PROFITING FROM alternative crops is no longer a pipe dream, according to speakers at last week”s Alternative Crop Conference at Castle Hill Estate, Filleigh, Devon.

New varieties and guaranteed prices offer farmers a secure and profitable future, and fast-growing markets offer great potential, they suggested.

Simon Meakin, of the Springdale Group (SG), which links research, industry and agriculture to develop new non-food crop markets, said he has contracts on 26,300ha (65,000 acres) this year.

“The UK is probably the best place in the world to grow alternative crops,” he said. “The opportunities are absolutely vast.”

Most are spring-sown with low input needs. All are eligible for single farm payment, with energy crops getting an extra 40/ha (11/acre).

Growers receive full agronomic advice to ensure the best results, and most crops require no specialist machinery, explained Mr Meakin. “There is no point in developing a crop which needs a huge capital input.”

Clifford Spencer, SG chairman, said new technology and co-product uses are expanding contracts and raising prices rather than reducing them as with conventional crops.

“We”re on the cusp of something really quite good in agriculture. For most of the crops we”re growing at the moment we have far greater demand than there is supply.”

WELL RECEIVED 

Farming delegates were clearly encouraged:

“I do hope that a lot of us have the courage to grasp the nettle and have a go at some of these crops.” – Lord Arran, Castle Hill Estate, Devon.

“I”m very excited about hemp – we”ve got very sandy soil so we need something like hemp to restore it.” – Sir Benjamin Slade, Maunsel House, Devon.

“I think it”s all very exciting stuff. “Hemp looks the most versatile crop and with the CAP changes farmers have to look at new opportunities. “However, this requires a lot more connection with markets and a completely different mindset from growing conventional crops.” – John Varley, Clinton Devon Estates, Devon.

“Co-operation with neighbouring farmers must help. I will go back and talk with our share farmer to see if hemp is a viable option for us.” – James Humphreys, Trewithen Estate, Cornwall.

olivia.cooper@rbi.co.uk