Workshop for advisers, Control Bodies and converting farmers. We are celebrating 30 years of organic conversion planning in the UK. But still many farmers convert with no plan for their business, no timetable or financial budgets and often with limited idea of how the farm will look in 5 years time. What have been farmers’ experiences? Is the conversion planning approach still useful? Do advisers find the approach successful? How can it be used to reduce risk, improve environmental delivery and profitability? What are the needs in the future? How can the producer be more closely involved and take ownership? How can we meet the needs of Control Bodies and the Glastir Organic conversion and management plans?
The session presented a series of perspectives and experience from various conversion advisers, exchanging views on main components of the conversion process – the reasons, the plan, risk assessment, and advisory expertise available.
Ed Goff stressed that any farmer intending to enter organic conversion needs to be very clear on his reasons for conversion. Secondly, the information available needs to be gathered: Organic Farm Management Handbook, seminars, farm visits (including abroad), studying own farm and soils, and how you are going to manage the different soils. Last but not least, farmers need to manage their attitude (resiliency, patience) and other people’s attitudes that can often be negative and pessimistic. Finally, the farmer needs a PLAN.
Sarah Hathaway (Soil Association Certification) talked about the minimum standard requirements and EU regulations. Certification bodies require a conversion plan, full description of all premises and activities and an explanation of how the producer is going to meet the organic standards. Precautionary measures for critical points need to be identified and presented with mitigation measures. There is also a requirement to demonstrate that the farmer is going to be able to meet the standards (records, quality systems). Plans are different for different certification bodies. Plans are checked for accuracy and whether they meet the organic production standards. It is important to set the conversion start and end dates, to be right for crops and other activities. Risks need to be identified and measures need to be put in place for mitigation (contamination, breaking organic rules, etc).
Iain Tolhurst, Grower and IOTA Adviser – started in the 1970s, when conversion as a concept hardly existed. There was no legal requirement for conversion or conversion plans. A lot has changed, but growers still tend to avoid conversion advisers. For advisers, the most important part of their conversion job is to look at the farm – soil assessment, cropping plans, site suitability, weeds, pests and disease problems, fertility options, infrastructure, equipment. Developing the conversion plan, it is important to have on-going advice, as the plan alone is not enough. Economic feasibility plans can be really difficult, and the farmer should take advantage of advisers, if available, markets and potential grants/subsidies. It is also useful to become part of organic farmer groups, for information and exchange of experience. Advisers also become friends and “agony aunts”.
Nic Lampkin (ORC) said that the Welsh Government are supporting conversion through funding. The requirements are to have strategic business plans (financial) with delivery mechanisms, accompanied by advisory support (one-to-one or group sessions). In 2015 600 plans have to be delivered. This is an opportunity for ORC, but additional advisers need to be trained up. This advice is going to be free for farmers.
Mark Measures: The situation in England is completely different to that in Wales. In England the plan is to use existing conversion plans and enhance them with advisory services, to make them fit for the farmer, for funding bodies and for control bodies. The need for free advisory services for conversion farmers is major.
There was a discussion then about the contents and procedure of various organic plans, in order to avoid duplication between control bodies and payment agencies. Farmers need to maintain ownership of their plans, as living documents, but also to have outside people telling them about additional things that they may not look at otherwise.
The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:
- For advisers the real challenge is to get the farmer involved in the plan.
- From growers’ perspectives, advisers are sources of information that they don’t have access to otherwise.
- The grower needs to be educated in the value of conversion plans and use the plan on an ongoing basis.
- Risk assessment needs to be stressed in both conversion and management plans
- The issue of expertise (or lack of) in the organic sector of conversion advisers needs to be addressed.
Individual speaker presentations and abstracts
Panel discussion Edward Goff (farmer),Stephen Briggs (farmer/adviser), Sarah Hathaway (Soil Association Certification), Nic Lampkin (Glastir Organic, Organic Centre Wales), Iain Tolhurst (grower/adviser) : Experiences and needs of conversion and management planning
What conversion and management planning services should be provided in the future: cropping and stocking, animal health, manure and soil planning, conservation, conversion timetable, environmental/sustainability assessment and business and financial planning? Use of planning tools. Flexibility to suit the individual farm. Susanne Padel will contribute to the discussion about the availability and use of tools including Org Plan.