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Taking control - The Cirencester Conference 2006

For the first time since the turn of the Millennium a proper organic producer conference has provided a forum for debate on the future development and direction of the UK organic sector.

Over two days at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester some 170 delegates set about analysing the state of their movement and plotted a remedial course. In doing so a new mood of optimism was tangible. The strength of the conference lay in the “self help” nature of its organisation, put together by a network of groups and individuals to address technical and policy matters. The slide away from principles, uneven application of standards, incomes under pressure, business survival, poor and patchy representation were all on the agenda.

As one grower commented “the second age of the modern UK organic movement starts here.”

Others agreed and were just as succinct in their soundbites – “Intensification is a dead end”…”Are we (in the organic sector) made to be mainstream”…”What has happened to our revolutionary, anti-normal stance”?

Amongst the delegates, Soil Association director Patrick Holden, accepted that in recent years there has been over centralisation and marginalisation of individual producers. “We, in Bristol, are not the organic movement – you are,” he said.

And he made promises of reform to include the possible exemption of small growers from annual inspection and certification and pointed to a new SA apprentice scheme to help new, young blood into the organic sector.

Where better to illustrate the very point of the conference than in the poultry sector? Launched at the conference was a new organic poultry body – CROP, the campaign for real organic poultry, modelled to some degree on the real ale group CAMRA. The driving force behind CROP are Pam and Ritchie Riggs, who run a small “real” organic poultry enterprise in Devon. Driven by the over-industrialisation of their sector where mass produced birds and eggs with the same organic logs attached and at the same price sit alongside their prime poultry produce, Ritchie decided it was time to act. CROP’s aims are –

  • To kick back at over industrialisation
  • To equip consumers with knowledge to make informed organic choices
  • To take control of the production process
  • To encourage the addition of poultry to mixed organic farms as management tools
  • To promote the very highest levels of poultry welfare and slaughter practice
  • To influence and lead the rest of the organic poultry sector

Horticultural growers too came together in the re-launch of the Organic Growers Association (OGA). Key goals of the new OGA are to give effective, independent grower representation, to provide information and services and to produce a new organic horticultural journal. Already 40 growers have signed up and the target is to reach 400 OGA members.

But the products of Cirencester far exceed the launch of CROP and the new OGA. A new coherence of thought has been achieved, new confidence instilled that individual producers can make a difference. The message is - don’t be swept along in a tide of globalised industrialisation. Organic is different. It has to break the conventional mold, not let conventional break it.