Organic challenge puts fun back into farming
When a leading East Anglian farmer acquired an organic
enterprise eyebrows were raised. Would it be profitable was
the key question. Edward Long reports on progress to date
A SOLID start in a difficult year when some valuable lessons were learned, is Suffolk arable farmer Chris Browns verdict on his first 12 months of operating a mixed organic system.
He and son Rupert, who run a large conventional enterprise, avoided the two-year conversion process by buying a neighbouring farm that has been organic for many years.
Last October, John Brown & Son took over 155ha (382 acre) of rolling farmland at Hawstead Place near Bury St Edmunds. It had been owned and run by organic enthusiast Ben Powell, with most of the land converted in the 1980s and early 1990s.
"This is a totally different business from our conventional farming operations," says Chris, who runs 1093ha (2700 acres) for the family company and is a partner in the Arista Farming Partnership that operates over 2240ha (5530 acres).
"It is a real challenge, it has brought some fun back into farming, and it is already clear there are real profit opportunities to be had."
When the farm came onto the market, Mr Brown did not particularly want to take on an organic system, but he wanted the land because it is in a strategically important location – he farmed on two sides of it and its purchase would square the block.
Prior to the sale, the farm had been operated as a non-intensive system with a small single suckler beef herd, long-term leys, wheat, triticale and beans. That has provided big benefits.
Although the soil type ranges from clay loam at the worst to sandy clay loam at best, the land works like light land. It is in superb order and very friable, so achieving a good seed-bed tilth is not difficult, says Chris.
The farm includes 121ha (300 acres) of arable land, with an average field size of just 6.5ha (16 acres) compared with 24ha (60 acres) on the Browns conventionally farmed Church Farm next door. There are also big hedges, wide conservation headlands and four mediaeval carp ponds.
On taking possession, it was split into five 24ha (60 acre) blocks each comprising several fields and a five-year rotation was adopted.
Care was taken not to compromise the cropping sequence and fertility built up over 20 years. This was achieved by adding a supplementary fertility booster, a flying pig herd comprising 186 sows and outdoor fattening unit, contracted in via the Arista link.
The herd is kept on a white clover ley used in year one of the rotation to provide the fertility base for the next four years. To add value to the enterprise, gilts will be sold as breeding stock for spin-off organic herds.
After 12 months, the pigs will be moved to the next block in the rotation cycle and the land rented out for organic carrot, parsnip and onion production. Due to rising demand for organic vegetables and scarcity of converted land, the rental value is about twice as much as conventional land.
Growers taking it on have a source of "organic" irrigation water from the carp ponds fed from springs and drainage ditches on the farm.
The plan is to then switch into wheat. But due to the lateness of root harvesting and need to level the land, avoid blackgrass problems and minimise ergot risk, spring wheat Paragon was grown for seed this year.
The land is not allowed to remain uncropped for long. As soon as vegetables are cleared mustard seed is spun on to provide green manure for the following cereal crop and suppress weeds.
After the cereal crop in year three, sugar beet is drilled in year four, before a return to cereals in year five.
The year five wheat will be undersown with a herb and grass mixture containing chicory and ryegrass for the return of the following pigs. If they fail to provide sufficient fertility to support the rest of the cash-generating rotation, beans drilled on 50cm (20in) wide rows will be grown instead of wheat in the final year of the cycle.
• 155ha unit acquired last year.
• Puts fun back into farming.
• Clear profit potential.
• Five-year rotation – white clover ley with pigs, rented out for veg, cereal, beet, undersown cereal.
• Weeds biggest threat.
• Labour costs a key concern.
Organic farming, including this sugar beet, helps put some fun back into farming, says Chris Brown. There are technical challenges aplenty, but premium markets offer the prospect of respectable returns.
Above: Organic pigs help boost fertility at Hawstead Place, near Bury St Edmunds.
Right: Weed control is challenging, requiring high labour inputs in specialist crops, Chris Brown isevaluating some novel mechanical techniques.
Far right: Organic Paragon spring wheat seed worth over £215/t helps compensate for lower yeilds.
Weeds pose most troublesome threat to cereals
THE biggest lesson from the first year is that weeds are the greatest threat to organic cereals, points out Mr Brown. "With absolutely no herbicides available some mechanical means of keeping crops clean is vital."
Having seen a weeder at work, he decided inter-row hoeing looked a much better option, but meant wide rows.
This year, the 49ha (120 acre) cereal crop was drilled on 33cm (13in) rows. "This was too wide, so we will be reducing it down to 10in for next season," says Mr Brown.
Having visited Belgium to see the Steketee vision-guided tractor hoe at work, he was so impressed with its performance he bought one. It works well in thistles and docks, which a weeder tine would just knock about. It also does a better job with blackgrass, wild oats and well-grown charlock, he says.
A good cereal seed-bed is easily achieved because the land works down well, while delayed drilling prevents blackgrass from building up to the extent it threatens yield.
"Drilling last seasons wheat was delayed beyond the ideal mid-March time due to the awful weather. We finally got it in on May 1. It was tractor hoed three times so was as clean as a whistle."
Wide rows also allowed air to circulate through the crop to dry up disease and although it looked a poor crop all season it yielded 3.2t/ha (1.3t/acre). With the grain worth over £200/t and straw for organic mushrooms £80/t, it turned in a higher gross margin than a 10t/ha (4t/acre) conventional winter wheat crop, says Mr Brown.
The last time the hoe went through the crop white clover seed was spun on. Once the undersown wheat was cleared the green crop appeared through the stubble to suppress weeds, mop up residual nitrogen before winter rain could leach it, and held it until it could be ploughed down just before the following beet crop was due to be drilled.
The green cover kept the land dry and workable, seed-bed preparation was easy as the friable soil came down well with the minimum of work for a rapid turnaround.
"To achieve maximum yield of straw, we called in a contractor with a combine with conventional straw walkers. Our Claas Lexions would have mangled it making it useless. The straw yield turned out to be 0.75t/acre."
Sugar crop will help cash flow
THE sugar crop in year four of the rotation maintains the cash flow. With 24ha (60 acres) and an add-on quota of 1100t to the Arista Farming Partnerships existing 4500t of conventional sugar, the farm has more than 10% of the UKs 2001 season organic sugar crop.
"Beet is grown on 20in wide rows and because it does not grow particularly big a higher than normal population is needed, so 10-15% more seed is drilled."
Rapid establishment and early canopy closure is vital to suppress weeds. "This years crop was drilled 4-5 weeks later than intended in late April. It got away as quickly as the rest of our beet but eventually fell behind the conventional crop."
For the hoe to operate in beet every other unit was removed. It did a good job taking out weeds from between the rows but did not tackle any within the rows.
Hand labour, costing £430/ha (£172/acre) was needed to keep the crop reasonably clean. It was clear this costly job had to be mechanised.
The plan is to strip down a time-expired beet harvester to the basic frame and use it as a tool carrier. The hoe will be mounted at the front, a weeder fitted with long whippy tines at the back, with a seed broadcasting unit slotted in amidships. Long weeder tines are able to flick small weeds out of a row without removing the beet.
Large hedges, wide conservation headlands, and beetle banks encourage insect predators and no aphids were seen in the crop this season. *