Organic: It's tough, but if we stick at it it'll come good

If you wanted a single take-home message from yesterday’s Organic Farmers & Growers ‘Selling Organic’ conference it could probably be summed up as: “It’s tough, but if we stick at it it’ll come good”.

The headline figures still don’t make great reading admitted OF&G’s Richard Jacobs in his opening address — organic retail sales down 4%, following a 10% drop in 2009. But he added that “the rate of decline is slowing and some companies are positively bucking the trend”.

Jacobs flagged the findings of the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial — which showed organic farming builds (rather than depletes) soil quality and matches (and sometimes exceeds) conventional yields — as a landmark study with potentially huge ramifications.

Community Foods’ Paul Moore told the conference there were many “reasons to be cheerful”. Several important organic categories — baby food, fresh beef and butter among them — showed decent growth over the last 12 months, he said. Look beyond the ‘Big Six’ supermarkets — the biggest of whom caught a cold over organic at the beginning of the recession — and you see some strong retail performance (Planet Organic up 12%, Ocado trading strongly on organic).

Planet Organic founder Renée Elliott confirmed the positive trend, adding that the company’s recently opened store in the City of London was “trading to expectation” and that a site for a sixth store was being sought.

Giving a progress update on the Why I Love Organic campaign, Sophie Daranyi ceo of marketing firm Haygarth said that, following a recent Organic Trade Board stakeholder meeting, the short-term objective of the campaign had been revised to “stopping the decline”. She said that the second year of the three-year campaign would focus on themes of “naturalness” and “great tasting”. She also unveiled the just launched Discover Organic cookbook which is endorsed by celebrities such as BBC presenter Kate Humble and is currently being backed with a major PR drive.

Paul Moore continued: “The Why I Love Organic campaign offers the prospect of a united organic brand — as well as our own independent brand. Can it work? Well it has for us (Community Foods’ sales are up 18%), and if you look at when that growth began to take off it was precisely around the time that the WILO campaign launched in the media.”

Conference quotes

“Market reports shows overall organic sales are down 4%, and 10% the previous year. I don’t really care. It’s irrelevant to us. My advice is, just don’t listen to the big news. Sell your product. Do what you do well … and you’ll do well” Reneé Elliott, Planet Organic

The biggest single thing that brings people to organic is pesticide residues. Why don’t we ever talk about it? Lawrence Woodard

The big question is how do we show customers that organic is worth it, and what messages should we use? Richard Jacobs, Organic Farmers & Growers

I’m tired of listening to the prophets of doom Paul Moore, Community Foods

• More reporting on this story soon.