Published on Tuesday, October 18, 2005 by the Independent / UK
Former City Dwellers Starting Organic Farms Bring New Spirit of Enterprise to Countryside
by Jonathan Brown, interviews by Delia Monk
They have given up well-paid jobs in the cities in search of the good life. With no previous experience, but equipped with degrees, idealism and the skills acquired in the corporate world, they are breathing new life into the countryside.
These are the findings of a new report published today examining the astonishing impact that organic farming is having on England's rural economy. Such is the influx of new blood, it is estimated that one in three of all new organic farmers has no previous farming experience. Six out of 10 organic producers have worked outside traditional farming at some point, bringing a much-needed injection of fresh ideas, the report said.
The report's co-author, Matt Lobley of Exeter University's Centre for Rural Research, said: "If you look at the population of organic farmers, far more of them come from non-farming backgrounds. They have different skills and different attitudes and are very entrepreneurial."
Typical innovations include direct marketing of produce through farm shops, websites or organic vegetable box schemes. It is the kind of enterprise seen by television viewers on BBC2's Jimmy's Farm, which showed a new farmer, Jim Doherty, struggle to set up the Essex Pig Company with the help of a loan from the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, a schoolfriend.
Dr Lobley said the incomers "bring business skills and often they have an enhanced appreciation of marketing, the media and getting publicity. They have much better experience and background in dealing with people and customers. The average farmer just doesn't have these skills."
The research, the first of its kind, was commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Of the 640 farmers surveyed, nearly half of the new organic farmers had a degree or higher qualification - a far larger proportion than the general population.
The report also found that organic farmers were on average six years younger than their traditional counterparts, with a much higher proportion of farmers aged 45 and under.
As well as being younger they are also happier, said Dr Lobley. "We think this reflects an increasingly popular lifestyle trend which is in part helping to shape the rural economy. They are working hard, but they seem to be happy with their way of life because they have made a positive choice to do it, and are not doing it by default."
Although organic farms comprise only 3 per cent of the farm population, they have made up one of the fastest-growing agricultural sectors in recent years. There are now 1,636 registered organic farmers in England, with the market for their produce worth £1.2bn.
Organic farmers are also more likely to diversify their businesses and employ extra people - a crucial factor in rural development. While 6.4 people work on the average organic farm, only 4.6 are emplo
Organic farmers also generate higher revenues per hectare of land than non-organic - the result of added value enterprises such as marketing their own brand products.
The report found that organic farmers were much more likely to get involved in environmental projects. But many risked isolation from friends and relatives. Nearly a third had moved more than 100 miles from their former homes to begin farming.
'We get life satisfaction': Chris Evans, 50, and Jane Eden, 49
When the owners of a 538-hectare farm near the village of Brompton in Cumbria retired because of the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic, Chris Evans, 50, and his partner Jane Eden, 49, saw the chance to salvage something from the disaster.
Mr Evans wasmanaging director of a credit card company in Bromley, Kent, having recently met up again with his childhood sweetheart, Ms Eden, who was a full-time mother. They were looking for a change of life although neither had considered farming before.
"It seemed too good an opportunity to turn down," said Ms Eden. After enrolling on a two-year farming course, the couple set to work, converting Askerton Castle farm to full organic status in September last year. Now as well as breeding traditional Belted Galloway cattle, Scottish Blackface and Kerry Hill sheep, they also produce hens and organic eggs.
"We get a great life satisfaction, it enables you to stand back and appreciate what you've got around you."
'It's exciting and tough': Jody Scheckter, 55
Jody Scheckter left the glamorous world of Formula 1 motor racing for the somewhat less frenetic pursuit of organic farming. But he says the challenges are every bit as demanding.
The 55-year-old former world champion retired from motor sport in 1980 to set up a business in the United States. His interest in organic farming was stirred when his wife, Clare, bought him a book on the subject.
On their return to Britain in 1996 the Scheckters bought Laverstoke Park Farm near Overton in Hampshire. Originally 500 acres, they purchased neighbouring land and the farm is now 2,500 acres, selling fruit and vegetables as well as breeding cattle, wild boar, pigs, buffalo and poultry.
"I am a real foodie. But you can't go into someone's game and expect to play it. Farming is very complicated and we are only five years old and are still very young. But it is a very exciting and tough experience and you need a lot of skills," he said.
© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.