16 April 1999

Marketing key to growth

Switching all-arable fen farms

into organic production is not

easy. A long-term convert is

giving a newly swayed Lincs

neighbour much needed

support. John Allan reports

IN the 1980s Pam Bowers, of Strawberry Fields, Boston, Lincs supplied multiple retailers with seven varieties of organic vegetables.

Today she supplies a far wider range of produce to six box scheme operators and a seasonal output of 14,000 field packed Little Gem lettuces a week for two multiples.

The key to this success is flexible marketing and a broad range of cropping. "I dont want all my eggs in one basket," she says. This approach has helped the operation grow from 2.8ha (7 acres) in 1975 to its current 16ha (40 acres).

Knowing the market is vital, she says. "I tried a contract for white cabbage for coleslaw this year, but the offtake was not good enough. I wouldnt do it again."

Keeping tabs on price movements is also essential. "Little Gem lettuce were 25p each when we started, but they are now down to about 16.5p."

Despite that Mrs Bowers is keen to expand the area. But it is difficult to find lettuce land with irrigation. The home holding has an irrigation licence to pump out of the dyke. But mains water on some outlying land is very costly.

The Strawberry Fields four-way rotation is split between early red cabbage, kohl rabi and spring greens, lettuce double cropped, celery, sweet- corn, beetroot, parsnip, fennel and parsley, pumpkin, celeriac and chard.

With that wide range of species and varieties the EC Directive requiring organic seed by the year 2001 fills Mrs Bowers with dread. "I try not to think about it. It will limit us to a ridiculous extent. Its difficult enough to get undressed conventional seed," she comments.

The inherently fertile black soil has 38% organic matter which is reinforced by sowing a green manure of Hungarian grazing rye and vetch on bare parts of the rotation by Sept 15, together with applications of composted farmyard manure.

"Elm Farm soil testing shows that this system keeps the N, P and K up," says Mrs Bowers.

"We work Strawberry Fields with three full-time staff and umpteen casuals in the summer," she says. Some harvest and pack, while others hand hoe weeds left by the brush weeders. For beetroot a flame weeder is used on a stale seed-bed before drilling.

High costs of full conversion price well worth paying

VEGETABLES are set to play a key part on a large Lincs unit set to convert fully to organic farming by 2005.

"I had been motivated by the philosophy of organic farming for some time and after two good years we felt we could underwrite the conversion risk in 1997," says fourth generation farmer Andrew Dennis of 688ha (1700 acre) Woodlands Farm at Kirton.

Following a two-year conversion ley of red clover and ryegrass the first organic crops will be Valor potatoes and Marathon calabrese.

However, the conversion phase has had its cost, despite payments under the five-year Organic Aid Scheme and the benefit of fertility building on set-aside. "This is a penalty of the high yield potential of grade one silt."

Initial fertility building should be good since the leys were mulch cut six times and grazed by two flying flocks of sheep last year.

As the farm moves to organic production the current cropping of wheat, barley, sugar beet, Dutch white cabbage and daffodils will be replaced by two soil matched organic rotations.

The conversion will usually start after peas, since this is a good window for sub-soiling and allows early establishment for the fertility building ley.

Additional fertility and P and K maintenance will come from farmyard manure imported and composted to Soil Association standards.

Scratch weeding will use a newly acquired 6m Einbock harrow comb, which has already been used on conventional crops to gain experience. Steerage hoeing will present no problems since it has already been used on conventional vegetables.

The most challenging weeds are likely to be creeping thistle and wild oats. Where particularly weedy fields are due for conversion a clean-up spray of Roundup (glyphosate) will be considered, says Mr Dennis. &#42