8 March 2002

Seed grower takes swipe

at fragile organic trials

Organic farming and GM

crops were well to the fore

at last weeks NIAB

Association meeting.

Andrew Blake reports

A CALL for more growers to seize the chance of growing organic grain provoked plenty of discussion, not least that the results of trials could be very misleading.

"Wake up and go for it," advised NIABs Richard Fenwick. Two years work with a range of cereals on four organic farms have shown remarkably little disease, few lodging problems and temptingly high gross margins.

"We always suspected diseases would be a problem, but I have been really surprised at how low the levels were."

Average yields have been about half those of conventionally grown trials with winter oats suffering least on 70%.

Winter wheat output was down 66%, he said. "That probably shows how far breeding for conventional wheat production has advanced."

Nevertheless, several modern varieties, notably Claire and Deben, performed well organically, beating long-standing organic favourite Maris Widgeon by a long way. Hereward was top yielder.

Figures from John Nixs Farm Management Pocketbook indicate a gross margin advantage of £283/ha (£114/acre) from switching to organic winter wheat. "Its a handsome margin and makes you think," said Mr Fenwick.

But that related to an organic yield of 4t/ha, and wheat output in the trials ranged from 2-6t/ha, he admitted.

Yorks seed grower Tom Collier said the range masked by NIABs mean figures highlighted the "fragility" of the trials. "These results contain no assessment of the risk of going organic."

Hants merchant Robin Appel warned that organic premiums could be equally fragile, especially as more growers converted. "We should be very wary of the current high prices."

In his experience, they apply only to wheat grown organically for stone ground flour milling or barley for floor malting. "Those markets are very small."

NIAB DIRECTORS DAY

&#8226 Organic grain risky option.

&#8226 New law on OSR for seed soon.

&#8226 GM scares must reflect reality.