Step by step to organic conversion
The organic conversion process requires important decisions and actions which, if taken and carried out carefully, and in the right order, help to ensure a smooth transition from conventional (non-organic) to organic methods of production.
Remember – Greenmount Organic Development Advisers are available to assist at all stages.
The various steps below can be used as a basic general check list.
- talk to a Greenmount Organic Development Adviser about your ideas
- obtain technical leaflets and conversion information relating to organic production
- attend the Greenmount 2-day ‘Introduction to Organic Production’ course
- draw up rough plans for your intended organic enterprises and how you see it operating
Ask organic adviser for a farm visit to discuss:
- your outline plans
- your farm’s limitations and opportunities
- what your conversion plan should contain
- stock numbers and closed herd/flock breeding systems
- building requirements
- feed requirements for livestock as conversion progresses
- animal health
- what application for registration entails
- certification body contacts
Allowing a period to think about what has been said you should then:
- make adjustments to your plans
- visit other organic farmers and or focus farms, on recommendation of your adviser
- discuss your organic plans with any landlords
- decide on certification body and obtain an application/standards pack
- obtain soil analyses and discuss with your adviser
- farm maps
- field history information
Ask Organic Adviser for a second farm visit to assist you in:
- firming up marketing ideas
- drawing up rotation(s)
- drawing up a conversion plan, time frame and start date
- drawing up an animal health plan
- drawing up a conservation plan
- drawing up a nutrient management plan
- accessing information on cattle BSE associations
- putting in place a recording system
- filling in application forms for your chosen certification body
- providing any other important information
- send off application forms and fees to certification body
- start farming organically as appropriate to your conversion start date
- start keeping farm records
- receive acknowledgement of receipt of forms from certification body
- prepare for first organic inspection
- undergo organic inspection
- receive compliance forms and discuss with your adviser
- return compliance forms and any other required information
- receive organic registration certificate – you are now an EU registered organic producer
- apply for any support schemes
To help you keep in touch with other organic producers you can also request from your Organic Development Adviser:
- the Organic Bulletin – published three or four times a year
- membership of an Organic Development Group – on-going meetings, farm walks, study tours and short courses
- membership of an email discussion list
- to benchmark your farm business
The UK organic market grew in 2008 due to the increase in the proportion of households eating organic and an increased average spend on organic products per shopping trip.
Nine out of ten UK households now buy some organic food, compared to 76.5 percent five years ago.
Assessment of the market for organic food
A number of key facts concerning the United Kingdom Market for organic food and drink in 2008 (most recent figures available) are shown below.
- the UK market increased by 1.7 percent to £2.1billion showing an increase of 20 percent over the previous year. Most of the growth was in the first six to nine months but fell back in the face of the economic downturn in late 2008
- the multiple supermarket retailers were the major marketing outlets to the consumer with around 73 percent of sales
- independent retailers and farm gate sales accounted for the other 27 percent of sales. Of this farmer’s markets, box schemes and mail order made up 8 percent
- the highest rate of growth in organic sales was through independent retailers
- organically managed land accounted for approximately 3.9 percent of the UK’s total agricultural land area. In January 2008 there were 4,955 organic producers in the UK (7 percent more than the previous year)
- by January 2008, the amount of organically managed land in Northern Ireland increased by 15 percent to 10,411 hectares. However, at 1.0 percent of NI’s total agricultural land this is much lower than other parts of the UK and there are significant opportunities for development
- the number of in-conversion and organic producers rose to 246, a marginal increase of 3 percent
Marketing organic food in Northern Ireland
Organic farms currently produce mainly dairy products, beef, sheep, poultry and eggs, supplying both local markets and the rest of the UK and beyond. There are over 50 organic processors and several successful vegetable box schemes and specialist shops.
Since the arrival of the main UK supermarket chains, there has been increasing availability of organic products and the local market expanded to approximately £30 million in 2008.
As organic farming is relatively less developed in Northern Ireland, compared to the rest of the UK, organic supply chains are still emerging for some products.
It is therefore important that anyone planning to produce organic food considers how and where they will market their organic products to obtain organic premiums.
Once a farm has started organic conversion it will take at least two years to produce fully organic products.
Organic food production and marketing should be strategically planned to ensure that production increases in line with market demand.
Where organic food requires further processing it is essential that processing partners are identified in advance.
There are several ways in which organic food can be marketed.
Some current options
Join an organic marketing organisation in Northern Ireland
A small number of local organic producer groups exist to co-ordinate supplies and market organic foods from farm to retail.
