Lockdown food demand has created a ‘pivotal moment’ for organic farming

Nick Padwick, farm manager at Ken Hill Estate in west Norfolk, is using Countryside Stewardship fund

Nick Padwick, farm manager at Ken Hill Estate in west Norfolk, is using Countryside Stewardship funding to convert land to organic production and establish marshland and wildlife corridors. Picture: Ken Hill Estate - Credit: Ken Hill Estate

A surge in demand for home-grown organic food during the Covid-19 pandemic has created a “pivotal moment” to convert land to organic agriculture, farmers were told.

The Soil Association says the organic businesses it certifies have reported increased demand in a market which, despite the challenges of coronavirus, still looks set to surpass the £2.5bn sales mark by the end of the year – with organic sales “rising significantly” in March and April.

It says while farm shops and box schemes have blossomed, many producers are selling direct to the public and “playing to organic’s key strengths of promoting local sourcing and sustainability”.

The surge in demand comes as the deadline nears to request application forms for organic conversion grants via the government’s Countryside Stewardship scheme.

Sophie Kirk, farming business development manager at Soil Association Certification, said: “Covid-19 has caused huge disruption for the whole farming sector, but it’s also presented opportunities.

“We are cautiously optimistic resilience in the organic market will continue. The integrity of organic during this time of great uncertainty is likely to be more important to many too – as well as the transparency of sourcing – including buying British, where possible.

“This demand, together with the climate emergency and government’s focus on preserving and enhancing our environment in future farm policy in the Agriculture and Environment Bills, means there has never been a more pivotal moment for farmers to convert to organic.”

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Nick Padwick, farm manager at Ken Hill Estate, near Heacham in west Norfolk, is currently converting part of the estate to organic using Countryside Stewardship funding, which is also helping him to establish marshland and wildlife corridors.

He said: “We have more black grass and brome grass than I’ve ever seen in my farming career and it’s resistant to absolutely everything. There was a need to do something drastic about it, so we’ve taken a chunk of marginal land out of production and are allowing it to naturally regenerate while converting it to organic using Countryside Stewardship support. This allows us to concentrate on farming the more productive arable land in a way that’s better for the land and environment.

READ MORE: Can East Anglia’s farming industry emerge stronger from the coronavirus crisis?“We are creating woodland pasture for pigs, ponies and cattle, and we are also utilising our stewardship options to help us with our timings of cover crops and build up soil fertility. I want to reduce our reliance on synthetics and slowly wean the rest of our arable land off the chemistry.

“Countryside Stewardship has definitely plugged the gap and the margin I receive for my arable land is better – and our yields hold up as well as our neighbours. There are lots of positives to look at financially, plus we are doing a lot more for the environment.”

• Farmers and landowners looking at converting to organic with Countryside Stewardship funding can get guidance from Soil Association Certification and Natural England in a webinar, running from 10am to 11am on June 4. To register, see the Soil Association website.

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