5 September 1997

IN PRAISE OF

PROTOCOLS

Potato and vegetable growers will soon have to adopt integrated crop management techniques as written in NFU/retailer protocols.

Robert Harris discovers how one farming business is meeting the challenge

POTATOES and field vegetables are an important part of the cropping programme at CWS Agricultures Pasture Farm, Swinefleet, near Goole in East Yorks.

Cauliflowers, brussels sprouts, and calabrese are grown on 200ha (500 acres) of the deep warp silt soils. Potatoes take another 60ha (150 acres). Commercial manager John Chapple targets premium markets for all his produce.

To continue supplying them, Mr Chapple is having to adopt integrated management techniques in his cropping. Most of the major multiples, including Asda, CWS, Marks & Spencer, Safeway, Sainsbury, Somerfield and Waitrose, have signed up to the NFU/retailer protocols.

The NFU represents farmer interest, and scientific input comes from ADAS, Horticulture Research International, the Potato Marketing Board and the ministry.

The resulting protocols are not prescriptive, he emphasises. "They are based on the best agricultural practice of the moment. Rather than tell the grower what he can and cannot do, they expect him to be able to justify his actions."

For example, a farmer can still use organosphosphates. "Pro-vided he can satisfy verifiers that it was used for a sound agricultural reason, such as to avoid resistance, and there were no less hazardous alternatives, then he will not be penalised."

While the NFU/retailer protocol concept is not new – the first protocols for carrots and cauliflowers were written in 1993 – the fact that they will now be independently audited is, says Mr Chapple.

"There are now 37 protocols covering most horticultural produce, and most supermarkets expect growers to abide by them. But they have not been enforced, and there was a feeling among growers that the supermarkets were not taking them very seriously. That will change.

"From this autumn, growers will be required to register their intent to grow crops to the required integrated management standards. They will be sent a copy of the most recent protocols for their crops, and a three-section self-assessment form."

The first section deals with statutory duties, like ensuring the farm follows FEPA guidelines, spray store regulations, chemical rinsing and disposal and other requirements of the MAFF Code of Practice for Pesticides. The need for growers to improve is evident, he notes. "Growers should be adhering to those requirements anyway. But in a recent pilot scheme everyone who tried it, including ourselves, had problems."

Record keeping is the main sticking point, he admits. "We not only need to show which pesticides we have used, but why we used them. That means keeping records that show pest monitoring, how and when levels were exceeded, and the reasons for using the product we did."

Some procedures included in the code of practice also need improving, he admits. "How many of us actually wash out spray cans three times? And do we dispose of them correctly? Do we dispose of our tank washings properly? We shall have to go through those procedures and get them right."

The second part of the self-assessment procedure goes some way to addressing that, by ensuring staff are kept informed and trained. Environmental considerations are included, but are mainly centred around agronomic practice.

The third area relates to management of specific crops and will examine farm procedures in detail. "For example, potato growers might be asked what their policy on sprout suppression is, or brussels sprouts growers might be asked how they control aphids, and why?"

Rotations will also be investigated. "There is a great deal in the protocols about reducing pest and disease levels to avoid chemical use. But if a grower can show even a tight rotation is not causing problems, as some can, then why should he cease doing it?"

Growers will then be audited on their completed self-assessment forms, and will be scored accordingly. "For now, that score will remain confidential, and will be used as an aid to future improvement." Only the legal requirements will have a pass or fail mark.

Eventually, the other two sections will probably follow suit. "There is no point having a set of guidelines unless they are challenging and improve management skills. But there is a need for them to be based on sound science. In many areas, integrated crop management is still in its infancy, and a scheme must be able to adapt to be realistic. Protocols will be updated each year to include the latest findings."

It is impossible to put a cost on the management changes that will be needed at Pasture Farm, Mr Chapple reckons. "I genuinely believe that the challenge set by the protocols will ultimately make us better growers. That will help us find ways of recouping any extra cost to the business."

John Chapple: Record keeping is the main sticking point with growers.

NFU protocols need to challenge growers and improve management skills, says John Chapple.

NEW VEG PROTOCOLS

&#8226 To encourage uptake of ICM.

&#8226 Adopted by most supermarkets.

&#8226 Onus on growers to use best agricultural practice.

&#8226 Need for better records.

&#8226 Self assessment, then independent auditing.

&#8226 Updated to include latest research findings.

&#8226 Need for supermarkets to relax pest and disease standards?