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Last Updated: Friday, 28 May, 2004, 17:22 GMT 18:22 UK
Organic farming 'bypassing NI'
Martin Cassidy
BBC NI rural affairs correspondent

Bread and butter issues rarely seem to feature in Northern Ireland elections - even to the European Parliament.

And yet the food we eat and what goes on at local farms is largely controlled from Europe.

Northern Ireland may look like one of Europe's greenest landscapes, but those legendary 40 shades are in fact largely the product of intensive farming.
Few farms will be harvesting organic silage in NI this year
Few farms will be harvesting organic silage in NI this year

There is still little evidence of the organic food and farming revolution which is sweeping across many regions of Europe.

The assembly at Stormont had been told of a plan to boost organic food production with a target of 1,000 farms to undergo the necessary three year conversion period to rid them of chemical residues.

But the reality is that the "greening of Ulster" is proving problematic.

With fewer than 200 farms operating under organic principles, the response out in the countryside has at best been patchy.

The reality is that with only 0.6% of farmland being worked under soil association principles, organics has barely registered so far.

But Charlotte Moore of the Department of Agriculture said a slow start may well be explained by some exceptional events.

Speaking at a new organic demonstration farm which the government has set up near Antrim, she reflected on the stuttering growth of the local organic sector.

"Unfortunately when foot and mouth hit the province in 2001 and then the following year we had very bad weather conditions, that made it difficult for farmers to convert and there was a stalling at that point in time," she said.

'Premium prices'

Later this summer, the department's new organic farm at Greenmount will mount a major demonstration aimed at showing potential converts what can be achieved - even on cold Ulster clay.

But the hundreds of farmers who will attend will also be mindful that the market for organic produce remains relatively small.

On the face of it, organic farming looks attractive. First there is a grant of 450 per hectare to help offset the fall in production resulting from no longer using artificial fertilisers and chemical sprays.

But the reality may not be just so rosy - for all the talk of a growth market for organic produce, securing supermarket shelf space is not easy

And then there are the premium prices for organic produce and livestock. In some cases, that can amount to as much as 150 a beast.

But the reality may not be just so rosy. For all the talk of a growth market for organic produce, securing supermarket shelf space is not easy.

Emerald Organics markets milk on behalf of 13 farmers, mainly to shops in the north west.

Roy McCracken, the group's vice chairman, said: "Money talks, and unfortunately the big retailers are answerable to shareholders.

"We have to prove to them that if they sell a quality product they will be as well off at the end of the day."

'Regular buyers'

The realities of organic dairy farming in Northern Ireland are summed up on Raymond Pollock's idyllically located farm in the Foyle valley.

The herd of Friesian and Norwegian Red cattle graze the green clover fields which sweep gently down to the water's edge.

Raymond has no regrets about switching to organic farming, despite the fact that much of his milk has to be sold at conventional prices.

"There are 13 of us across Northern Ireland. Out of that pool of milk about a third of that is getting sold into the organic market," he said.

Optimism helps the world go round, and farmers like Raymond believe that the demand for organic produce will grow.

Supply Chain Adviser David Neill said that was the key to whether then organic sector in Northern Ireland would ever develop to match other regions of Europe.

"We do find that a relatively small number of consumers will buy a large amount of the organic produce sold so the challenge for the industry is to make the occasional buyers become regular buyers," he said.

For now though, Northern Ireland remains on the fringes of the European organic movement with a small number of farms supplying a small local market.

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