They are an important means of meeting other organic producers and achieving economies of scale in the marketplace.
Emerald Organics (Dairy)
Contact: Roy McCracken 028 8284 1592
Office: 028 7133 7950
Stan McWilliams 00 353 74 93 84107
United Irish Organics (Dairy)
Contact: David Laughlin 028 2954 0272
Individual partnerships with processors
ABP/Sainsbury Partnership in Livestock (beef)
Contact: Liam McCarthy 028 3026 3211
Dunbia (lamb and beef)
Contact: Jim Carson 028 8772 0720
Linden Foods (lamb and beef)
Contact: Frank Foster 028 8772 4777
Moy Park (Chicken)
Contact: Tom McKeown 07778 033786
Contact: Colin Taylor 028 2564 1111
Contact: Eileen Thompson 028 3752 2707
Contact: Harold Richmond 028 8776 1252
Whites Speedicook (Oats)
Contact: Glenn Speer 028 3752 2344
Mobile: 07872 836675
Wilson’s Country Potatoes
Contact: Mark Lewis 028 3839 1029
Farm Shops – Perhaps the simplest form of direct selling. It requires close proximity to a large local population or significant passing trade. It can be expensive to establish a good shop.
Farmers Markets - An inexpensive means of selling. It avoids large scale capital investment and allows concentration on specific products. Few currently exist in Northern Ireland and producers may need to travel long distances to sell their organic products.
Box Delivery Schemes – Like farm shops a large local population is required. Costs revolve around distribution rather than capital.
The producer is offering increased convenience by delivering either to a central pick-up point or door-to-door. Labour requirement is intensive and constant.
Mail Order/e-commerce – Mail order involves more complex delivery procedures. A greater area is targeted (NI, ROI, UK) and therefore requires different promotional activities and good communication and delivery systems. Next-day delivery is usually a requirement.
Ecommerce adds a new dimension, improving the promotional opportunity but increasing accessibility and need for quick response.
It is worth considering supplying an existing box scheme or farm shop(s) initially to minimise costs
Contact a Supply Chain Development Branch adviser (listed below) for information on the following:
- recent developments regarding marketing opportunities;
- supply Chain Development Programme;
- processing and Marketing Grant Scheme;
- marketing and Development Grant Scheme
Contacts David Neill for further information on (028) 9052 4124 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Organic Farming Scheme
The Organic Farming Scheme (OFS) provides payments to help farmers with the additional costs and loss of income that occurs during the conversion period to organic production. It will protect and enhance the rural environment, and help producers meet consumer demand for organic production.
The OFS is part of the Rural Development Programme 2007-2013. For more information and application periods see the Countryside Management Agri-Environment schemes pages.
What is organic production?
Organic farming is a sustainable, environmentally friendly alternative to intensive food production methods.
Organic farming is back to the old days … right?
Wrong ! Organic production is not a step back in time, though it does use traditional methods of building and maintaining soil fertility and controlling weeds, pests and diseases.
Organic production is based on a modern scientific understanding of ecology and soil science, and it fully utilises appropriate technological developments and machinery.
What are the main characteristics of organic production?
- crop rotations and growing legumes (pea and bean family) to collect nitrogen from the air to feed crops
- avoidance of chemical weed, pest and disease control
- recycling of valuable nutrients through compost and managed use of manures
- maintaining a healthy soil
- humane treatment of livestock
How are crop nutrients supplied in organic production?
Crop rotations and recycled farm wastes form the basis of feeding crops.
Such methods have fed the human race for thousands of years up until the last half of the 20th century.
How does a farm become organic?
Land has to undergo a conversion period of normally two years before the food produced from it can be sold as organic.
During that period the land must be managed according to organic standards.
How are animals treated in organic production?
Organic livestock receive a very high standard of welfare and are :
- given freedom to move around, socialise and go outdoors
- fed organic food appropriate to their needs
- given comfortable, spacious bedded lying areas
- given medicines only as required
Do organic producers use pesticides in the same way as conventional farmers?
No! Organic producers occasionally use a tiny number of organically approved pesticides, and some of these also require special permission.
No chemical weedkillers are used in organic production at all.
Is genetic engineering allowed in organic production?
No genetically engineered products are allowed at all in production of organic food in the EC.
How do I know produce is organic?
Organic produce is generally marked with a 'symbol' of the organic certification body with which the producer is registered.
Alternatively, packaging will normally give details of the organic certification in words.
