Organic future post-F&M

15 February 2002

Organic future post-F&M

By Jeremy Hunt

North-west correspondent

FREE advice from a team of business and environmental experts is about to transform life on a Cumbria beef and sheep farm, restocking after foot-and-mouth.

Although John and Margery Dawson who farm 96ha (230 acres) at Greystone House, Stainton, Penrith, were victims of F&M last March, they had already been considering restructuring the farm business.

The year previously they had approached Cumbria Farmlink to undertake a business and environmental review as part of the EUs Objective 5b programme. Then, the livestock enterprise involved beef and lamb finishing based on bought-in stores, alongside an August-November period trading in breeding ewes. There was also a flock of spring-lambing Mules.

Armed with the reviews recommendations and determined to make radical changes, the Dawsons believe their future lies in organic beef and lamb, sold direct to the consumer.

"But to achieve a high level of consumer confidence we must do more than sell meat. We feel that discerning consumers are interested in how farms are run, so we plan to capitalise on the high standards set," says Mr Dawson.

But the farms revamp will see an end to store finishing. The restocking has started with the aim of establishing a flock of 450 breeding sheep and a suckler herd.

"We want to open up the farm, but we do not want to create a show-farm. We want to invite the public to see how we breed and rear our stock and how we manage the land. We also want to show the reality of farming and that things are not always perfect," says Mrs Dawson.

"We do not see the conversion to organic imposing any great change on the way we do things. Our animal welfare standards have always been very high and we run an extensive grassland-based system."

Mr Dawson also believes there is a great deal of confusion among consumers concerning farm assurance schemes.

"Being farm assured does not give you any marketing advantage. Producing and selling organic meat direct to the public is providing consumers with a superior product. It is a standard of farming practice they clearly understand."

The new project is beginning at a time when the Dawsons can seek a 50% grant from the Rural Enterprise Scheme, says ADAS farm business adviser Paul Harper.

"Most farm shop developments have a capital cost ranging from £80,000-£130,000. In this case, there are three facets to the new business – the farm shop, organic conversion and stewardship scheme," says Mr Harper.

The two-story shop – including a café – will be created from a barn adjoining the farmhouse, where Mr Dawson aims to butcher organic meats.

Stewardship opportunities have been identified by Environmental adviser Andrew Fairey to enhance the amenity appeal of the farm.

"The farm was fortunate in having an area of limestone grassland which is a biodiversity target habitat and a great asset for stewardship. It also has other valuable habitats and environmental features," says Mr Fairey.

The farm will begin a 10-year stewardship scheme which includes areas of public access and a link with a village-to-village footpath which will, hopefully, bring customers to the farm shop, says Mr Dawson.

"The stewardship scheme will only pay for part of the environment work, but we want people to come here, see what we do and judge for themselves. If we win their approval then, hopefully, we will win their support as customers," says Mr Dawson.

Cumbria Farmlink has co-ordinated a team from the Farm Business Advisory Service which has included Cheshire-based farmer and adviser Gareth Jones of Abacus Organic Associates.

"Environmentally and financially this new venture stacks up," says Mr Jones. "Organic beef and lamb have had a hard time lately, but having your own outlet and being able to develop a rapport with consumers is an advantage."

Cumbria Organics Kate Rogerson is also on the team of advisers. The group co-ordinates local producers through a non-marketing group which offers a mentoring service to converting producers. &#42

Greystone House will see many changes after a review of the livestock business by (l-r) Gareth Jones, John Dawson, Paul Harper, Andrew Fairey, Kate Rogerson and Margaret Dawson.

&#8226 Decided to go organic.

&#8226 Planned retailing venture.

&#8226 Taken business advice.

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