Stephen Carr: Turning organic at just the wrong time

With my usual impeccable timing, one-third of my farm is within days of completing its two-year conversion to organic status – just as sales of organic food in the UK fall off a cliff.

Sales had risen ten-fold during the course of the past decade but, according to research carried out for the Guardian newspaper, retail sales of organically produced food and drink have now fallen by nearly one-fifth since February this year.

Other papers report that supermarkets are said to be slashing prices to try to reverse this trend. So, even before I begin the expensive process of ordering organic seeds and feeds, the chances of a healthy profit from my newly converted land don’t look particularly encouraging.

Like a lot of conventional producers, I have eyed the relentless advance of organic farming over the past decade with a mixture of emotions, ranging from admiration to downright antagonism.

Admiration arose from a realisation that organic producers might be on to a magical farming formula of reduced input costs, increased output value, reduced pollution and improved wildlife conservation.

Most impressive of all, many organic farmers didn’t appear to have to work as hard as a poor old conventional drudge like me. I love the idea of fields of clover lying idle for years just for the purpose of “fertility building”.

My respect was only increased by the feeling that the organic movement had tapped into a trendy zeitgeist with both consumers and commentators.

Who does it for you – Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall wandering around his Dorset idyll, or Delia Smith in her hermetically sealed conservatory? Patrick Holden of the Soil Association, cool and elegant in his open-neck cotton shirt for his heavyweight Newsnight interview, or busy and efficient Peter Kendall delivering one of his soundbites on the Six O’Clock News in one of his man-at-C&A-and-NFU Terylene ties?

But any growing esteem that I had for the organic movement was tempered, by a sense of unease at their relentless assault on the reputation of “conventional” farming.

To sell their expensive products, it seemed they had decided that the first thing they needed to do was rubbish the cheaper alternative. I’ve never been one to take these things personally, so, two years ago, I hedged my farming bets and began to convert 800 acres of land to organic status.

What I hadn’t reckoned on, of course, was that a binge of speculative lending by a series of US mortgage brokers thousands of miles from where I farm would call into question the whole viability of organic farming by creating a global “credit crunch”.

The jury is currently out on just how far organic food sales might fall over the coming years if the UK economy is now headed for a long-drawn-out recession. But one thing is already clear – when consumers’ financial belts start to tighten, organic “principles” are one of the first things to be jettisoned.

Perhaps none of this should really have been a surprise to me. Long before the credit crunch, I visited a local farmer to buy some of the excellent lamb and beef he sells through his own butcher’s shop.

I knew that he’d converted to organic status some years ago, so I was baffled as to why there was no reference to this anywhere on his shop display counter.

When I asked him why this was, he gave me a wry smile and said: “It’s not a very wealthy area around here, Stephen. If they read the word ‘organic’ on my counter, they just turn round and leave.”

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