Burgeoning demand for organic arable crops in the UK and increasing reliance on imports has prompted experts to call for more co-operation between organic producers.

Organic crop imports made up 60% of total use in the UK in 2007, with the figure predicted to rise to 70% for 2008, delegates at a recent North Yorkshire seminar organised by the three Northern Organic Centres – north-west, north-east and Yorkshire – were told.

About 200,000t of tradeable organic cereals and proteins were needed to meet current annual demand.

Growers would have to more than double their acreage to achieve UK self-sufficiency, said Stephen Briggs of Abacus Organic Associates.

What’s needed

“We need more organic livestock producers to grow their own crops for home feeding.

“But this could present a challenge on some livestock units, which may lack the necessary equipment and the technical expertise,” said Mr Briggs.

“We have already seen a move towards localised co-operation between organic arable and livestock producers, but the principles need to be extended on a more regional basis.”

Some successful inter-regional partnerships had already been established, Mr Briggs added. For example, one Norfolk grower was producing organic sugar beet to feed dairy cows in Leicester.

Lower fixed costs

He said lower fixed costs were an incentive to growers considering organic production. “If a farm is in the situation where investment is needed in machinery and storage, then it makes sense to produce a lower volume of crop with a higher value.

“This may not apply to modern units that have the equipment and facilities to handle large quantities of conventional crops.”

Mr Briggs refuted the suggestion that arable-only systems would struggle to achieve adequate soil structure and nutrient status. Some organic arable units had been operating successfully for more than a decade, he said.

The key was to plan rotations carefully to include undersown green manure crops like red and white clover, vetch and peas or beans.

Rotational choice

Rotational choice was also all-important in the battle against weeds without the use of herbicides.

“The less competitive crops like wheat should be grown earlier in the rotation, followed by triticale or oats, which are better equipped to cope with competition from weeds.

“Organic growers actually tend to have fewer problems with weeds like blackgrass and sterile brome than conventional producers, because weed reduction is likely to figure more prominently when they are planning their rotation.”

Conversion

Producers reluctant to convert their entire acreage to organic conversion should select their best quality land for organic production, said Mr Briggs.

Partial conversion could be worthwhile, but growers should calculate the minimum area needed to produce marketable quantities at harvest.

He also advised conventional growers to investigate demand for organic produce, by gathering information from local millers and specialist organisations.