Positive forecast for organic sector outlined at Soil Association open day

An upbeat Soil Association/Rijk Zwaan Organic Open Day at Huntstile Farm near Bridgwater in Somerset earlier this month heard how the association aims to build on recent growth in the organic sector while also expanding its role in recruiting to the industry.

Organic Open Day: event at Huntstile Farm in Somerset was hosted by the Soil Association and Rijk Zwaan Organic - image: HW
Organic Open Day: event at Huntstile Farm in Somerset was hosted by the Soil Association and Rijk Zwaan Organic - image: HW

"We are seeing continued growth in organics while the conventional market has contracted. We haven't seen such a drive in new products and innovation in my 15 years," said Soil Association trade relations manager Lee Holdstock.

"Box schemes kept organic going during the downturn while supermarkets edited their range, particularly in smaller product categories. Meanwhile, online overtrades in organic - Ocado by a factor of 10. Those shoppers are time-poor and you can't expect them to all buy from farmers' markets. Catering and wholesale are also growing faster than supermarkets. More than 1.5 million meals a day have our Food for Life catering mark."

Supermarkets are missing a trick with organic, he suggested. "Tesco's own research shows that those who put one organic item in their basket spend 54 per cent more in store."

From its own recent research, organic customers "are getting younger - 18- to 35-year-olds are buying into it much more", said Holdstock. "You have great stories and they want to hear them." By identifying shoppers' reasons for buying organic, the Soil Association's analysis "aims to unlock further growth in the market by appealing to those reasons", he explained.

This means "hard, rigorous scientific work to support our claims", he said, while the association's BOOM (Best of Organic Market) awards represented a rebranding of its awards scheme this year with new high-profile "ambassadors" drawing almost 500 entries. In addition, "more than 30 million consumers were reached during our last Organic September and we aim to beat that this year", he added. "We have the potential to reach a much wider audience. If you are more informed, organic becomes more compelling."

But organic is being hampered by the fact that "everyone has a different idea of what it means", said Holdstock. "With every strong brand, you understand what it represents." He added: "After the Brexit vote we are interested in promoting UK production and even exports. There is huge growth in organics in other parts of the world and they respect our integrity."

Duchy Originals sustainability compliance officer Tim Appleton told the event: "The consumer is conscious of price. The organic lines with the highest market share - carrots, broccoli, milk - have the lowest price difference (from conventional lines). They prefer to buy British but you need the quality." Meanwhile, "multiple certification systems leave shoppers confused", he said. "For a successful brand, you need the connection between farmers and consumers."

Holdstock added: "Price and availability go hand in hand. Organic baby food has 55 per cent market share. If you could get other food categories up to that, prices would come down."

Soil Association producer skills manager Rachel Harries said of its Future Growers apprenticeship programme: "We have funding from Duchy Originals to develop it on a larger scale. There will be a need for more UK labour after Brexit. We have so far been dealing with small to medium-sized companies, but if we want large-scale change with more organic food being produced, we need to work on a larger scale, where they are often struggling to attract good people, particularly for field-based technical roles. The sort of people who tend to be attracted to our scheme are less aware of those opportunities."

The scheme aims to identify and reconcile what potential employees want from larger-scale horticulture and what those employers' needs are, she explained. "We need to create more - and more attractive - opportunities in horticulture for local workers." All employers with turnover above £3m will be liable for the apprenticeship levy from next March, she pointed out. "This will give them the opportunity to spend that back in these roles. It's all coming together at the same time."

The former Organic Apprenticeship Scheme, which has been running for nearly 10 years, is a two-year, work-based programme that "has so far trained 80 growers and farmers, so a whole generation", added Harries. "Between two-thirds and three-quarters are still farming."

Soil Association head of horticulture Ben Raskin summarised by saying: "This hasn't been the easiest growing season. But I am feeling more positive than at any time in my 10 years at the Soil Association. The market is back in growth at all levels and people seem to want to grow more organic. Soil health is fashionable. People are talking to me who never would have before. There are so many innovations going on at the moment and the organic movement is now more outward-looking."

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