Select Committee on Agriculture Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 42

Letter to the Committee Chairman from Mr Richard Young (F 64)

  I listened with interest last night to "On the road" on BBC Radio 4, which included interviews with you and other members of the Agriculture Committee. I am very pleased that your visit to Duchy Home Farm and to Eastbrook Farm gave you a generally positive impression of organic farming.

  However, the instinctive view of your colleague, Owen Paterson, that organic farms are full of weeds and low yielding, is not entirely unfounded. From my own experience I would say that a small, unquantified, but not insignificant, proportion of farms, principally some of those which converted to organic methods prior to the introduction of the Organic Aid Scheme in 1994, do have agronomic problems associated with their switch to organic production.

  With organic premiums very high at the present time such farms can probably live with these and remain profitable, but I am concerned that if prices for organic produce fall, as they could do if the volume of production increases rapidly, then such problems will become much more significant in economic terms.

  While it would be easy to condemn such farms as outdated and inefficient and not to feel too concerned if they fall prey to changing market conditions, some consideration of how and why these problems have arisen may be of relevance to your committee's investigation.

  As an example, I will detail my own experiences, as someone who converted 200 acres to organic methods in 1974 and subsequently built up to 470 acres of certified organic production by 1985.

  I began farming organically principally because I got severe headaches when crop spraying. This may have had nothing to do with the chemicals I was using, but it was the trigger for a very major change of farming policy. However, during my first ten years or so I made a considerable number of mistakes. I had only a vague idea of what constituted a balanced crop rotation and I did not understand clearly the widely varying approaches I would need to prevent both perennial and annual weeds becoming a problem on different soil types. It is relevant that some of the mistakes I made then have proved difficult to resolve and are still a problem for me today. A good example of this would be the infestation of some grass fields with docks.

  I should also point out that when I began there were no premiums for organic produce and I, and virtually all my organic farming colleagues at that time, also gave substantial amounts of time to developing embryonic organic marketing structures and helping to define standards. Most of us had very limited financial resources and as a result in many cases our own farm businesses suffered as a result.

  Despite these problems I should nevertheless stress that my livestock have been remarkably productive and free from ill health, we have enjoyed considerable public support and customer loyalty and I managed to survive economically using only organic methods until early 1998, when I withdrew voluntarily from my organic registration. The reason for this is not relevant to the points I wish to make, but I set it out in an annex for the avoidance of misunderstanding.

  Farmers, of course, vary considerably in their abilities and I am quite prepared to accept that many of the problems I have encountered reflect my own inadequacies in this respect. When I changed my farm to organic methods, however, in the early 1970's it is worth stressing that there were no recognised sources of advice to which I could turn. As a result, I drew up no conversion plan and had no well thought out approach to avoiding what would now be seen as some very obvious pitfalls. Some advice for converting producers did become available during the 1980's, but even this was very limited and inadequate in contrast to that which is available today.

  You referred in your interview to the problems of herbicide-resistant blackgrass, which can trouble conventional farmers today. Perennial weed problems on an organic farm are probably no more serious than this, nevertheless, in general it can be stated that sound advice, planning and careful preparation are more vital for organic farmers, especially in the very early stages of conversion, since it is much more difficult and costly to correct mistakes later on.

  While the focus of the Organic Aid Scheme (OAS) and the Organic Farming Scheme (OFS) is exclusively on new entrants, I feel it is necessary to put in a word for the problems facing some pre-1993 organic producers, who I believe require help, if they are to remain in organic production for the foreseeable future. I cannot tell you how many farms fall into this category. I only have first hand knowledge of a small number, but I can think off six, off the top of my head, to which I feel these comments apply.

  You will be aware that land which was in registered organic production prior to August 1993 has been excluded from both the OAS and the OFS and, as such, has received no assistance whatsoever for conversion to organic methods. It is clear, however, that each of these farms had conversion costs similar to those incurred by converting producers today and it can be assumed that in many cases these will have imposed a financial drain which some carry to this day and which has also been a factor in their poor performance. Equally important to the acreage payments I would suggest has been the £600 lump sum for professional advice and the requirement to produce an approved conversion plan.

  While I would accept that we have gone past the point where it would be reasonable to argue that conversion support for these farms should be backdated, I feel it is just worth mentioning that when John Gummer, as Minister of Agriculture, originally agreed to consider developing the Organic Aid Scheme, at a meeting with representatives of the organic movement in February 1991, at which I was present, he gave a clear verbal assurance that any scheme he introduced would apply equally to existing organic producers and to new entrants, in order to maintain a "level playing field".

  When the scheme was introduced in 1994, Mr Gummer had moved to the Department of Environment and we were simply told that existing producers were being excluded from the OAS because of budgetary constraints. One senior MAFF civil servant acknowledged to me a little later that there was in fact a considerable amount of "rough justice" in relation to which organic producers scraped into the scheme and which fell outside it. The reason for this may be that the recording systems and certification procedures of organic sector bodies at the time were less than perfect.

  While budgets are similarly tight today, at a time when future levels of funding for organic farming are under consideration, I feel it is not out of place also to detail some of the other ways in which pre-1993 organic producers have been discriminated against, by the introduction of organic conversion support payments:

    1.  Some longstanding organic producers (myself included) saw a significant, though fortunately short-lived (about 18 months), drop in demand for our organic livestock produce being marketed locally, as a result of the arrival of large, new, subsidised organic producers in our areas in the mid-1990's.

    2.  Pre-1993 organic producers have received no special consideration in relation to the allocation of livestock quotas, while new entrants have. The assumption was made that all pre-1993 producers had optimal stocking levels when quotas were introduced, but this was not universally the case.

    3.  OAS and OFS payments during years four and five of the schemes, while modest, nevertheless puts new entrants at a direct and unfair commercial advantage to existing producers, since organic status is available by this stage and crops and livestock can therefore be sold as "organic".

  Before we embark on a further major expansion in the area of organic production, may I therefore ask that you and your fellow committee members give some consideration to what, if anything might be done to restore a certain amount of parity, and also perhaps to help some producers deal with specific problems which arose principally due to the absence of advice and support when they converted their farms?

  Is it right, for example, that land which was registered as organic in August 1993 should be forever excluded from conversion support, even where it might now have been out of organic production for several years and possibly even changed hands? There has been an understandable reluctance to allow organic farms to revert to chemicals to resolve problems and then return to organic production, but if we introduced a principal that no area of land could receive conversion support more than once, then such an abuse would not occur.

  In 1994 demand for organic produce was considerably less strong than it is today and there were still no premiums available for many organic livestock products. My suspicion is that MAFF was concerned that if existing organic producers were not excluded from the scheme, then large numbers of them might have deregistered in order to obtain support. Today the situation is very different and I feel that a more relaxed attitude could safely be adopted, if it was totally clear that any land entered into the OFS could not be counted as "organic" until a full, approved conversion (or re-conversion) process had been undertaken. My view is that only producers genuinely in need of help and advice would now forego the organic premiums this would involve.

  I feel I should not try to hide the fact that I have a potential vested interest in the points I am making, and that if the scheme were varied in such a way, I might well wish to have a second go at organic farming at some point in the future.

19 October 2000


 
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