11 February 2000

Convert has no regrets

Organic agriculture is

booming and the arable

sector especially so. Growth

in organic grain production

cannot keep pace with the

leap in demand from

converting livestock farms

and supermarkets are crying

out for more home-grown

organic produce. In this

special we bring you the

latest figures and forecasts

for the industry, ask why

organic growers must

distance themselves from

GMs, and report from an ex-

organic grower who decided

the crops are greener on the

conventional side. But first,

Brian Lovelidge relays a

Kent growers award winning

organic ways. Edited by

Andrew Swallow

PLAGUED by slugs? Fed up with pesticide regulations? Tired of weekly crop walking? Worried about herbicide resistant weeds? Not I, says Gerry Minister, manager of Luddesdown Organic Farms and the Soil Associations arable grower of the year in 1999.

Mr Minister jumped off what he calls the yield-chasing treadmill in 1986 when he became manager of the 344ha (850-acre) downland unit near Gravesend, Kent. His brief from the farms then new owner was to convert both it and himself to organic production.

Now, he would be loath to return to conventional farming.

"Theres a good demand for all organic crops for human consumption, but because many livestock farms are under conversion the market for feed wheat is increasing hugely."

Variety choice has taken that into account this year. "Weve introduced Rialto in addition to our breadmaking varieties, Hereward and Spark."

Grass/clover leys are regarded as the fertility-building phase of the six-course rotation, and arable crops the exploitive phase, although the pulses and red clover breaks do contribute to fertility, he adds.

Leys and land going into pulses receive 2000-3000t/yr of farm-composted FYM, horse manure and green garden waste from the local council.

Weed control – or weed management as Mr Minister prefers to call it – is not a problem, he maintains. Stale seed-beds follow autumn ploughing to eliminate crop volunteers and early weeds and a 12m harrowcomb weeder follows up in spring.

Stale seed-beds also take care of frit fly and slugs, while a pass or two with discs or a tined cultivator stirs up slugs. "Most of them are then picked off by birds or dehydrate in the sun."

To be effective, the harrowcomb weeder must be used correctly and at the right time, says Mr Minister. For wheat, that means waiting until the crop has at least two leaves so that it is well rooted, but not so long that it begins to suffer from weed competition.

The job is usually done in winter or early spring with the tine angle and forward speed adjusted according to soil conditions, weed population and type.

"Youve got to know what youre doing to get the desired level of weed control. But leaving a few weeds is a good thing because they attract aphid predators and other beneficials. Our basic aim is to give crops a chance to get away so that they dominate any weeds that are left."

The weeder is most effective against broad-leaved species but it also does a good job against wild oats in beans if conditions are right. The cleanest crops are the first one or two after leys and these might not need weeding at all, he says.

Winter cereals are drilled in mid-October at 210kg/ha (1.7cwt/acre). Seed is the sole variable cost – about £47/ha (£19/acre). At contractor rates, harrowcomb weeding would add about £7.40/ha (£3/acre) but the farms own machines are cheaper. In eight years, maintaining the weeder has cost £1350 for new tines.

Organic crops tend to be harder and less prone to disease and pest attack than conventional crops, says Mr Minister. "A lot of disease is induced by high nitrogen application that makes plants very leafy and lush."

Peas are the only crop that has not taken kindly to organic production. The problem largely stems from not being able to find a good replacement for Bohatyr that was very good for organic production.

LUDDESDOWN FACTS

Area 344ha (850 acres).

Soil Light chalky loam and clay cap.

Organic 300ha (740 acres)

In conversion Recent purchase of 44ha (110 acres).

Six-course rotation Grass/clover leys 126ha (310 acres); cereals 101ha (250 acres); pulses and clover seed 41ha (100 acres); vegetables 7ha (17 acres)

Livestock 95-cow beef suckler herd.

Mustard cover-crops mop up residual nitrogen and prevent erosion at Luddesdown Organic Farms. "It doesnt always get as advanced as this year," says manager Gerry Minister, pictured before the crop was disced, pressed and ploughed down ready for spring drilling.

ORGANIC

CROPS

&#8226 Organic agriculture is certainly booming, but will it bust? Is the soil association justified in its GM exclusion zone calls? Is organic production really the sustainable option, or will conventional crops prove to be the most sustainable in the long-term? Whatever your views, this is your chance to have your say. Telephone us on: 0208 6524902, Fax: 0208 6524005 or E-mail: andrew.swallow@rbi.co.uk

Marketing

It is very important for organic growers to take control of their marketing to get the best and most stable prices, says Gerry Minister. Whenever possible, he sells his produce direct to end users – mainly millers – and he has high hopes for the Organic Grain Marketing Group (see p68) "We dont want to go cap in hand to buyers and be forced to accept what they offer. Nor do we want our crops to become commodity products. Ideally we want long-term contracts at profitable prices." Outlets for organic produce will increase as more produce becomes available, he predicts.

Average farm output

Crop Yield/ha (acre) Price £/t

Wheat 4.9 (2.0) 220

Oats 4.9 (2.0) 197.50

Triticale 3.9 (1.6) 200

Beans 3.7 (1.5) 207.50

Peas 2.7 (1.1) 220