Page last updated at 14:23 GMT, Sunday, 11 October 2009 15:23 UK

Spain's organic farmers dodge recession

By Albert Clack
Arriondas, Spain

Burch's farmhouse and the Picos de Europa
Small farms in the Asturias are coping well with the recession.

Looking out over their cider apple trees towards the Picos de Europa mountains beyond, Nigel and Joann Burch take a break from the harvest.

The only sound is the swish of a light breeze gently sweeping the early morning mist out of the valley below, birdsong, and, from out-of-sight in the sheep-field, an occasional deep woof from their reassuringly huge sheepdog.

Surprisingly, it is business as usual at this husband-and-wife team's organic farm in the moist green foothills that separate the high sierra from Spain's rugged Atlantic coast.

What makes it surprising is the fact that supermarkets everywhere are reporting falling sales of organic fruit and vegetables as cash-strapped consumers instead opt for cheaper, conventionally grown produce.

Nigel Burch
We're in an area which has neither had a huge boom nor a huge recession
Nigel Burch

But Mr and Mrs Burch say the global economic crisis has barely affected their business, near the town of Arriondas in Asturias.

"We're in an area which has neither had a huge boom nor a huge recession, and as a consequence we are fairly insulated from the general global crisis," Mr Burch says.

Alternative outlets

Large-scale organic farms in Spain have seen the amount of supermarket shelf space dedicated to organic produce reduced over the past year, Mr Burch says, a fact that in itself could go some way to explain why sales have fallen.

But many smaller farmers have escaped relatively unscathed, in part because many are insulated from the volatility seen in global markets by their lack of reliance on large corporate customers, such as supermarkets.

"Smaller farms, which have alternative outlets through farmers' markets or specialised shops, are not having as much of a problem," Mr Burch says.

"I don't know if you could say they're immune, but they certainly haven't been affected as much."

Diversified business

Joann Burch
We've made an effort to try and increase the percentage of food that we produce on site
Joann Burch

Like many others in rural Spain, Mr and Mrs Burch run a diversified business, which in their case includes a farmhouse hotel with a restaurant in addition to the farm itself.

Part of the ethos of their business is to source as much food as possible for the hotel guests from their own farm, explains Mrs Burch.

"We have three main crops on the farm," she explains.

"We're producing vegetables, which are exclusively for the hotel; we have cider apples which are predominantly for making apple juice - some of which comes back to be used in the hotel - and we have lamb.

"Over the years we've made an effort to try and increase the percentage of food that we produce on site.

"So about 35% of the farm's produce ends up being consumed in the hotel."

The remaining 65% is sold to specialist artisan producers of organic apple juice and marmalade, and sheep are sold for breeding or meat.

The apple juice is predominantly produced within 40 miles and sold within Asturias, and the lambs don't go much further than the Asturian capital city, Oviedo, about 60 miles away.

Determined consumers

The big majority of organic consumers is so convinced that they would rather economise in other spheres
Markus Arbenz, International Federation of Organic Agriculture

A similarly robust organic sector can be found elsewhere, both in Spain and abroad, according to Markus Arbenz, executive director of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture.

In Spain as a whole, there have been no sign of a downturn in organic farming, at least not up to the end of 2008 - more recent statistics is not yet available.

Indeed, the number of producers and area under cultivation continued to grow throughout last year, according to government statistics.

Look beyond Spain, and the picture remains one of strength. Although the sales growth of organic goods has slowed down in most countries this year, they are still higher than in 2008, which was itself a record year.

"It seems that, while discount and low-end retailers face more difficulties selling organic products, specialised organic shops and high-end retailers continue to develop beyond expectations," Mr Arbenz says.

"People who are dramatically affected by the recession do try to economise by lowering organic consumption.

"But the big majority of organic consumers is so convinced that they would rather economise in other spheres."

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