Farmers abandon any ideas of going organic after grants disappear
The drive to convert land to organic farming has ground to a halt, figures released by the Department of Agriculture show.
Just 1% of the province’s land is farmed organically. Since 2008 no funding has been available to help farmers through the lengthy two-year conversion process, when yields typically plummet.
Organic farmers say Stormont is the only government in Europe that doesn’t assist farmers, and have called for more to be done.
The Republic’s government has set a target of converting 5% of its agricultural land to organics by 2012.
At the moment the figure is 1.2%, but farmers are encouraged to press ahead with conversion by joining the Organic Farming Scheme, requiring them to submit a five-year business plan and complete an approved training course.
Since its launch in 2007 the number of successful applications to organic schemes increased from 82 in 2007 to 123 in 2009. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) says its own Organic Farming Scheme (OFS) opened for applications from September 1 to October 31, 2008, resulting in 33 new agreements being signed.
Officials hope a new announcement will be made later this year, but organic farmers remain sceptical.
“The OFS provides payments to help farmers with the additional costs and loss of income that occurs during the conversion period to organic production. It will protect and enhance the rural environmental and help producers meet consumer demand for organic produce,” a DARD spokesman said.
“On February 24, 2010, the minister (Michelle Gildernew) announced the application dates for the Countryside Management Scheme and she confirmed that she would announce her plans for the Organic Farming Scheme for later this year.”
But a sceptical Rex Humphries of the United Irish Organics co-op said this promise has been made for the last two years.
“I hope they are as good as their word this time, because they weren’t last time,” he said.
While the organic market has been affected by the recession, he says the dairy organic sector is thriving. His co-op is even doing the equivalent of shipping coal to Newcastle by exporting Italian-style cheese similar to Parmesan to Italy. Yet the sector can’t capitalise on this demand because lack of assistance is preventing the supply base from expanding.
“What is stopping people from converting more than anything is the fact that DARD withdrew all support for conversion. It hasn’t been there for two years or more and that has stopped everything,”
he said. “It’s not that no land is being converted — farmers who are already organic are bringing more land in. We brought in 120-140 hectares this years, but DARD doesn’t know anything about it — they have no way of telling because they aren’t supporting us.”
He added: “We’re very disappointed that DARD is the only government body in Europe that is not supporting organic farming. They seem to put no value whatever on environmental issues.
“Organic farmers don’t put chemical nitrates into the water, they don’t add phosphates, they aren’t clearing off flora and fauna. but DARD seems to put no value on that — it’s scandalous. You can’t build the market unless you have the raw materials — our raw material is not growing and DARD is not encouraging it to grow.”
At the moment, there are around 288 registered organic operators in Northern Ireland, 145 of them farmers.
DARD says only a handful of farmers converted in 2009 and none are thought to be embarking on conversion this year.
The Ulster Farmers Union cautions that prices for organic food will inevitably be higher as it is more expensive to produce.
“If you make the conversion and the market fails, you could be left converted to a whole system of production and very limited options. You need a secure outlet for your produce,” a spokesman said.