The Ministry of Agriculture, Farming and Fisheries (MAFF) says its budget to support farmers converting will increase six-fold this year with further increases next year. The Ministry expects the number of farmers applying for the conversion grants to rise as a result of the increase in aid and the growing interest in the sector.

Under the previous scheme – the Organic Aid Scheme – there was an additional payment of £30/ ha/ annum on the first 5 ha for five years. This will be replaced by lump sums per organic unit of £300 in the first year, £200 in the second year and £100 in the third year. These payments recognise additional costs arising from, for example, training and organic certification.

A parallel scheme is about to be introduced in Northern Ireland. Increases in payments to farmers in Scotland and Wales who convert to organic farming are under consideration.

The Organic Farming Scheme is introduced under the UK Government’s the agri-environment regulation. The Scheme has been approved by the European Commission and will be part funded by the European Community. It implements recommendations of the Review of the Organic Aid Scheme published in April 1998 An explanatory booklet on the Organic Farming Scheme and application forms can be obtained from the MAFF’s Regional Service Centres.

Launching the Organic Farming Scheme, Agriculture Minister Nick Brown said: “We expect demand for the new Scheme to be strong and we expect the budget for it to be fully committed.”

In reply to criticism that the UK Government is not providing continuing financial support for organic farmers, Brown said: “To make best use of the money available we have decided to concentrate aid on the conversion period when yields drop and the additional returns from organic produce cannot be realised.”

The Soil Association described the new Scheme as “inadequate to meet either the present or future demands of organic agriculture in the UK.” The organization criticised the Government for failing to take into account the increase in farmers converting to organic systems.

Patrick Holden, Director of the Soil Association said: “Our estimates suggest there are already 30,000 ha of land eligible for these new payments, mopping up the allocated £6 million budget without even taking into account new applications later in the year. If MAFF had taken the trouble to consult us, it would have been obvious that current conversion trends far exceed their unrealistic projections.

“The UK now has a second rate organic aid scheme which ultimately is a reflection of the Prime Minister’s lack of interest in organic farming despite the huge increase in consumer demand.”

Simon Brenman, the Soil Association’s Agricultural Development Director, added: “Nick Brown should instruct the ministry to stop treating this as an excuse to spend as little as possible and give organic farmers in the UK a chance to catch up with those in Europe.”

The Soil Association further criticised the review for penalising farmers who may receive reduced conversion support payments as a result of being in ESAs (Environmentally Sensitive Areas) or Countryside Stewardship schemes.

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