23 August 2002

AGRONOMY GROUP EASES PATH TO INDEPENDENCE

Increasing numbers of

farmers are taking a firmer

hand in making agronomy

decisions, usually to save

costs. Andrew Blake

investigates a recently

formed group that aims to

boost skills to support

that move

BECOMING BASIS-qualified to take decisions about crop protection inputs is valuable, and more and more growers are choosing that route, says Alan Bide, independent adviser to the Wessex Growers Study Group.

"But with the introduction of ACCS, the Voluntary Initiative and a whole range of other schemes which affect their use of agrochemicals, a certificate on the wall is no longer sufficient."

Continuous development through professional training and being able to prove that standards are being maintained is vital. That is not just to ensure that on-farm practice is correct but is seen to be so by legislators and everyone in the food chain, he explains.

"Growers who cannot prove their professional integrity are likely to be left behind."

It was against that background two years ago that several southern growers, led by eventual WGSG chairman Julian Lewis, decided they needed help to improve their understanding of how to grow crops successfully and produce food safely with due regard for the environment.

Key to the exercise are regular meetings with industry experts and manufacturers, as well as visits to research centres, explains Mr Lewis. "The important point is that we can arrange them in response to requests from members, so they can get the sort of information they really need without having to search for it."

"Topics covered are either unavailable elsewhere or not covered in sufficient depth," says the groups administrator Jenny Raisin, based at Hampshire Training Providers, Micheldever.

Many of todays 40 members still employ crop consultants or trade agronomists and use findings from the Arable and Morley Research Centres and NIAB. But Mrs Raisin sees no conflict of interests, the WGSG information allowing growers to communicate more effectively with their advisers and reduce the number of visits required. "What we are doing is complementary."

GROUP CREATES ON-FARM CONFIDENCE

NOW into his third harvest without an independent agronomist on the 360ha (890 acres) of arable at Hall Farm, Bentworth, Hants, Mr Lewis is convinced he has made the right move.

"I dont believe the farm is suffering as a consequence. Information is available from the group and a number of external sources at appropriate levels, for example ARC.

"The main benefit of belonging to the group is that I am now confident enough to look at a crop and understand what is really going on and can respond more quickly to what I see."

Previously he might have waited for his agronomists confirmation of the need to take a particular course of action. Being able to react faster, especially with fungicide treatments, can make a big difference to the bottom line, he explains.

Being able to anticipate and treat for rust in 40ha (100 acres) of oats this season after the first spray was stretched over a week because of bad weather is a case in point.

"I could see the rust coming in the area sprayed six to seven days earlier after the protection started to break down and was able to be more sure about my on-the-spot decision for the follow up treatment.

"I dont see the group as the answer to all our needs. Its just one more means of bringing in extra information."

Andy Dingley has managed the 200ha (500 acre) all-arable Moneys Farm, Mattingley, Hants for 20 years. He says WGSG has been particularly helpful in guiding him to the most suitable wheats for his low-lying land surrounded by trees where mildew is a particular problem.

As sole operator, with casual harvest help, he still gets UAP advice on chemicals. "But theres no substitute for the sort of face-to-face meetings with manufacturers that we used to get before they took all their reps off the road. It left a void."

At Shalden Farm, Alton, Hants, Andrew Shirvells decision to join WGSG came after the long-serving independent agronomist, who had helped him manage the 400ha (1000 acre) all-arable unit, died.

Already obtaining his chemicals competitively through Hants Arable Systems Crop Advisers buying group he could have chosen to employ one of its agronomists on an intensive basis.

"But I do 90% of the spraying and fertilising myself, and with the sheep gone I felt I ought to be able to do more of the agronomy myself. Belonging to the group gives me the confidence that I can and that I am keeping up to date with more than is available in the public domain."

Another advantage is that members can be pro-active in terms of future legislation, he believes. "It must help with things like a pesticides tax if we can show that we are taking the initiative to be more aware of what we are doing." &#42

Grouping together to improve their agronomy skills – thats the aim of Wessex Growers Study Groups Jenny Raisin, Julian Lewis and Alan Bide (right). A members are already BASIS qualified.

&#8226 Founded 2000 – now 40 members.

&#8226 24,000ha in Dorset/Oxon/Sussex triangle.

&#8226 All have BASIS Certificate in Crop Protection.

&#8226 Some FACTS qualified.

&#8226 Cost £40/year.