|GETTING BACK TO OUR ROOTS
Interview with Robert Kingdon, Director of Organic Farm Foods Scotland Ltd
Robert Kingdon (on left of picture) runs the largest organic vegetable packing and distribution operation in Scotland: Organic Farm Foods Scotland Limited. He was the first commercial organic supplier in Scotland. The company also has three centres in England. On Friday 12th April 2002 Sovereignty took a tour around his Bathgate premises, and asked for his views on the current situation and the future of Organic produce in the UK.
Report and pictures by Astrid Goddard
As Robert pointed out, his premises based on an industrial estate are slightly unusual, "Most people would use a greenfield site, but we just landed here 17 years ago and stayed." There are 30 employees at the site, some of whom are part-time, and they work two shifts between 7.30 am and 6.30 pm.
The premises have now expanded to 16,000 square feet, and although the smallest of the four Organic Farm Foods sites in the UK, it handles a vast amount of organic vegetables.
In addition to which, there is now milk, which is a new development being promoted with Clyde Organics - the first people to sell organic milk in Scotland under their own independent label. On their label it says the milk is produced without use of pesticides, herbicides or artificial fertilisers, and the cattle are fed on a non-GM diet. Contact Ian Parker of Clyde Organics at email@example.com
A small quantity of eggs, and fruit juice are also supplied to retail customers, together with their vegetables in an organic box scheme. Customers phone in with orders, and they are packed accordingly. Robert pointed out that he preferred this system to just sending a box full of assorted vegetables and expecting people to use what they are given.
We asked Robert what made him go into this business? He told us: "I've always had an interest in organic and wholefoods, and wanted to run my own business, and this is the way it worked out for me. About 18 years ago, I found an opening in organic vegetables, and was driving down to London once a week and driving around Scotland to sell them retail to health shops and the like. The man I purchased the vegetables from wanted to open a depot in Scotland and so we decided to work together. Once established, we got our first opening with supermarkets, and soon the focus of our business was on supplying supermarkets."
Having given us white coats and hair nets to conform to hygiene regulations, Robert showed us around his operation. Outside, Robert showed us some potato containers which each held a ton of potatoes (pictured left). Around 100 of these containers are handled each week. These potatoes had come from East Fife.
Robert: "The earliest potatoes in Scotland are ready in July. With proper storage they can keep until June of the next year. However, all home-grown potatoes are usually gone by January or February, and it may be necessary to plug the gap with imports."
"This year there are more farmers in Scotland converting to growing organic potatoes, which are an easy crop to grow. However, a lot of newly converted organic farmers grow potatoes without realising how much demand there is. There has been a very good harvest this year and supply has exceeded demand. A lot will not get sold. The fear is that this could happen with other produce, but this is more likely with potatoes as they are easier to grow. Of course, they could go into the conventional market - but that may also be over-supplied."
Asked why organic demand is limited, Robert suggested that it may be because not everyone will go into a shop and buy organic if they are not educated in the benefits. People may think it's something faddy, or something for other people, but not for them. Perhaps the word "organic" is a problem, not clear enough in its meaning.
Vegetables dealt with at this centre include all varieties of potato (white, red and baking), carrots, swedes, cabbages, cauliflowers, broccoli, brussels sprouts, leeks and tomatoes, and are sourced from Scotland and the North of England. Tomatoes are produced in a glasshouse in the North of England.
Of these, the only ones that can be supplied all year round - with proper storage - are potatoes. Research and development is needed to ensure that farmers grow the right varieties of vegetables that are bred to be frost-hardy, especially cabbages.
Robert: "Currently, April is a lean month, and the next 2-3 will be gap months. New season greens are ready in July and old season cabbage will not be around for much longer, perhaps a week or so."
Inside the warehouse, we saw boxes packed ready for collection, for box scheme customers.
He has a direct retail side of his business, where he sells directly to local folk, who phone in their orders and come to collect.
However, 90% of his business is to supermarkets. His aim is to try to supply as big a range as possible, sourced from all over the world in those instances where local produce is unavailable, or where such produce is not grown in the UK.
Interestingly, Robert pointed out that some of the contents of the boxes were supplied by Donny Macleod, the anti-GM protester, who is an organic farmer in Inverness.
We asked Robert what are the criteria that determine an organic vegetable and he showed us a manual, supplied by the Soil Association, which details all the requirements for organic production.
Robert: "When we book in a delivery, we check the organic authenticity. Every supplier has to be organic certified, and we hold current certificates for all our suppliers. All containers should have a certificate on them and a delivery note, which states categorically that the delivery is organic. If not, we raise a query."
He has around 30 or so suppliers at present, some of which are organic farms selling direct, and others involve a third party. Both farmers and agent must be certified.