The 'symbol' can only be shown on fully organic produce and not on ‘in-conversion’ produce.
What is in-conversion organic produce?
‘In-conversion’ produce has been produced on land which has not yet completed its full conversion to organic status. Are all organic standards and symbols the same?
All organic food sold in the EC is produced to at least a common basic standard.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) sets a base standard for organic food produced in he UK, advised by the Advisory Committee on Organic Standards (ACOS).
Some independent certification bodies may set a higher standard still for produce they certify.
What organic symbols might I find in Northern Ireland?
The following symbols might be commonly found on the labels of organic food in Northern Ireland:
- Soil Association
- Biodynamic / Demeter
- Organic Farmers and Growers
- Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association
- Organic Trust
- Organic Food Federation
You might also see other EC registered symbols on produce imported from within the EC.
Where can I obtain organic food locally?
The majority of organic food is sold through major supermarket chains, though very little of this is locally produced at present.
Some organic producers operate box delivery schemes which deliver organic produce to your home on a weekly basis.
There are also a number of farm and health food shops selling organic produce.
How much organic production is there in Northern Ireland?
Compared with total local food production, organic production is still a tiny fraction. However, it is increasing very rapidly and there are now over 1300 hectares of land converted or in conversion to organic production.
What organic foods are produced locally?
You can currently obtain vegetables, beef, lamb, milk, chicken, turkey, pork, eggs, potatoes and mushrooms, though supplies can be seasonal.
How does organic production care for the environment?
- organic production uses virtually no pesticides
- diversity on organic farms encourages plentiful wildlife
- conservation of the environment is an integral part of organic regulations
- hedgerows, ponds and woodland are carefully managed and enhanced
Converting to organic production
Converting to organic production is a major decision for any farmer or grower, often involving changes to farm structure, management and finance. It is therefore important that careful consideration is given to the process of conversion, and how it is undertaken.
Organic production is controlled within the EU by legislation both at community and member state level. Approved production standards have to be met and producers must be registered as organic producers.
If you are considering converting to organic production then taking sound advice is highly recommended. Unless you already have considerable knowledge of organic production systems, organic standards and procedures, assistance to help you make the correct decisions and fill in application forms is invaluable.
CAFRE provides a range of short courses on organic production including a number aimed at people considering conversion. It also organises organic development groups to which producers and others considering conversion to organic production are invited.
Prior to conversion, it is also a good idea to talk to, and visit, other organic producers, particularly those with a similar farm size and structure to your intended organic unit.
Planning both your intended organic production system, and the conversion route for achieving it, is an integral part of your application for organic registration. The control body you register with will want to see that:
- the unit will be practical and viable
- it will meet their organic standards
- your conversion plan will achieve organic status within a reasonable time
You should develop your marketing strategy very early on in the conversion process, so that by the time you have achieved full organic status, you have a market for your produce.
Some farms or holdings are able to start conversion as soon as the decision has been taken to do so. On some farms, however, there may be a need to put in place some elements that are missing prior to starting conversion.
An example of this is when the grass swards on the farm contain little or no clover at all. In this case production levels would crash if conversion started without at least some clover.
The establishment of some clover-based swards prior to the start of conversion, and gaining confidence in their establishment, management and production potential may be advisable.
In some cases there may also be a need for work on buildings, particularly livestock housing, prior to conversion.
Soil fertility, rotations and manures
An important part of conversion planning is devising a rotation that will allow both the maintenance of soil fertility, and the required production. Reliance on legumes, in swards and/or as fertility building green manures, will apply on the majority of organic farms, and standards also determine how much manure can be applied as a supplement to the legume-based rotation.
An organic farm should aim to be as sustainable as possible. Control bodies monitor all inputs so that sustainability remains a key feature of the farm. In particular, the level of purchased inputs will need careful consideration and the unit should ideally be planned to be as self-sufficient as possible.
Very early on in the planning process you will need to decide what enterprises your organic unit will contain. Because a whole-farm system is being planned, this may include enterprises which are not currently on the farm, but which will make it easier to operate.
Good farming practice for the environment
Organic standards contain not just production rules, but guidelines which determine how your organic unit must maintain and enhance the natural environment.
These are now based on the EU-approved codes of ‘Good Farming Practice for the Environment’.
The planning of your organic unit and application for organic certification require you to show how you will adhere to these codes.
Timeframe for conversion
Whilst each piece of land generally has a basic two year conversion period, depending on the enterprises involved, the time period over which conversion will take place will need to be decided.
