2 June 1995

ORGANIC IN REAL CLOVER

Budding organic growers will find plenty to interest them at the British Organic Farmers stand, as Robert Harris discovers

ORGANIC farming will be in clover at Cereals 95. "We have drilled two sorts of clover on the stand, a border of Crimson clover and a central plot of ryegrass/Merviot red clover mix," says Bill Starling, deputy chairman of British Organic Farmers.

He hopes it will act as an effective "signpost" to visitors – the crop should be in full bloom. But there is a serious message in the display, too, he adds.

"Clover is the best crop to plant when converting land to organic production. Cut and mulched for a couple of years, it suppresses weeds and boosts soil fertility." And it can be grown on set-aside both during conversion and in the rotation thanks to a special dispensation for registered organic growers, says Mr Starling. "You couldnt have a better way of converting."

Organic wheat worth £220/t

Real markets await new organic producers, he maintains. "There is a 10% shortfall in organic milling wheat in the UK." Prices this year reached £220/t for 10% protein wheat, partly due to a shortage of Danish organic feed wheat, which creamed off some supplies.

Mr Starling admits it was not easy to reach that specification in what was a poor protein year. But discounted milling markets exist for crops down to 9%. And the organic feed market is growing, which makes a useful premium home for wheat that fails to make milling, he adds. "Several people are producing organic rations for non-ruminants, so there has been a big increase in the need for feed grain."

Although tonnages are still measured in hundreds, there has been a threefold increase in the amount needed this year compared with previous seasons. Coupled with the Danish shortfall, that pushed prices to 60-70% above conventional feed wheats, twice the usual premium, he says. "But we are talking tiny tonnages and a small number of deals, so statistics are not as reliable as conventional markets," he notes.

He does not believe the bubble will burst if more growers join; he maintains it will be the catalyst for more demand. "All our surveys show people want organic produce if it is cheaper. It is expensive not because of the ex-farm price but because of high processing overheads associated with small production volumes. If we could produce 10 times the amount, we could bring them down. The more there is, the cheaper it will be."

MAFFs Organic Aid Scheme was introduced to push the industry in that direction by persuading more growers to convert. It has not succeeded, says Mr Starling. The payment – £70/ha (£28/acre) for the first two years, sliding to £25/ha (£10/acre) after year five – is too small, he believes.

"It is a pitiful amount. The budget for the first year was £1m. It costs that to remove pesticides from drinking water each day. Admittedly that is not all from agriculture, but it puts it into perspective."

The ministry has been "quite supportive", he says. "They wanted three times as many producers as a result of the scheme. If it becomes clear this will not happen, we may get them to increase the funding."

He is encouraged by the number of larger farms now taking an interest. "We have several big estates which are trying some of their land in organic production. The good lifers have gone. We have got the markets and there is not enough produce. If others can do it, you can, too. Come and discuss it."