11 February 2000

Its not right way for all

All-arable organic is tricky at

best. Andrew Swallow

reports from Essex, where

the going got too tough

ARABLE growers tempted to try organic production could well find the system unsustainable in the long run, say former organic producers Douglas and Andrew Green.

After six years of organic cropping on their Essex farm increasing weed levels and falling yields persuaded them that conventional cropping would be more profitable.

That was in 1994, when conventional wheat prices were buoyant. But even now, with conventional wheat at £70/t and organic prices near £200/t, they are convinced they took the right decision.

"I have no regrets about pulling out. We have done better every year since than we would have done in organic production," says father Douglas.

He put half the 120ha (300-acre) farm into organic production in 1987, after selling up the pig business. Initially returns were good, beating margins from the conventional crops.

"Our November-sown Axona did 2t/acre and it made £290/t for milling. Our local miller said it was the finest organic wheat he had ever seen," he recalls. Oats yielded similarly, spring beans did about 3.7t/ha (1.5t/acre), and potatoes produced 30-37t/ha (12-15t/acre).

Top-dressing with 5t/ha (2t/acre) of broiler litter boosted wheat yields and helped achieve milling quality. Oats received slightly less manure and potatoes had turkey muck ploughed in pre-planting.

But such yields proved short-lived as weed problems increased. "Oat crops became dirtier and dirtier and had to be dropped, and the last crop of beans we grew were more weeds than beans. We had to have an auger to get rid of the weed seed coming off the dresser."

In crop, a harrowcomb weeder worked well on broadleaved weeds, provided they could get on the land while the weeds were at cotyledon stage. But that was often early March, or even earlier, and conditions were frequently too wet on the boulderclay soils.

Potatoes, regarded as a cleaning crop by many organic growers, became more and more tricky too as levels of creeping thistle and docks increased.

The weed build-up was despite meticulous burial of trash by ploughing with a Kverneland plough with extra long mouldboards, and the use of stale seed-beds. Had a grass ley been included in the rotation, weed control might have been better, he concedes.

But grass would need grazing demanding a major investment in fencing, quota and livestock. Experience with a small flock of ewes managed organically on permanent pasture also suggested livestock returns would not be worthwhile. "I do not think we ever managed to sell one for an organic premium."

Crop diseases were generally less of a problem than weeds. Sulphur could be used on cereals and copper sulphate on potatoes for blight. "We were lucky really. Only in our last year did we have a blight problem," says Mr Green. Then, flailed-off tops lay wet on the ridges and almost every tuber became infected, making it unsaleable.

Both Douglas and Andrew Green are keen to stress they have nothing against organic farming. But for a farm such as theirs an all-arable rotation is unsustainable, and even a mixed system would struggle, they maintain.

"I still consider I was relatively successful as an organic grower. But you cant get the yields required to make it viable if you have a normal level of overheads," he concludes. &#42

BUMSTEADS FARM

&#8226 120ha boulder clay farm.

&#8226 60ha all arable organic 1988-94.

&#8226 Cropping: Nov sown sp wht, sp beans, w.oats, potatoes.

&#8226 Weeds built up, yields declined.

&#8226 Creeping thistle, docks, fat-hen main problems.

Conversion concerns

Conversion aid payments could be luring hard pressed growers into the organic sector, only to leave them without any support when the going gets really tough three or four years into organic production, believes Andrew Green. "Once you are over the honeymoon period weeds start to build up. That is when you need the compensation for being organic," he comments. One bonus from the organic era is its easy to kill blackgrass. "Its great, we have no problem with resistance."

Once all-arable organic farmers, Douglas (left) and Andrew Green went back to conventional systems because creeping thistle and other weeds were taking over. That was despite specialist cultivation equipment including a harrow-comb weeder, a long mouldboard plough (below) and the Sampo Star cultivator (bottom).