Does going organic make financial sense? Yes, says Mike Gooding

While organic is viewed with suspicion in some quarters of the agricultural community, major Oxfordshire farmer Mike Gooding explains the hard financial decisions that led him to converting away from conventional methods of food production

4th November 2015

1. How much of your farm business is run under the organic model?

100% of the commercial farming activities.

2. Why did you choose organic methods over so-called ‘conventional’ farming?

A number of reason but primarily because low input (cost control) systems with multi-enterprises running together are built around crop rotations and fertility provided by clover and livestock. This is, at least as defined by principle, an organic system.

Secondly, in managing 1,850 acres which are all tenanted, I seek to 'de-risk' the business by avoiding violent market fluctuations, and the organic market has been less volatile, allowing for more predictable farm planning, budgeting, and investment strategy.

3. What specifically does organic farming do for your soil, your livestock and your crops?

Having farmed 'conventionally' and converted to 'organic' (although I think the labels are pretty pointless) you loose an armoury of inputs to call on when things don't go as planned. It does mean that you have to think and plan with a much longer timeframe, and quickly learn that prevention of problems, whether weed infestations in crops or disease in livestock, is much better than cure. This does mean careful selection of the right genetics in livestock, choosing animals that can flourish in the environment you have, and that can thrive without re-course to a lots of intervention - they need to look after themselves.

It also means selecting crop varieties that can produce without the support of a multitude of chemistry.

Of course, and without being too hippy about it, it does all start with the soil, the most precious and ultimate driver of all the enterprises on the farm, and building soil structure, natural fertility, moisture holding capacity and 'workability' are absolutely fundamental.

The biggest lessons for me have been learning to be patient, you can't correct all problems in a single season, and re-learning skills of understanding plant and animal biology.

4. How economically viable is organic farming? IE: are yields reduced but costs reduced also etc?

Yes there is a yield penalty, but there is a corresponding reduction in inputs, and while my skills as a farmer effect my ability to grow crops and livestock, I have very little control or influence over input costs. It seems a sensible business strategy to manage the things you can influence, and steer clear of those you can't.

At the same time society may decide to remove some of those inputs, in which case if we haven't found different ways by then we will be forced to do so. The over use of antibiotics in both food production and human health, and a need for society to reserve them for human medication only, could easily lead to restrictions in on-farm use.

Perhaps the supplementary question to yield is .... should we not be striving for yield to feed the growing population, do we have a moral duty to maximise yield? My personal view on that is firstly yield at all costs is not sustainable - particularly on poorer land and an unprofitable farming operation is not sustainable by definition; while consumers in developed countries can throw away 30%+ of the food they purchase each week there is not a shortage of food per say; and in countries where populations are hungry because of food politics our moral duty is to help resolve that conflict.

5. And if it is economic… why don’t more lowland farmers use organic methods?

I think every farmer I have ever met has an inherent empathy with the soil, growing crops and producing livestock; it's why they are farmers. We need to challenge ourselves and ask if the methods and practices we use are right, and a heafty dose of scepticism is extremely useful. Why for example do not more farmers feed pigs forage when there is real evidence that this is a much better diet for them and produces pork at a lower cost of production? Change is never easy, but we have to continue to learn and develop.

6. How do you see the future of organic farming – and will the market for organic food grow?

The future for farming that is economically viable (the farmer makes a reasonable living), environmentally sensitive (where we build the natural resources we depend upon), and is ethically sound (where we breed and produce animals and crops in ways that are appropriate for all of society), then the next 20 years is the most exciting time to be a farmer. I'm not really worried about what it's called, it's the principles used that matter.

Will the market grow ..... nine and a half billion people will need feeding!

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