organic farming systems were broadly the same. For example, the all-arable organic trial returned an average of £656/ha (£265/acre) against the conventional farmer at £679/ha (£275/acre).

The project took into consideration that conventional farming yields were double those of organic crop yields. It also accounted for the fact that organic farmers fare better under CAP area payments and that their produce sells at a premium to the market.

CWS project manager Alastair Leake said the figures show that the government has pitched the organic conversion scheme at roughly the right level.

Under the governments conversion scheme, organic farmers receive about £50/ha a year over five years, whereas some EU states offer much greater conversion incentives as well as on-going maintenance. For example, Austrian growers receive up to £209/ha a year while Finnish farmers receive £325/ha per year.

The UK only has 0.3% of its farming land dedicated to organic farming whereas Sweden and Austria have 8.6% and 8% respectively. A number of EU countries have pledged to have 10% of total farming land geared towards organic farming by 2000.