British growers are increasingly shifting their farms to organic to meet demand from customers, according to a new report released from the Soil Association Certification.
Despite the two-year process of conversion and even through the pains of the pandemic, Defra says 34% more British farmers made the switch in 2021 and also increased the amount of their land producing organic by 3.6%. In 2020, it was 0.8%.
“It is encouraging to see that the latest statistics show confidence in organic farming is on the rise in the UK,” Sophie Kirk, Business Development Manager for Soil Association Certification, said. “Our farming sector has dealt with many shocks over the last few years but opportunities for sustainable farming remain strong with rising consumer demand and government support for organic. It is clear both government and shoppers are waking up to the benefits organic can deliver for nature and the environment, and these latest figures show that, with the right incentives, nature and climate friendly farming can grow rapidly.”
Defra officials expect the number will grow exponentially in 2022, urged on by the government’s doubling of rates to farmers who make the move to organic. Payments to Countrywide Stewardship, which is taking applications through the end of June, have gone up between 50% and 500% this year.
One of the farms that made the conversion last summer was the Fraser family in West Yorkshire, who turned over their 260-acre plot of spring beans, spring wheat, barley and oats organic.
“We took our family farm back in hand three years ago when the previous tenancy came to an end and straight away decided to put it into organic conversion,” Alex Fraser said. “It has been a massive learning curve for us but when faced with issues such as climate change, biodiversity losses and the burden of chronic health conditions, it was the perfect time to build a sustainable farming system from scratch. We couldn’t really imagine farming in any other way; it just felt like the right thing to do.”
He admitted that, as with most farming endeavors, the process didn’t always go smoothly but is pleased with the results now.
“Not everything we’ve tried has worked. We’re learning as we go along and being dynamic and flexible in our approach means we can make the most of every situation,” he said. “We’ve had the support from Countryside Stewardship and we’ve been getting loads of advice from other farmers in the organic farming community to encourage us to try things like intercropping to provide fertility and control weeds. If you look at the huge input costs that keep going up and you also look at all the benefits organic can offer, to me it seems the most viable option both financially and for supporting biodiversity and the climate.”
Organics in the UK are now a £3 billion market, up by nearly 25% from before the pandemic, while customers turn to the products over standard-grown items. The land area for organic vegetables has grown by 7.4%, led by those in the Southwest at +8.5%.
“Currently more ingredients and products are imported to support the increased demand for organic food,” Kirk said. “We need robust UK supply chains to support more organic production at home, particularly as our research shows consumers want to buy British. The long-term goals that government has set out for agriculture, with a new focus on protecting soils, wildlife and the environment, are in harmony with the principles of organic farming. Alongside continued growth in the organic market, this should give any farmer greater confidence to switch to or maintain organic farming practices, despite the short-term uncertainty facing every farm.”