What do Beaujolais Nouveau wine, Cadbury Creme Eggs, and Irish organic hill lamb have in common? Read on.

In many respects the organic lamb market has gone backwards. 

When John Brennan of Leitrim Organic Farmers Co-op did his Masters on organic lamb in the mid-2000s, his survey revealed that 40% of organic lamb was actually sold as organic. 

Today this figure is below 30%, according to the most recent Bord Bia study.

So why is this the case, and what can be done about it?

I spoke with some organic lamb stakeholders to try to unpack the topic this week and next week.

Declan Fennell of Bord Bia, who hosted the recent organic lamb research, cited the following key blockages: lack of a critical mass of finished lamb to the correct spec and lack of year-round supply co-ordination.

“From 18kg-22kg is the ideal carcass weight,” he told me. 

“A greater proportion of what we export is primals. Reaching this desired weight and fat cover allows different primal cuts. So we can sell it in different parts for a broader customer base. You optimise the carcass, accessing more markets, getting better prices.”

He adds, with reference to the overall lamb sector: “Ten years ago we exported full carcasses to the UK and France. We’d a smaller customer base, we were price taking, competing against others. Now we dismantle the carcass into individual primals. So we add value here in Ireland for the market. We can then approach discerning customers looking for specifics — so it could be centre loin for the Swiss, fore quarters in Scandinavia and so on. Also food service, manufacturing and retail all want different things.”

His research showed that 58% are within 36kg and 45kg live weight, which generates deadweight of 18kg-22kg. However in lowland system it is easier to reach this weight, while hill farmed lambs are typically lighter.

Seasonal supply is also an issue — “90% of organic lamb is sold from June to November, while for conventional the figure is 55%,” he adds.

Inevitably the cost of organic winter feed, twice the price of conventional feed — is prohibitive. Certainly the market mantra is that the customer demands year-round supply of all things, but this is not exclusively the case. Some products are genuinely seasonal and market themselves as that.

One of the most famous examples is Beaujolais Nouveau wine, which always markets its arrival at a specific time of year with a marketing campaign. This wine simply isn’t available before the campaign, as it’s a very young, fresh wine released in the same year as purchase.

Cadbury Creme Eggs? Brilliant marketing as a controlled and contrived seasonality. Seasonality vs year round availability is in fact part of a general disagreement between approaches to food, and organic is certainly comfortable in the former.

To some degree, Declan did warm to this idea of special, specialist seasonal organic lamb. 

He said: “The European organic buyer is discerning, their agenda is health and wellness, so there might be a better understanding that it is a seasonal product. So maybe that’s the special story — it is seasonal. Obviously in retail it’s all about 52 weeks of the year, but maybe it’s a point of reflection, if 90% is sold withinsix months, how do we realise more of them as organic with the premium price?”

Nevertheless, we should be “extending seasonality” at the minimum, he suggests, while adding “organic food is a growing area, whereas the market is flat elsewhere — so that’s a great market signal.”

Co-ordinating supply involves “working with the processors, and there is only one at the moment of the necessary scale. We’d like to develop the market. We’ll work with whatever processors are interested in this”.

It is to the processors and others we turn next week.


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