We proceeded to the washing process, where we saw potatoes being washed by machine, prior to packing (pictured right; and yes, these were red). The water - and it is only water used in the process, whereas in non-organic production, it may include chlorine as a cleansing agent - is regulated by solenoid and this reduces wastage.
On the subject of the environmental friendliness of the operation, Robert also told us that the soil washed off the produce unfortunately goes into the sewage system or landfill. It would be much better if it could be re-cycled but it cannot be returned to the farms, as people don't want to risk other people's soil diseases being introduced to their farms. 1-2% of a box of potatoes or swedes could be soil. Carrots are washed at the farm, and soil is then re-cycled on site.
Next, there are three main production lines: Potatoes, carrots, and others (currently cabbage).
In order to satisfy the standards expected by the supermarkets, vegetables are checked for deformities, damage and weight, prior to and during packing. We saw carrots being sorted by machine, and checked manually, then weighed and packed. Potatoes or carrots which were bent, broken, split, mis-shapen, too small or diseased are weeded out, and thrown in a large box which goes for animal feed. This is around 10% of the material. The machinery is modern and efficient; altogether a very impressive and well-organised operation.
Finally all is checked by quality control, to ensure that the quality and weight are correct. Sample bags are kept in storage and checked to ensure that the contents keep to the expected shelf life. Each has a batch number to ensure full traceability.
EU Horticultural Marketing Inspectors visit weekly to check on quality.
A full-time technician is employed to keep the machinery going, and Robert is also able to deal with any mechanical problems himself, should the need arise.
Having completed the tour, we continued our interview in his office.
Astrid:"For someone who doesn't have the experience of growing vegetables organically, how would you explain the fundamental difference between organic and intensive farming?"
Robert: "The fundamental difference is one of approach. The organic farmer seeks to maximise the fertility of his soil and grow healthy nutritious plants."
"The organic farmer will maximise his soil fertility by using crop rotation, not using artificial fertilisers, pesticides, or herbicides, all of which do nothing for soil fertility."
"So an organic farmer will produce good, nutritious healthy food from good nutritious, healthy soil with a lot of bio-diversity in the soil, and all that goes with the bio-diversity on the farm: such as encouraging natural predators, and encouraging the plants to fight diseases themselves. But the main weapon of the organic farmer is the healthy soil."
"The intensive farmer, however, treats his soil as a medium to maximise his yield, and will use whatever inputs are necessary to effect that."
Alistair: "What is your opinion on the food miles argument?"
Robert: "Small quantities of produce transported in small inefficient vehicles locally, could be as much of a problem as large amounts travelling long distances in more efficient vehicles."
"So the measurement we should be looking at is the ratio of fossil fuels used per unit weight of vegetable, to transport it from where it is grown to where it is eaten."
"For example, fruit from South America may be transported by boat, which is very efficient and you can transport hundreds of tonnes that way. It is not a lot of fuel. If the produce is good, it's worth it. However, air freight is very inefficient."
Alistair: "The role of supermarkets is another recurring and often vexed question. What's your opinion?"
Robert: "All the bad things said about supermarkets are true, but organic produce would not be where it is today, or have the appeal to the public, if it were not for supermarkets investing and allowing people like us to supply them, and thereby giving confidence to farmers."
"In the supermarkets' favour, they do pay their bills. They take produce seven days a week. If you behave properly with them, they are very loyal. Small businesses may not pay their bills. So supermarket support gives the market the confidence to grow and expand, and allows us to pay our suppliers regularly, which in turn gives them the confidence to keep producing."
Alistair: "Do you think their role will continue to be crucial, or will other shops and farm gate sales be important?"
Robert: "Over the last 2-3 years, supermarkets have increased their share at the expense of other suppliers. People are addicted to working and being busy all the time, so they just shop at supermarkets. It's the way society is going - not the fault of the supermarkets."
Alistair: "If you were the owner of a large supermarket and had the power to promote organic produce, what would you do in order to boost demand?"
Robert: "There's always more that they could do to promote organic produce. The public has to be educated. Point of sale material - for example, educational material - helps to sell products. Another one of the best things they could do is always have the produce on the shelves."
"Other points include better ordering procedures. Small shops are much better at this. With supermarkets, all of the ordering is done by computers, and by people at head office pressing buttons. The supermarket on your High Street has no control over what's coming in. They get told by HQ what to stock and sell."
"A problem is that supermarkets can't exhort the benefits of food produced without chemicals too much, as, by implication, all their other products are laced with chemicals!"
Astrid: "What happened with Iceland supermarkets? Over a year ago they gave tremendous publicity to organic food and made a commitment to stock it, then it all seemed to fizzle out..."
