WA organic farming on rise

Jenne BrammerThe West Australian

The production of organic grain from WA could almost treble this year in order to meet strong export demand.

Organic grain marketer Primal Foods Group, Director Peter Longhurst, based in NSW, visited potential WA organic growers last week in a bid to encourage further organic grain farming.

Currently strong demand for organic grain is outstripping supply, leading to higher premiums for growers. Milling grade grains are currently attracting around double that of conventional grain ex farm, whilst feed grade grains are fetching around 75 per cent more ex farm.

In WA it is estimated that just 2,000ha is dedicated to growing certified organic grain, which is sold to the domestic market, primarily consisting of oats in the south and wheat in northern and central areas of WA.

Primal Foods Group is hoping to sign contracts with WA farmers to this year plant a further 5,000ha of organic grain and envisages this area growing to 40,000ha in future years.

Contracts for organic grain are signed on a hectare rather than tonnage basis as there is little scope to buy further grain to fulfil contracts in the case of a shortfall.

"We are in talks with WA farmers who have expressed an interest in growing organically. Quite often they have already applied some biodynamic principles to their properties, prior to our initial discussions," Mr Longhurst said.

Following lobbying by the Organic Industry Standards Consultative Committee to the Department of Agriculture, growers who had not used any disallowed inputs from a chemically-derived source for a period of time prior to application could potentially reduce the time to achieve certification, provided they had documentation as evidence and soil testing could support their claims.

"Essentially these farmers would still have to go through a period of in-conversion, following the dropping of the compulsory pre-certification first year, it may be as short as 12 months depending on the input and management history. Once in-conversion their grain can still be marketed to overseas clients and achieve the full premium straight away," he said.

The three-year period still is applied if these requirements are not met.

Mr Longhurst said to help boost WA organic grain production, Primal Foods would run a project with certifiers such as the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia to provide additional advice and support to growers to manage the application process. This includes arranging a dedicated auditor who would visit WA and offer the certification application process for all qualifying properties.

Mr Longhurst plans to return to WA in six weeks to have further talks with potential organic growers.

Currently in WA, only enough organic wheat is produced to supply the domestic market. Most organic wheat is sold to Millers Grain in Byford, Perth, whilst Unigrain in Wagin purchases the majority of organic oats.

Mr Longhurst said Primal Foods had no intention of competing with existing relationships.

"In fact with more scale in production, this gives the current mills more flexibility, to increase their own organic processing beyond their current volumes." he said.

He disagrees with concerns that the current premiums would entice people into organic farming for the wrong reasons.

"The fact is organic farming is hard work. Nobody does it just for the money, those who do go into it for the money do not usually stay for long," he said. "The premiums for organic grains are a great headline, however long term organic growers also gain satisfaction from the production of food from an environmentally based production system, lower production costs, therefore lower financial risk, and being able to farm without handling potentially hazardous chemicals."

Mr Longhurst's meetings last week were part of a broader series of talks with Australian farmers about increasing organic production in order to service strong domestic and export demand.

Australia wide, Mr Longhurst expects there is enough demand for 150,000ha of organic grain, more than three times the 45,000ha currently planted.

Another initiative to help boost Australian organic grain production is Primal Foods' application for research funding. If successful, in conjunction with other bodies like universities, this would fund dedicated research that supports organic farmers in terms of seed selection (including rotations etc), weed control and soil management.

Cunderdin farmer Ian James is hoping to achieve organic certification on 400ha of his 2,500ha farm this year.

He said these paddocks had been used for pasture for the past three years, and so had no chemicals applied over this period.

Form some time Mr James had been keen to achieve organic certification and was farming accordingly.

However he found he was getting bogged down in a minefield of complexity when considering the certification process.

Mr James therefore welcomed the Primal Foods Group initiative which he said would help him move toward this goal.

"The fact that someone is taking the initiative and offering guidance and organising an auditor is a huge help to potential organic growers such as myself," he said.

The Department of Agriculture's dropping of the pre-cert year requirement was also a big help. Whilst some existing organic growers might be concerned that this was a relaxing of standards, Mr James assured this was not the case.

"It still only applies to those who have been complying with organic standards. These have not been watered down," he said.

Mr James's paddocks will still need to have two in conversion years, however he can achieve the full premium for his grain via Primal Foods during this time.

Mr James plans to plant oats on the 400ha this year. This will provide some management changes, ie he will seed later than usual, after ploughing to help combat weeds.

Also this year Mr James plans to dedicate further paddocks to have them chemical free and eventually increase the area on his property that has not been farmed with chemicals, the aim being to have further paddocks organically certified in future.

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