Organic losing its glamour says Watson

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Declining organic food sales mean organic production has lost its glamour for farmers, according to the grower behind the UK’s largest organic box scheme.

Guy Watson, founder of Riverford Organics, said a 25 per cent decline in sales of organic produce over the past four years meant fewer farmers were considering going into organic production, a situation which was a potential crisis for his company.

Speaking at the Oxford Real Farming Conference yesterday, Watson said that, while his company provided organic fruit and vegetables to 70,000 customers and had a turnover of £45 million, growers had become cautious of entering the sector.

“Over 90 per cent of groceries go through the supermarkets and when the recession hit they took lots of it off the shelf and replaced it with bargain food because that’s what they thought consumers wanted,” he told delegates during a session on community agriculture and farming co-operatively.

“It has been a self-fulfilling and sales dropped.

“In the past year we have not attracted any new members to our growing co-op and there is little dynamism. I can see a crisis coming.

“It’s not because people don’t necessarily want to farm co-operatively, it’s because the glamour has gone from organic farming since its 2008 peak.”

Despite growers’ concerns, Watson insisted there was still a future for the organic sector.

“Organic is still growing worldwide and our customers are committed, so we expect to see growth in future,” he said.

He was also confident about the structure of farming co-operatives, provided that members continued to innovate and learnt from other business models.

“Companies that are successful are the ones that focus, the ones who fail are the ones who add unnecessary complexities,” he said.

“People who favour co-operative structures reject conventional business because they think of big multinationals and corporate bankers.

“But there are dedicated businesses who just want to do something really well.

“There’s a danger of people interested in co-ops tearing that up. Instead you need to learn from it and do what they do badly better, perhaps in a co-op structure.”