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Organic farming: a big boost needed from CAP reforms

Friday 02 July 2004

Our countryside commentator John Sheard argues the case for more organic farming but asks: will the CAP reforms now underway give it the impetus to break into the mainstream?

SADLY, I spent most of this week wrestling with the technicalities of the reforms be now being discussed for the EU’s notorious Common Agricultural Policy. CAP won by two falls and a knockout so I took myself off to Clapham to meet some very nice people.

Growing with Grace?

Growing with Grace at first seems a somewhat odd name for a business in the cutthroat world of food marketing. It’s carrot signs based on the slowing-down markers before motorway turn-offs (first three carrots, then two, then one) have no doubt brought many a smile on the faces of thousands of car-bound trippers on the A65.

But then you meet the people involved and, nice though they are - and gentle, too, because this is a business run on Quaker principles - you realise that they are determined to succeed at a very difficult job indeed: persuading us to eat a healthier diet and, in particular, more organic fruit and veg.

Their 2.5 acres of greenhouse produce scores of varieties of vegetables, from straight forward cabbage and spinach to more exotic species like peppers, sweetcorn and brilliant scarlet chard. They do it from compost made from the garden waste of Craven District Council taxpayers who are environmentally aware enough to fill their specially provided garden-waste sacks for the binmen to take away.

Each week, a CDC wagon delivers ten tonnes of the stuff, which the 18-part-timer workers for the Growing with Grace co-operative first shred, then lay out in long piles known as windrows where it gets so hot that it rots down in just a couple of weeks. Then it grows smashing fresh veg, free of artificial fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides.

Now this is not just a good way of growing healthy food. It has many other advantages, like providing those 18 jobs in an area otherwise heavily dependent on summer tourism and saving in-fill space where the council would otherwise have to dump the waste.

It also cuts down on the amount of phosphates and nitrates being swept into our rivers from farm fertilisers, which the Government how now targeted as one of the worst causes of pollution in Britain.

Now there are many who believe that organic farming should be a hugely bigger part in our national agriculture. They include the Prince of Wales, who is patron of the Soil Association, the body which gives a beady eye on all things organic in the UK.

There are many, many more, who look upon organic farmers as a bunch of well-meaning cranks who could never survive in the real world of mass food production, dominated as it is by the mega supermarket chains renowned for cutting the prices they pay suppliers not just to the bone but right into the marrow.

Well, Growing with Grace has been in business for four years – six under a previous co-operative – and has built itself a base of loyal customers from south of Skipton well up into Cumbria and west into Lancashire.

But the reason why I went to see them was not just aesthetic. At present, some very tough negotiations are underway to produce the new CAP subsidy rules, which means that farmers will be paid by size and type of farm.

And already, there are signs to suggest that most of the cash will go to the farmers who have plenty already: the arable prairie farmers of East Anglia – to whom £1 million subsidy cheques are not unusual – and large-scale dairy farmers from the lush pasturelands of southern England.

Yet the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs have spent months crowing that they intend to look after the small farmer. They boast of their green credentials.

So when it comes down to the nitty gritty, will they at last do something for organic farmers so that this growing band of hard-working, dedicated and idealistic food-producers are given some desperately needed support to drag them at last into the mainstream of their industry. I shall keep my fingers crossed!

Pictures courtesy of the Soil Association.

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