Organic advisory service closure a blow to farmers

Date Published: 15/02/2011

News that a crucial advice service for farmers thinking about converting to organic production is to close has been met with dismay by a leading organic body.

Organic Farmers & Growers, which inspects and licenses organic enterprises throughout the UK and beyond, said the loss of the free advice service had huge negative implications for a sector that was already getting less and less government backing.

The Organic Conversion Information Service (OCIS) is operated by the Organic Research Centre – Elm Farm, on behalf of Natural England, and it has been announced that the scheme will close on March 31st.

The service has been responsible for providing advice and support to farmers across England who are considering conversion to organic production. As part of the service, consultants examine the farming operation and assess, along with the farmer, its suitability for organic conversion, as well as going on to help them complete thorough and accurate application forms to send to a control body once a decision is made to proceed.

Chief Executive of Organic Farmers & Growers, Richard Jacobs, said: “We consider OCIS to be an invaluable service. It helps farmers to be reassured that their business is a good fit with organic methods if they have input from an experienced advisor early in the process.

“OCIS provides a very cost effective way of ensuring that tax payer’s money, in the form of conversion and maintenance grants, is well spent on farmers who will be committing to organic farming long term. It’s very costly to discover later that someone, or their farm, is not a good fit with organic methods, causing them to drop out. If that happens, there are costs involved in clawing back the payments. So, in that sense, OCIS can be looked at as a saving rather than a cost to the tax payer.

“Our fear is also that without support many potential converts to organic farming won’t begin to explore the organic option for their business. Only this week we’ve seen UK organics described as the ‘poor man of Europe’. It is decisions such as this which are causing that situation and we need more planning and less short-sighted cuts.”

Mr Jacobs added that this was yet another blow to the sector, following the axing of the Advisory Committee on Organic Standards (ACOS) in the recent ‘bonfire of the quangos’ the Government instigated.

“Now we have lost the expert voice that was advising the Government on standards and we are to lose the expertise that was crucial to the farmers. On its website, Natural England says “we don’t think the organic market needs help in this way anymore”. I would say they couldn’t be more wrong and that this is a very weak argument to hide behind. We would very strongly press ministers and Natural England to reconsider this decision.”

OCIS has said that visits to farms will cease around March 25, prior to full closure on March 31.