DEFRA has re-launched a free national information and advice service for farmers thinking of converting to organic production.
The advisory service will provide conventional farmers with impartial information and advice on the principles and mechanics of organic production to help them decide whether conversion is appropriate for their enterprise.
The service, which will be delivered by Natural England (NE), will include national helpline that will provide initial advice and a comprehensive information pack and a dedicated website.
Where appropriate, there will also be a free on-farm advisory service that will supplement the initial advice.
Natural England has appointed the Organic Research Centre (ORC), based at Elm Farm, to deliver the new service after inviting tenders in the usual way.
The initiative re-establishes a service known as the Organic Conversion Information Service (OCIS), operated by the Soil Association and Elm Farm Research Centre, on behalf of Defra, from 1999 to 2006.
Until its closure, OCIS dealt with some 15,600 calls and carried out more than 8,000 free on-farm advice visits at a total cost to Defra of approximately £5 million.
An independent review and public consultation on the future of OCIS was carried out by Defra in 2005/06. It concluded that an advice programme for prospective organic farmers should continue in England subject to changes being made to how it should operate.
The revived initiative has been approved by the European Commission under the State Aid exempted rules procedure and funding has been made available for it.
Food and Farming Minister Lord Rooker said the Government was keen to encourage English farmers to convert and take advantage of the wide range of opportunities offered by rising demand for organic food.
“The Organic Research Centre has an established record of providing the agriculture sector with high quality impartial conversion information and advice and we are delighted to be collaborating with them and NE in the delivery of this new service,” he said.
Sir Martin Doughty, chair of Natural England, said: “This is good news for farmers wishing to convert to organic production and subsequently good news for wildlife.
“One of the potential barriers to conversion is a lack of knowledge by non organic producers about organic principles and production methods – a barrier which OCIS, delivered by the Organic Research Centre, will help to remove.”