Converting to full-scale organic veg production is not for the faint-hearted.
John Allan reports from Yorks where a major switch in farming focus is under way
MARKET-LED conversion to organic vegetable production is seen as a profitable way of putting long-term set-aside land to good use on one Yorks farm.
But it is accepted that a new approach to farming and marketing is required.
Some areas of 2120ha (5238 acres) Pollybell Farms, east of Doncaster, were put into set-aside in 1996 because of the unreliable cereal yields obtained from some of the black soils and increasing problems with the potato crop.
In a bid to meet the market demand for organic vegetables and to realise the potential of the black soil, part of the set-aside was sown with a fertility building grass/clover crop in 1998. Set-aside payments helped cover conversion costs and the land became fully organic in 1999, says Peter Cornish, Pollybell Farms manager.
Of that land, 82ha (202 acres) was last sprayed on 31 May 1997 and qualified as organic on 1 June 1999. A further 276ha (682 acres) will come on stream on 1 Feb 2001 and 338ha (835 acres) will be added in August 2001.
The latter unit includes grassland for a dairy enterprise, which will produce organic milk from November 2001. That will give an integrated vegetable, arable, grass/clover and dairy operation with each unit benefiting the others, especially in rotation and balancing fertility, says Mr Cornish.
"Changing to organic growing gives you a lot of challenges," says David MacArthur, organic crop manager. Among those are fertility building during conversion, then maintaining it, keeping on top of weeds, wind blown sandy soil, potato blight and scab, carrot and cabbage root fly, caterpillar risks and securing market outlets at the right price
The flat peat fields lie over sand or clay, but the underlying soils are pH 5, so regular liming is needed, which can lock up manganese. A Soil Association derogation based on soil analysis results is allowing manganese use throughout the year.
Building fertility for the hungry field vegetables involved a one-year perennial ryegrass (50%) and red clover (50%) set-aside sward, which was cut and mulched. That was followed by 25t/ha (10t/acre) of composted manure applied before the first crops.
Ideally the brassica, carrot, celeriac, chicory, leek, potato, red beet and courgette crops should all be in early in the year. "June 1 1999 was too late. Everything had to be planted in two weeks and the weeds all grew at the same time. That meant a high labour demand, up to 50 people on some days," says Mr MacArthur.
Once planted weeds and crop came together. "Managing weeds in transplanted courgettes, brassicas and celeriac following close on a stale seed-bed is easier than following drilled crops," he says.
In drilled crops like carrot, pre-emergence flame weeding of the beds, followed by inter-row brush weeding and hand weeding in the rows should keep on top of the black soil weed problem.
But wet weather delays can mean a high gang labour bill for hand weeding, even when working from a purpose-made tractor mounted eight-man bed weeder.
In addition 80% of the farm can suffer from sand blow, so an organically managed barley cover crop needs to be developed.
The main disease pressure last year was on potatoes. Sante stayed fairly clean, but Remarka and Nicola suffered blight. That was dealt with by flaming off strategic areas to stop the spread.
"To cut down on Smith periods this year we have invested in trickle irrigation," says Mr MacArthur. It also gives a better chance of avoiding scab by maintaining soil moisture.
On the pest front, carrot fly attacks are warded off by covering the beds with fleece buried at the windward end and sandbagged leeward so it can be pulled back for bed weeding by brush and hand.
Potato fields have been carefully mapped for PCN so rotations can minimise risk. Caterpillars on brassicas are sprayed with biological control agent Bacillus thuringiensis, while aphid attacks are subdued with Savona, says Mr MacArthur.
With most produce destined for the supermarket trade, quality is crucial. That means a higher level of out-grades than conventional cropping, which makes it important for growers to find a value-added market for them. "Otherwise we will be producing expensive stockfeed," says Mr MacArthur.
The financial results from the first year were satisfactory despite the late start. The establishment of this years crops has gone well, except for some wind blow which was tamed by spreading thin bands of muck on the sandy areas, says Mr Cornish. *
David MacArthur with produce from bed grown organic Napoli bunching carrots backed by a fleece handling bed showing flame weed control. Inset: Busy hands… An eight person bed weeder is used to speed hand weeding after a brush weeder pass on bed grown organic Navarre carrots.
David MacArthur in a crop of Rosetta organic potatoes with trickle irrigation lines laid in the ridges to limit blight and scab risk.
• A good fertility build up needed.
• Aim for first year entry by March.
• Approved composted manure is beneficial.
• Monitoring crops vital.
• Early weed control essential.
• Labour management skills critical.
• Value-added out-grade market needed.