Robert: "They were going to set up a factory in Eastern Europe and source all their vegetables from Eastern Europe from where it would have been cheaper. Demand was less than expected and it all fell through. But organic farmers in Britain would not have seen the benefit of any of that anyway."
Alistair: "To what extent is the EU impinging on your work?"
Robert: "We've had to spend a lot of money converting our machinery to metric, and in the case of vegetables such as swedes, people couldn't relate to whether they were value for money any longer. 86p a kilo doesn't sound good value for money. Demand fell as a result. Most products are sold in a fixed weight pack. With packed produce, at least you can see what you are getting. Swedes and such are individually priced, so people don't know. They can't perceive the value."
Alistair: "What problems do you have with marketing?"
Robert: "The conventional backlash is beginning to bite, the scientific community doesn't like the fact that organic is as popular as it is. We talk about junk food, well, we now have junk science, which many people seem to believe in. The argument goes that we've got to feed the world, and so GM is the way forward. We're going back to barbarian times."
Alistair: "The argument for organic stands to reason. If there are no pesticides used then it's better for you. There's no soil erosion, better animal welfare and so on. At the Rural Futures Conference at Wigtown, on the 16th March this year, the consensus was for organic farming, but the NFU man there said that profit margins would be cut right down. He couldn't see that people wanted the orthodoxy to change. It's about changing the whole agri-'culture', not just a battle for profit margins."
Robert: "As the market gets bigger, the big global players are coming in, and selling organic food - the alternative and radical side could just get swallowed up by the global players and they could start dictating organic standards, which would mean lowering them."
Alistair: "You mean they could co-opt the whole thing for their own agenda?"
Robert: "Yes, and now we have organic 'junk' foods coming onto the market, such as fizzy drinks. So that's where the cutting edge is. Having said that, organic is a standard of production that could be applied to everything - organic Mars bars! I see that as a danger that the whole thing is going to be subverted."
Alistair: "Organic lemonade. Well, it would be good to get to a stage where all was organic, lemonade, organic chocolate goodies and so on."
Robert: "Yes, however, in terms of health, we Scots are better at voluntary malnutrition than anyone. So if we think that matters, we should be getting rid of that stuff and encouraging people to eat healthier food."
"That would be one of the biggest spurs to local production, to get away from junk and processed food, which by it's very nature has to be globalised, and get people back to their kitchens."
Alistair: "A question raised at the Rural Futures day was; is the demand for organic produce government driven or demand driven? The government could bring in measures to facilitate demand."
Robert: "There are 2 or 3 per cent of the population that will buy organic whatever the price. Some people will buy £80 worth of shopping, and the supermarkets are desperate to lure these people in and keep them. That's why more of the supermarkets have developed organic food ranges. They have subsidised organic food for years and are now reaping the benefits. These are the customers who spend money, who think food is worth paying for."
"Pretty well everything I eat is organically grown, I feel it is better value for money. Only 1 or 2 per cent of the population think that way. How do you get that up to 3 or 4 per cent? What a difference that would make!"
"Then we have 50% of the population who will buy organic occasionally 'if the price is right'. How do we convert them to be serious 'foodies'?
"How do you convert these people? How do you make that quantum leap? Intensive agricultural business has been pushed by the government over the last 50-60 years. To a large extent the government caused the mess. Can the government get us out of it, or is it up to us quiet revolutionaries working in the background? The answer is in our hands as consumers. If there was a movement saying 'Let's get Local' then things could change quickly."
Alistair: "At what rate is the market growing?"
Robert: "It has grown exponentially in the past, and is still growing a bit, but just like any other market. Dairy, and vegetables are growing better than meat and processed products. It was 10% a year growth, which is now down to 2% a year growth. That seems static by comparison, but it is still growing. There will be a lot more dairy farmers coming on stream, not so many arable."
Alistair: "As more move into it, the price of organic milk is going to come down. Will there not be much difference in the farmer's margins?"
Robert: "There's going to have to be, or it's not worth it for the farmer. You won't get to a position where the organic price is the same as the conventional otherwise there will be no incentive to go organic.
Astrid: "In the meantime, how do you convince people about the higher cost of organic?"
Robert: "You are buying a better quality product which you have to pay more for."
"The higher costs are because farmers are not getting such a big yield. This is also because there have not been years of research and development. It is more labour intensive, and so it is creating more employment. The infrastructure of production and distribution is not so well developed, as it is still relatively small. All these lead to higher costs."
"'Cheap food' is not cheap. It's expensive in other ways. There are costs to intensive farming which are not immediately apparent, such as environmental damage and health problems."
Astrid: "Robert, thanks for your time."