Harnessing the current revival of organic produce sales to deliver long-term growth for the sector was the main topic of last month's Rijk Zwaan UK organic open day at Huntstile Organic Farm in Somerset.
Soil Association Certification senior certification officer Tom Hartley said: "The last 18 months have seen a return to growth, and indeed organic is out-performing non-organic in many sectors, including fruit and vegetables."
The recently published Newcastle University study showing higher antioxidant levels in organic produce "has had an effect in the last four weeks", he added.
Soil Association head of horticulture Ben Raskin warned: "We are in a period of growth, but still prone to boom and bust."
Andy Dibben, farm manager at Somerset organic farm and box scheme operator The Community Farm, said: "Organic being healthier for the environment is enough for some, but our main selling point is that we're local. That makes wholesale more difficult. If there's a chef or a shelf between us and our customers, it more comes down to price. We try to keep overheads down and volumes up to be competitive."
He described supplying schools in particular as "challenging", saying: "The wholesalers can tender for it - they are an obstacle even if the schools want local or organic. We can build a better relationship with them by offering visits to the farm."
G's Growers product director for leafy salads Charlie Kisby agreed. "It's difficult to supply to schools and hospitals, though if children come to visit on Open Farm Sunday, that creates a demand from parents to the school," he said.
Generally, Kisby added: "For us it's about a positive message for both. There was a gulf between organic and non-organic production but that has closed. We got into organic growing in 1998 and it was a steep learning curve. But some of the lessons have carried over to the conventional side. We want to reduce chemical use - there is a cost element too."
FarmDrop chief executive Ben Patten said: "The demographic trends are positive (for organics). There are innovative ways for organic growers to sell produce profitably. But if you moralise, it puts people off."
Organic Turnover up
Rijk Zwaan account manager Heleen Bos said: "Our turnover from organic is rising faster than for conventional, including in the UK. We have started breeding for organic cucumbers - Dutch growers want disease resistance but not at the expense of yield."
Ben Raskin praised the Netherlands-based vegetable breeder as "one of the few large breeders committed to the organic market".