Alan Schofield: 'You don't have be certified to be organic'

Organic label
Organic certification is not a requirement for membership to the Organic Growers Alliance, which considers itself the voice of organic horticulturalists in the UK
Alan Schofield has run a vegetable box scheme for almost 30 years and is a veteran of the Soil Association. He talks to the Ecologist about why he set up the Organic Growers Alliance - and how it now complements the work of the larger certification body

Jemima Roberts: Tell me about the Organic Growers Alliance (OGA)

Alan Schofield: The OGA began 5 years ago and is a membership based organisation supporting and working to build, effective representation for organic horticulture in the UK.

We are a Community Interest Company (CIC) with a membership. Funding comes from that membership base - individuals. CIC status allows us to accept donations, though we have never solicited them.

As growers, our common ground will always be greater than our differences. In the run up to the formation of the OGA, grievances would be dealt with by DEFRA and various certification bodies, on an individual basis. We felt that as a body, we could present a more of a unified voice.

We also have an interactive website, a forum where people can post technical questions, air their gripes, talk socially. Crucially, any issue that comes up, we can invite comment from more than 150 growers in the country that can then be fed back to DEFRA, the Soil Association and other certification bodies.

JR: Who are your members?

AS: We have approximately 250 members of which the largest proportion are full-time organic growers.

We offer 3 membership types: Full Membership (full voting rights, available to part/full-time organic grower), Associate Membership (available to non-growers) and Student Membership (Organic Apprentices etc - a subsidised membership to allow those on a low wage to join).

We do not offer corporate membership but our Associate Membership allows people working within large companies to join. We felt that if we limited voting powers (i.e. full membership) to organic growers, we could remain in control of all the things that we said whilst also opening out membership to others.

The OGA also publishes a quarterly magazine, The Organic Grower, that is sent out to every member.

Organic certification, an early decision, is not part of the criteria for membership.

JR: Can you expand on this last point?

AS: Certification is a cost and therefore you have to be running a full commercial business to justify that cost. We wanted to be able to include people whose principles are in the right place.

Growers within Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects look to certification standards for guidelines and for growing within the spirit of them and yet, the CSA does not have the business turnover to warrant full certification. Similarly with community allotment projects, etc.

It is important to be able to disseminate how, for example, you grow a crop of shallots from seed organically and to open it out to those people who are hungry for the technical information. We felt that there would be limitations on all fronts if we were to limit our membership to commercial horticulturalists.

In addition, the OGA as a stand aside organisation, is granted the independence to be able to discuss the ins and outs of certification, without affiliation/constraint. This, I feel, has really helped the morale of growers.

JR: Is the OGA principally dedicated to offering technical support and representation, or does your remit extend beyond that?

AS: We are committed to both those aspects as well as with the social needs, the community if you like, of growers.

If you have spent a few weeks handweeding a few acres of carrots, it can be an exceptionally lonely job. When you do meet other likeminded people at a social event, the feeling is remarkable, of being together.

We wanted to get that feeling back. We'd had it in the early days but there was now a whole new generation who were coming into organic horticulture, without the support that we had enjoyed when we had first started.

This needed to be redressed. That social element - the meal, evening get together - after the official business of the day, to me is as important as the official business of the day.

JR: To backtrack a little, can you give me a brief history as to how the Organic Growers Alliance came about?

AS: In the early 80s, there was the Organic Growers Association. This was eventually incorporated into the Soil Association, which was going from strength to strength. The Soil Association ran dedicated horticultural events, symposiums etc. There was also Producer Services - a forum for farmers and growers within the organisation.

As organics blossomed into being a real player in the marketplace, there was less time - within the Soil Association - for farmer and grower business. Meetings essentially became ‘fire-fighting' exercises: making decisions for DEFRA, policy issues...

We felt there was simply no longer enough a space for growers. We were turning up at Soil Association conferences and listening to, let's say an MP or international speakers who were... all very good... but we felt that the actual nitty gritty, the practical application of organic as regards horticulture, was missing.

The issues that were coming out of the marketplace became dominant and we were all very guilty of riding the surfboard on the crest of the wave.

The Soil Association got very overwhelmed during that period with issues that were less to do with the practicalities, of how to support, how to represent, your present and burgeoning list of practicing horticulturalists.

There was a gap and that was why we got together and decided that it was time to form some kind of organisation and thus, the Alliance was born.

JR: What's your relationship like now with the Soil Association?

AS: Our relationship with them now is very good. But it has taken a lot of working on. The original feeling of many in the Soil Association was, ‘the growers have left the camp', but that was certainly not the intention. We set up the OGA to support organic horticulturalists who were not getting that sort of representation from anywhere else.

It was as important to us, as it was the Soil Association, that some form of liaison was started again. The Soil Association does have its roots within a farmer/grower community and we wanted to get that back. They were very open to this and a committee of sorts was proposed, we were reluctant: committees can be akin to throwing money at a problem, i.e. often ineffectual.

Nowadays, it is well recognised that the OGA is certainly not a threat, especially during things like consultations - I think we have come to be seen as much more of an asset. We are able to act as a bridge - we can offer a unified representation of the diversity of voices within the grower community.

Good news, good relations - all to be welcomed.

JR: Looking to the future: what support does the OGA offer to budding horticulturalists?

AS: The Soil Association has done a lot with regards to the launch of the Apprenticeship Scheme for new entrants into organic horticulture. However, funding and publicity for the scheme remain inadequate.

The issue of access to land for example, cannot be addressed overnight, but we - the OGA - are keenly aware of it. As we are of the issue of finance, of adequate training. It is increasingly difficult for people without a horticultural background to break into this field, and we would hope to be a helpful point along that journey for those individuals.

We are in the process of collating all of the technical information that has been published in say, the last 10 years, which will make up a new ‘library' on the website. There is also to be a dedicated ‘Organic Futures' column in the magazine, directly addressing issues that young and new growers face. We also offer subsidised membership to new entrants.

One of the founding aims of the OGA was to ‘pass the baton' down - from the older generation and into the hands of the next generation. This was and remains, very much at the heart of the OGA.

Alan Schofield has been an organic grower for 29 years and in tandem with his wife Debra, runs Growing with Nature, the UK's longest running organic, locally grown, vegetable box scheme.

Alan is the past Chairman of the Soil Association Horticultural Standards Committee, past member of the Standards Board as well as the UKROFS technical committee. Currently, he sits on the Soil Association Farmer and Grower Board as well as being advisor to the Isle of Man Government on organic production. He is also the Chairman of the Organic Growers Alliance.

Jemima Roberts is a freelance journalist

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