The Scottish Organic Producers Association (SOPA) was formed in 1988 as an independent and provident society – celebrating its 30th birthday this year, it remains the United Kingdom’s only co-operative organic organisation.
Over those 30 years, SOPA has been working hard to communicate the benefits of organic to Scottish producers, processors and the general public.
Always at the forefront of Scotland’s organic industry, SOPA is responsible for protecting and upholding the organic integrity of all products produced by members and certified by OF&G (Scotland) Ltd, a leading UK organic certification control body, to the SOPA organic standards, supporting the building of financially and environmentally sustainable businesses and working closely with industry partners.
Although England makes up the largest percentage of the total UK organic area, the organic market in Scotland continues to grow.
The latest statistics from the Scottish Government give an interesting overview – last year, 45,000 organic lambs were born on SOPA farms, nearly 170 million bowls of organic porridge oats were grown by SOPA farmers, enough organic barley was harvested to make one million bottles of whisky and 62,500 tonnes of organic carrots were grown.
SOPA farmers also produced more than 40 tonnes of organic roast beef, steaks and mince, grew 67,000 tonnes of organic potatoes – enough to fill the cargo hold 35 times on the ferry from Aberdeen to Shetland – and produced enough organic milk to paint the Forth Rail Bridge 80 times.
As well as all that, last year SOPA farmers grew enough organic wheat to make 250,000 loaves of bread and grew enough organic peas for 7.5m servings.
There are currently 371 organic producers and 212 organic processors in Scotland. Whilst challenges facing the Scottish organic sector have come and gone over the last 30 years, perhaps the most influential is yet to come.
A survey of SOPA members in 2016 and 2018 highlighted a number of concerns surrounding the impact of Brexit.
Whilst 100 per cent of respondents say they will continue to endeavour to farm organically post Brexit, more than a third have already seen their access to markets shrink since the vote.
Respondents asserted that their highest priority post-Brexit is continued access to these markets, followed by ongoing support to the organic sector for producing food in an environmentally friendly way.
Brexit may not be a challenge that many organic farmers chose to face, but many are truly grasping other challenges that weren’t on the cards when SOPA launched 30 years ago.
Social media is playing an enormous part in the way organic is received and the organic sector has done well to embrace it.
Allowing farmers and producers to have a louder voice, so they can talk about their decision to go organic, has given them the opportunity to explore options for their business, all the while expounding the virtues of the organic sector.
Giving farmers the opportunity to tell their own story means that the public aren’t merely subjected to marketing messages, but are instead hearing the benefits directly from the horse’s mouth.
Social networks such as Instagram are allowing people to share and communicate their support for organic produce. Hashtags such as #organic (31.5 million uses), and #sustainable (3.5 million uses) are widely added to posts, all helping to spread the positive messages and opportunities associated with the organic sector.
There are a lot of misconceptions about organic being more expensive, but this isn’t the case and it represents an affordable and delicious lifestyle choice. We’d also like to see the conversation about sustainability continue. Over the past few years, more people have become invested in where their food comes from, and more aware of the impact their choices and consumers are having on the environment.
One of our newest SOPA certified producers is a fantastic example of this. Mossgiel Farm in Ayrshire is taking back control of their dairy business.
They now supply the milk from their herd directly to businesses and consumers across the west coast of Scotland and are making waves within the industry with their bid to become the UK’s first plastic-free organic dairy farm.
The team at Mossgiel have taken back control of their future, and have ensured a sustainable future for generations to come. Families like the Cunninghams, who farm at Mossgiel, are the future of organic farming. They work as a team and have refused to be dominated by factors out with their control such as milk price and plastics recycling.
All this goes to show how farmers and producers can take back control of their business and its future, whatever the challenges.
Debs Roberts, organic policy manager, SOPA (Scottish Organic Producers Association).