Friday, 24 October 2008

A word about? ...Organic

This year most of our cider, and all of our small batch of perry will be made from the fruit of old unsprayed traditional orchards. The only fertilizers these trees receive are from the livestock which graze the orchard floor during the Summer months or the diverse range of fauna attracted to these largely unmanaged havens for wildlife. We count ourselves very lucky to be given access to these venerable, unspoilt orchards, which we're confident have been free of any agricultural spraying programme for many years, if indeed they've ever been sprayed!

Unfortunately most of the trees and orchards we gather our fruit from are living on borrowed time, of little or no commercial value, merely waiting to be exploited as building land or at the very least for a more profitable agricultural use. Grain seems to be the flavour of the month, apples have been out of favour for decades! By continuing to harvest (and pay for) the fruit from these traditional old orchards, we like to think we're going some way towards supporting their continued existence, even if it's only in a very small way.

The cider we make from the fruit of these old, unsprayed orchards is not necessarily better than that made from more intensively grown fruit, that's all down to the blend of apples and the skills we aim to bring to the cidermaking process. But given the choice we'll always choose to make our cider from apples grown without the use of agri-chemicals, even if that means hand picking the fruit and paying more for the privilege. The more intensively managed the orchard, the more need there seems to be for sprays and chemical fertilizers, and we've found that the fruit from old traditional orchards is often largely free from the sort of diseases which are routinely sprayed for in the more intensive orchard environments. Which brings me rather neatly to the point of this blog entry, the 'O' word.

Organic ciders have to be made from apples grown organically, ie. grown subject to strict guidelines on what can and cannot be added to the soil and the trees themselves, and so reduce the growers impact on the environment in general. The organic system has always made sense to me, I don't want to eat and drink things full of artificial chemicals, and I care enough about the environment to want to support organic growers and to encourage more to think and farm in the same way. So why are things not so rosy in the organic orchard...

The cider we made in September was from a batch of fully certified organic apples, 'cull fruit' not suitable for commercial sale due to blemishes or small size, but perfectly suitable for juicing and cidermaking. We were offered the fruit by the nice people at Windmill Orchards in the Northamptonshire village of Sulgrave, and felt that it was worth making an experimental batch of cider, since not only would it be from 'Organic' apples, but also from relatively 'local' Northamptonshire fruit. Even though we knew we wouldn't be able to call the resulting cider 'Organic', we were reasonably confident that we would be able to label the cider as being made from 'organic apples'. We would therefore be able to comfortably pass on the higher cost of the apples in a slightly increased price for the cider, knowing that customers would be getting the double whammy of a truly local cider made from purely organic apples.

I decided it was time to contact the UK arbiters of all things 'Organic', the Soil Association, to find out where we stood with regard to the labelling of this 'premium' batch of cider, which is where it all started going wrong! Because we are not registered as organic producers with the Soil Association, we cannot use the word 'Organic' anywhere on labelling or publicity, this despite the fact that we have receipts for all the apples which went into this batch of cider from certified organic growers.

I suppose I can understand the need for policing the use of the word 'Organic' throughout the chain of production from growing to selling, but the problem is that very small producers like ourselves are effectively priced out of the whole Organic loop. The minimum cost for registration with the Soil Association is well over £500 per annum, which is small change for large-scale producers, but a significant percentage of our current turnover. It really isn't worth our registering for this cost, any additional value we would realise from our 'cider made from apples grown by a certified organic grower' (even this title may be breaking the law!) would be wiped out by the cost of inspection and registration with the Soil Association. There is a sliding scale for registration, based on the size of the business, but unfortunately the scale doesn't slide anywhere near our (or many other small-scale cidermakers who are also using unsprayed fruit) level.

So, we will continue to make ciders and perry from totally unsullied apples and pears (of a standard which actually exceeds that of organically grown fruit, ie. no Sulphur sprays against scab!), but it's doubtful whether we'll be repeating the experiment of producing a cider from 'Organic' apples next year, since there's little chance that we can realise the value of a cider made from fruit that we can't talk about in public!


Anonymous said...

Hi Mark, it's my understanding that the Soil Associations no longer has the monopoly of conferring organic status, there are half a dozen such organisations so it might be worth checking out the others fees or sliding scales to see if there might be one which is more accessible for small producers.

Mark said...

I didn't know that, thanks for that Andy. Depending on how this year's cider comes out I'll have to do some ringing around, but things are additionaly complicated by the fact that we may not even have access to organic fruit every year. These organic apples were offered to us because Windmill Orchard already had a stock of apple juice so they were surplus to requirements. This may not be the case next season.

Ray and Gail said...

I understand your frustrations on this. We simply describe ours as made from unsprayed fruit, which seems to be mostly what that Joe Public is concerned about.