Industry sector:

Organic farm: Organic versus conventional


If you have not already converted, think carefully whether your farm is appropriate for conversion to organic. According to the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC), mixed and grassland farms are most suited to conversion as they already have a large amount of the infrastructure in place. Arable farms are the worst suited as they require the introduction of a whole new cropping system.

The environment

Many consumers are concerned with environmental issues and the 'traceability' of the food that they eat and how far it has travelled. (The horsemeat scandal in early 2013 brought a national focus to the issue of traceability and the organic sector benefited as a result as consumers increasingly turned to food items whose provenance they could trust.) Organic farms can boast vegetables grown on healthy soil and livestock reared to strict welfare guidelines. Also the very limited use of fertilisers and pesticides means there is less risk of harmful materials ending up in water courses.

Management issues

Organic farming is definitely not the easy option. The extensive rules and regulations laid down by the control bodies mean that few short cuts can be taken. The restriction on the use of soil enrichers means that soil must be improved through the use of organic manures and careful crop rotation; the prohibition of weed killers means that weeds have to be controlled by other means, in some cases by hand weeding; livestock must be kept with as minimum stress as possible and so on. As with conventional farming, you will aim to make sure that livestock (if kept) performs as well as it can. This means ensuring that weight gain is maximised while keeping input costs as low as possible and trying to minimise mortality levels.

Yields

It is almost inevitable for many individual organically produced commodities that it will not be possible to achieve the same yields as conventional farming. However, studies have shown that in both cropping and livestock organic farming, overall yields can be comparable to and in some cases greater than those achieved by conventional farming methods. It's a good idea to keep records of the yields achieved to keep track of any fluctuations and try to establish reasons for them.

Prices

As well as environmental concerns, the prospect of price premiums influences many farmers' decision to convert to organic food production. In the early days of organic production, pretty much every sector of the market commanded a significant price premium. However, the economic downturn of the late 2000s and early 2010s had a very significant impact on the organic sector and put producer prices under a great deal of pressure. As a result, profitability achieved by most types of organic farm in the early 2010s was lower than that recorded by conventional equivalents.