Does It Pay To Be An Organic Farmer?

An analysis of the current organic farming scene

Despite rapidly growing, organic agriculture is only occupying one percent of cropland across the globe at present. With so much land available, should we be taking the steps necessary to become an organic farmer? Agriculture insurance providers Lycetts finds out, and looks at the UK situation:

Understanding organic farming

Organic farming is a way you look after your crop and livestock production and is designed to optimize the productivity and fitness of diverse communities involved in the agro-ecosystem. Livestock, people, plants and soil organisms are all covered within this holistic system then, with the primary aim to develop enterprises that are both sustainable and harmonious with the environment.

Organic farming is different from traditional farming in several ways, including:

  • Any genetically modified crop or ingredient is banned.
  • The routine use of antibiotics, drugs, and wormers is banned.
  • Artificial chemical fertilizers are prohibited. Instead, organic farmers are encouraged to develop soil which is healthy and fertile by growing and rotating a variety of crops, making use of clover to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and adding organic matter — compost, for instance.
  • There are severe restrictions on pesticides, with organic farmers instead looking to wildlife to provide a helping hand for controlling disease and pests.

The statistics surrounding organic farming

There are many stats available via the Soil Association that showcase the benefits of organic farming.

For example, there has been an average increase of 50 percent in wildlife being found on farms that are organic, while 30 percent more species are found on average on organic farms when compared to those recorded on non-organic farms. These figures make for particularly good reading when you consider that the percentage of British wildlife has dropped by 50 percent since 1970.

The Soil Association also claims that the use of pesticide would drop by a massive 98 percent across England and Wales if all their farms were to become organic. More than 17,800 tonnes of pesticides were used throughout British farms during 2015 and 43 percent of British food was found to contain pesticide residues by government testing during the same year.

So, how is the organic farming scene currently looking in the UK? According to the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs’ Organic Farming Statistics 2016 report, the nation had a total area of 508,000 hectares of land which was farmed organically in 2016. In the same year, the total number of organic producers and processors stood at 6,363 — up 5.1 percent from 2015.

There are three main crop types grown organically across the nation — cereals, vegetables, including potatoes, and other arable crops. When it comes to cereals, barley had the largest total organic area at 12,900 hectares, followed by oats (11,600 hectares) and then wheat (10,900 hectares). When breaking down other arable crops, fodder, forage, and silage had the highest total organic area at 5,400 hectares. The next most popular was maize, oilseeds and protein crops at 1,700 hectares, followed by sugar beet with a total organic area of 100 hectares.

Meanwhile, the most popular type of livestock organically farmed in the UK is poultry, with a rise of 10 percent in 2016 to reach more than 2.8 million birds being confirmed. This number is significantly more than the 840,800 sheep, 296,400 cattle and 31,500 pigs which make up the next three most popular types of livestock currently farmed organically across the nation.

Unfortunately, it isn’t all positive news when it comes to the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs’. While making up a substantial space, the total area of land which is farmed organically across the UK dropped between 2015 and 2016 and has also declined by 32 percent since its peak in 2008. All three of the main crop types grown organically have seen declines since the latter years of the 2000s too, while the number of producers is down by 35 percent since 2007.

How can organic farming feed a rapidly growing world population?

Despite a host of disheartening figures, John Reganold, a Regents Professor of Soil Science & Agroecology at the Washington State University, and doctoral student Jonathan Wachter argue that this practice is still a relatively untapped resource with plenty of potential.

The conclusion reached by the pair in their Organic Agriculture in the 21st Century study was published in Nature Plants and involved the review of 40 years of science and hundreds of scientific studies.

Their analysis found that organic farming systems could produce yields which were friendlier to the environment while also being more profitable when compared to conventional forms of agriculture. Organic farming was also linked with delivering more nutritious foods containing less or even no pesticide residues than those produced by conventional means.

The research also found that organic farming systems produced yields which were up to 20 percent less than conventional means of agriculture, but Professor Reganold pointed out to The Guardian: “Overall, organic farms tend to have better soil quality and reduce soil erosion compared to their conventional counterparts. Organic agriculture generally creates less soil and water pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions, and is more energy efficient. Organic agriculture is also associated with greater biodiversity of plants, animals, insects, and microbes, as well as genetic diversity.

“Despite lower yields, organic agriculture is more profitable (by 22–35 percent) for farmers because consumers are willing to pay more. These higher prices essentially compensate farmers for preserving the quality of their land.”

Implications of transferring to organic farming

If you find yourself being interested in becoming an organic farmer, be sure to register with an organic control body before you begin producing, preparing, storing, importing or selling organic products.

This would involve completing an application, passing an inspection and then following the steps laid out to make you a certified organic farmer. The entire procedure can take two years to complete — at the end of which you’ll receive a certificate from an organic control body (CB) to prove you’re registered and passed an inspection. You will be breaking the law if you claim that a food product is organic if it hasn’t been inspected and certified by a CB.

It’s important to note that when you receive the certificate that proves you’re a certified organic farmer, it is only valid for one year. However, renewal will simply involve a CB inspecting your farm and then updating your records if the inspection is a success.

You can find more information about exactly how to meet EU standards when it comes to organic farming, as well as the various funding options available to help you convert to organic farming practices by clicking here.


This article is a guest contribution by my John Hannen.


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