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Scottish farmers to receive organic certification support

04-Feb-2005

The Soil Association, a UK organic certification organisation, has announced that it is to offer a fast-track application service to Scottish dairy farmers wanting to change from conventional to organic farming practices - before the expiration of lucrative EU conversion grants, Tom Armitage reports.

Current legislation (EU Objective 5b) which allows subsidies of up to 50 per cent of the conversion cost is set to expire later this year, prompting concerns that the number of farmers converting to organic will trail off and therefore fail to meet Scotland's Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department (SEERAD) targets by 2007.

According to proposals outlined in SEERAD's 2003 Organic Action Plan, the organisation aims to double the area of arable land and grassland used in organic conversion or production across Scotland from 15 to 30 per cent, as well as ensuring that Scottish organic produce can meet at least 70 per cent (by value) of overall Scottish consumer demand by 2007.

Scotland currently accounts for over 50 per cent of the UK's organically managed land, with approximately 373,249 hectares already organically certified or in the process of becoming organically certified.

In recent years British dairy farmers have baulked at the idea of converting to organic farming practices, with many claiming that excessive red tape and time-consuming bureaucracy have discouraged them from filing a conversion application.

Despite the introduction of lucrative EU conversion grants in 1999, many UK producers also still err on the side of caution, having learnt a valuable lesson from the well-documented organic milk surplus of 2001.

In a bid to cash in on excessive subsidisation, too many farmers converted to organic farming, but this left the market with a surplus of organic milk and the subsequent price crash resulted in many organic dairy producers exiting the sector.

A source at SEERAD told DairyReporter.com that, "to a certain extent organic farmers have to compete in a much more competitive atmosphere than their conventional rivals and must exercise a greater degree of discipline. The decision to convert to organic is ultimately a business-orientated decision and no-one can make that decision except the individual farmer concerned."

But the difference with the organic sector in Scotland, as opposed to the rest of the UK, is that farmers have the "backing of consumers," claims The Soil Association.

According to a recent study, over two thirds of Scottish consumers buy at least one organic product every time they shop.

Some Scottish producers of organic dairy products have already begun to form small co-operatives and associations - something that SEERAD believes is essential for securing a successful retail positioning for Scotland's organic produce.

The Scottish Organic Milk Association (there are currently 24 member-farmers), for instance, has introduced a full time marketing manager, who has not only helped raise the profile of organic dairy products among Scottish consumers, but also negotiated distribution deals between organic producers and the leading Scottish multiple retailers, namely Tesco and Asda.

The Soil Association claims that the organic food market in the UK is worth an estimated £1.12 billion per year, with sales of organic food growing by £2 million a week.

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