With 690ha (1700 acres) of good wheat growing land in Hertfordshire, Ian Pigott would not be high up many impartial observers’ lists as a candidate for organic conversion.
But that is just what he is about to take his 240ha in-hand business through, starting next month.
“My farming ethics are environmentally minded,” he says. “I’m a LEAF demonstration farmer.
I do a lot of work with the RSPB. My environmental persuasion makes me less resistant to farming organically.”
So why on a farm that is capable of averaging over 8t/ha of wheat, 3.5-3.75t/ha of oilseed rape and 4.5-5t/ha of winter beans is he making the switch to a system that will expose him to lower yields and, arguably, more risk?
“If you asked me five years ago whether I’d go organic, I would have said it wasn’t for me. But there has been a big change in my mindset.
The driver has been economic.”
That is because, in Mr Pigott’s view, 8t/ha of wheat is just not enough at today’s prices, if you take out the single farm payment.
“Unless you can average 10t/ha of conventional wheat, I don’t think you’ve got a business that will survive in the UK.
Being on the edge of Harpenden, my business is diversified: Farming, horses and office lets.
In my opinion, Pillar 1 payments will disappear within eight or so years.
By analysing my figures in detail it has become apparent that without the single payment there would be cross-subsidisation from my non-farming income.
“I am prepared to invest in agriculture, but it has got to be a good investment.
We are very well located for office lets, so money spent on the farm has to be spent shrewdly.
The organic option is a way of making the farming business sustainable and also offers more opportunities.”
Those opportunities manifest themselves in a number of guises, Mr Pigott says.
“One is the change in organic feed rations legislation, from December 2007, which will increase the demand for organic grains.
Another is that going to organic arable is harder than for a livestock situation, so I felt that offers more scope.”
The rising cost of inputs – fertiliser, diesel and agrochemicals – is also a consideration.
And lower crop yields mean less storage requirement (offering let storage space opportunities) and reduced drying charges, and there is the value of the organic straw, worth about 65/t.
And, he acknowledges, public perception is also important.
“You can crystal ball gaze on the possibilities for conventional arable from biofuels and commodity prices, but farming this close to London will become more difficult.
People don’t want to see sprayers running up and down the field.”
But learning to grow crops organically without the aid of “fire-brigade” conventional treatments or the benefit of livestock in the rotation represents a steep learning curve, Mr Pigott accepts.
“I’ve looked at other organic farms to see if I can get my head around it.
I have done a lot of reading.
And, of course, once you have said ‘yes’, you have got two years during the conversion phase in effect to learn.”
It is worth giving it a shot, he believes.
“I’m very excited about it. Conventional farming has lost its excitement.
This is going to be a lot more challenging.
It’s a five-year commitment under the Organic ELS scheme.
If it doesn’t work, we will do something else!”
He also has the backing of his family.
“I’m very lucky that my father is very supportive.
I think he’s quite excited, too.
We will be drawing on some of the knowledge he first got when we were a mixed farm in the 1950s.”