In general terms, achieving full organic status for produce from a converting livestock farm may take a while longer than just the two years required for the land's conversion, and longer still if conversion of the whole farm is in phases.
In addition, the time of year that conversion starts may also have a bearing on how rapidly full symbol (fully organic) status of produce can be achieved.
Phased conversion or all at once?
As well as planning for the time to reach full symbol status, decisions will be needed as to whether the farm converts all at once or in phases (phased conversion).
There may well be over-riding factors which pre-determine how conversion will proceed, such as land with crops already planted, or existing livestock to be finished.
Small farms will probably convert relatively quickly, but large farms requiring phased conversion may take several years.
Simultaneous conversion of land and livestock
On livestock farms, where the complete production unit is converted together with the stock, the overall conversion period can be reduced to 24 months, or a little over.
- calves – applies when they are born from existing breeding cows where the stock are fed mainly with products from the unit
- calves born three months after the start of conversion can be sold as organic once the land has achieved organic status.
- lambs - applies to lambs born from existing ewes and where the stock are fed mainly with products from the unit
- lambs can be sold as organic once the land has achieved organic status
Stock management must meet all of the organic standards from the outset of conversion.
Simultaneous conversion cannot easily be combined with a phased conversion.
Note: cows and ewes (and other stock) already on the farm at the start of conversion can never themselves become or be sold as organic.
Pigs and poultry
It is sometimes possible for land to be granted organic status after one year for use by pigs and poultry. A derogation can be requested when land has not received prohibited inputs for at least 12 months previously.
Choice of control body
Your choice of control body will depend on a number of factors, one of which will be personal preference.
However, some control body's standards are more restrictive than others, and this may well determine which is most suitable. There may also be cost and marketing factors to be taken into account.
Organic registration and certification require a licence fee to be paid, and control bodies differ somewhat in their fees and fee structures.
On Northern Ireland farms, experience to-date has shown that organic certification costs range from around £250 - £600 per year depending on a number of factors, the most important usually being the size of the farm.
Registration procedure and time-scale
From the time of considering 'going organic' to receiving confirmation of organic registration will probably take several months. Below is a typical sequence.
- discuss your ideas with an organic adviser and take basic decisions
- obtain further information about organic production and marketing, and visit organic producers
- obtain a set of standards and application forms
- obtain soil analysis and any other necessary documentation
- plan the organic farm, its rotation and a timetable for conversion, including a start date
- fill in and submit application forms to control body
- start farming organically (if not already started) and start keeping comprehensive records
- receive inspection date or a request for further information
- first annual inspection
- inspectors report laid before certification committee
- receive registration certificate/first years licence and/or a compliance notice (see below) Apply for any support schemes by the appropriate date.
Whilst the application forms appear very simple, there are dangers of not giving sufficient information to allow registration to proceed.
Working with an experienced adviser will generally avoid delays caused by this as they will know what information is required to ensure the application goes smoothly.
Keeping clear, up-to-date records of all operations, animal movements and financial transactions will assist both your management of the unit and will allow your inspector to get a clear picture of how your unit is running.
Without good records you will soon run into certification difficulties.
You are strongly advised to have a comprehensive recording system in place, and operating, by your first inspection.
Some weeks after submitting your application, you will be given a date for your first inspection. You will also be told what information will be required at the time of the inspection.
In general terms, you will already have started your conversion by the time first inspection occurs.
Inspection should not be a daunting process, and you should learn much from the inspector.
Compliance notices are issued where there are issues which have to be complied with, resolved and/or agreed (in writing) before an organic licence can be issued. This can occur after first inspection, following annual inspection, where derogations or special permission has been requested, and when changes to the farming system have been notified to the control body.
New producers are often taken aback by compliance notices, but they are issued solely to ensure that organic standards will be fully met.
Organic Control Bodies
A number of UK approved organic control bodies currently register producers in Northern Ireland:Soil Association Certification Ltd
Bristol BS1 3NX Tel: 0117 914 2412 Organic Farmers and Growers Ltd
The Old Estate Yard
Shrewsbury SY4 3AG Tel: 01939 291800 Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association
Co. Longford Tel: 00 353 43 42495 Organic food Federation
31 Turbine Way
EcoTech Business Park
Norfolk PE37 7XD Tel: 01760 720444 Organic Trust Ltd
2 Vernon Avenue,
Dublin 3 Tel: 00 353 1 8530271 Bio-Dynamic Agricultural Association
The Painswick Inn Project,
Gloucester, GL5 1QG Tel: 01453 759501