16 July 1999

Organic convert gets a good deal from co-ops

The latest addition to our

Management Matters farms

is organic farmer Andrew

Bragg, a tenant of the

Church Commissioners in

Devon, since 1982.

John Burns reports

ANDREW Bragg represents the third successive generation of the family to farm at West Town Farm, Ide, near Exeter. There have been Braggs farming in the area for over 100 years, and the family is still well represented there.

Since 1992 the 65ha (160 acre) West Town Farm has been a Soil Association-registered organic farm. Mr Bragg also rents 8ha (20 acres) of registered organic grazing one mile away on a farm business tenancy, 10ha (25 acres) of organic grasskeep five miles away, and two years ago took over a 26ha (64 acre) block of land three miles away which is being converting to organic status in two phases. Half started its two-year conversion period last year and half this year.

Before going organic, Mr Bragg had farmed "by the book" as he calls it, but was always looking for a way to improve the value of the farms output. For a while he followed the classic added-value route, making and selling yogurt.

"It was a good business. There was a tremendous market then – and there probably still is – for locally produced fresh products. But I was working 18 hours a day and getting worn out," he recalls. Illness and the prospect of having to make a £50,000 investment in processing facilities and staff led to a decision to give it up.

Today he sells his produce through two co-ops – the Organic Milk Suppliers Co-operative, and the Organic Livestock Marketing Co-operative.

"Im all for co-ops. They will be even more important in future. As more farms convert to organic we need to ensure we have a say in the way things develop.

"If we are not careful we could end up letting the retailers run our businesses. We are all very busy and so we need effective co-ops to represent our interests."

Thanks to the co-ops, Mr Bragg has enjoyed good prices for milk (currently 29.5p/litre) and for his early lambs. This February the base price for lambs was £2.95/kg dw, rising to £3.15 in March, when most of his lambs went, and £3.25 in April. With premiums for conformation and leanness his top price this year was £67 a head.

The decision to convert to organic methods came gradually, partly through disenchantment with results from conventional farming, partly in the belief that it would be well suited to the farm and would reduce his costs and partly from his longstanding concern about the environment.

Mr Bragg invested much time and effort researching and visiting organic farms before entering half of West Town into a three-year conversion programme in 1989. The rest went into two-year conversion in 1990. There were no conversion grants in those days, and organic premiums were small or non-existent.

At one stage he temporarily withdrew the dairy herd from the organic register because of mastitis problems which he was advised needed dry cow therapy. But today he is a convinced user of homoeopathy. "It isnt cheap and my hopes of cutting vet and medical bills by changing to organic have not been fully realised."

West Towns fields are small by todays standards, ranging from 0.4 to 12ha (1 to 30 acres) and averaging about 2.8ha (7 acres). And many of them are steep – some very steep.

Steep slopes

The farm sits astride the boundary between two soil types – the free-draining red Brecchia which would be grade 2 quality were the fields not so steep, and the grey shilletty Tedburn series which is less prone to drought. But it still dries out in summer because of the steep slopes and it becomes too wet to graze in winter.

Four full-time workers, including Mr Bragg, may seem a lot for this size of farm. But neither topography, field size nor the fragmented layout lend themselves to "efficient" working. Operating relatively small blocks of land several miles apart, connected only by narrow high-banked lanes busy with commuter traffic from nearby Exeter, can be frustrating and expensive in time and fuel.

At least half of one mans time is spent on work connected with the recently adopted 10-year Country-side Stewardship programme. It includes changes to create habitats to encourage cirl buntings, a new bridleway, hedge laying and planting, orchard restoration, field margins, and an education programme involving thoroughly prepared farm visits for local children.

"Its not fair to blame the NFU for the publics lack of understanding of farming," says Mr Bragg. "We have to put that right ourselves. I hope this project will help."

Future plans include a small increase in the dairy herd and provision of new buildings. "Ideally we need modern buildings for the cows and followers and grain storage and we are in discussion with the landlords on how best to achieve it."

Maintaining soil fertility without conventional fertilisers is based on either perennial ryegrass/white clover leys, or Italian ryegrass/red clover, and careful use of composted straw yard dung to which most of the slurry is added during the composting process. &#42

FARM FACTS

&#8226 West Town Farm, Ide, near Exeter, Devon, a 65ha (160 acre) farm rented from the Church Commissioners. Farmed organically since July 1992 by Andrew Bragg.

&#8226 Plus 26ha (64 acres) of owned land three miles away, in conversion to organic; 8ha (20 acres) of organic land on an FBT, one mile away; 10ha (25 acres) of organic grasskeep five miles away.

&#8226 80 to 85 dairy cows, plus followers, 320,000 litres milk quota.

&#8226 75 Dorset Horn and Poll Dorset ewes lambing in November.

&#8226 10-year Countryside Stewardship project on 91ha (224 acres)

&#8226 Free-draining, mainly sloping land, some steep.

&#8226 Triticale and spring barley grown for feed.

&#8226 Three full-time staff.

Spreading the word… Farmer Andrew Bragg takes children round the Soil Association-registered organic West Town Farm in Ide, near Exeter, Devon, as part of a Countryside Stewardship education programme.