28 May 1999

CUTTINGEMOTIONOUT OFACCS

Assured crop production is an

emotive issue. But for CWS

Agriculture it is a

fundamental part of the

business philosophy.

John Allan visited two of its

units to find out why

MEETING crop assurance criteria not only secures market access, it also keeps production systems slick and professional, making the best use of all the latest techniques, says John Williams, who manages CWS Agricultures estate at Goole, East Yorks.

The farm is big in edible brassicas growing nearly 400ha (1000 acres) for various outlets. Marketing the resulting produce means buyer demands must be met – including produce assurance.

"Assured Produce, Natures Choice and the freezing processors standards are all important," says Mr Williams. "An Assured Producer number is becoming a passport to a lot of markets in the vegetable sector."

Cropping on the estate includes 134ha (330 acres) of cauliflowers, 142ha (350 acres) of calabrese, 81ha (200 acres) of sprouts and 40ha (100 acres) of winter hardy cauliflowers. All are grown to demanding standards. But that is still not a guarantee for sales in the current glut market, says brassica manager Andrew Howesman.

He is realistic about the ultimate destination of crops grown on the estate. "Produce processors have to meet very high-quality assurance standards and as crop managers we have to be involved with them as well." Only the best produce will find its way onto the sales shelves of the multiple retailers, he acknowledges.

Adopting assured produce protocols at Goole has not been as onerous as it might have been. "Starting from a good base we have been able to adapt records and practices that were already in place, so it has been a transition without having to do too much work," says Mr Houseman. "And the training requirements expected by the scheme had always featured highly in the CWS philosophy anyway."

More challenging has been the adoption of alternative production methods. "Integrated crop management and rotations are emphasised in the standards and some of the very intensive cropping areas may find it difficult to meet the protocol demands," says assistant manager Roger Blyth.

"We are fortunate in having access to 6000 acres and can run at least a five-year rotation. This is also important for our other assured crops – potatoes and vining peas, where Birds Eye, for example, are asking for longer breaks," comments Mr Blyth.

Assured Produce standards are verified on paper annually by the grower and by scheme administrator Checkmate every three years. The audit at Goole began with a paper trail – starting with the provenance of the seed and then on to tracing input records throughout the growing season.

Attention then moved to checks on health and safety, HACCP, COSHH, the chemical store, the growing crops, spraying operations and batches of produce leaving the field.

"The audit found the standards at Goole left little to be desired," says fieldsman Rebecca Tress.

For Natures Choice batch traceability and monitoring of growing methods is carried out by the marketing agent. Tesco also does spot checks on records of pesticide application for nominated batches, backed up by occasional farm visits from Tesco technologists.

Although Natures Choice is now more closely aligned to the Assured Produce scheme, it is remains a whole-farm check up and still uses a preferred pesticide list that overrides the governments Pesticide Safety Directorate approvals scheme. "But this doesnt give us any management problems, even though it may cost a bit more in inputs," says Mr Williams.

"ICM is an important part of management, but you can get your fingers burnt if the weather turns against you when you are using pheromone traps, for example," he adds. "We have already stopped using organophosphates in combinable crops and only use them in the brassicas when it is vital. With them being under review we have been planning to use fewer and operators dont like them anyway."

To ensure robust decisions about pesticides, staff are BASIS qualified and regularly updated on in-house agronomy courses. Ten arable craftsmen supported by part-time harvest workers carry out the main production work.

Harvesting involves mobile units fed by hand cutting before the produce goes to a mobile packhouse. "This meets assurance standards and removes the need for a lot of fixed building cost and maintenance," says Mr Williams.

In future audits there will have to be evidence of adherence to LERAP assessments. "To be perfectly honest we will stay with the six-metre requirement this spring because the scheme is launched at a bad time and the star rating of drift control is not ready," says Mr Blyth.

"All the people we sell to have also asked us what we are doing about the Ground Water Regulations. Yet more management time and record keeping!" adds Mr Williams.