3 September 1999

THISORGANIC CONVERT DOESNT REGRET A THING

MARKET demand was the trigger for Charles Peers to change course on his 160ha (400 acres) of light sandy loam and silty clay at Views Farm, Great Milton.

"Fifteen years ago the NFU and the government were preaching that we werent doing enough to follow the market. At the same time we had a talk by a representative from Organic Farmers and Growers. I thought they both made sense and were probably right," he says.

"We started with 50 acres of spring oats for human consumption to Mornflake. In those days there was no support, no conversion period, we just went straight in. Everything we learned was through trial and error."

Acreage and cropping gradually expanded in line with market needs and today Mr Peers and son Robert have almost half the farm down to organic crops.

"We have 50 acres in permanent pasture and the balance in rotation," Charles says.

Although some land is still undergoing conversion, they anticipate a six-year rotation, a two-year grass break followed by winter wheat, spring barley or oats, beans and then spring wheat.

Varieties are selected for disease resistance and response to low nitrogen. Spark milling wheat and Optic barley are typical choices.

"Well drill in the autumn, possibly slightly later and with a higher seed rate of 200kg/ha," says Robert. "We follow through with a mechanical weeder as often as possible. Timing is critical because we need to get the weeds when theyre small. It is possible to do this pre-emergence, but we havent been brave enough yet.

"If spring drilling, we plough in the autumn and then tine regularly over the winter as and when its greened up."

"Blackgrass isnt a problem on our soil type provided we use rotations to break the cycle. But wild oats are," admits Charles.

For this reason and cost saving, the Peers have been considering minimal cultivations this autumn.

"Weve been looking at no-till drills," says Robert. "We thought it would be a viable thing to do on organic and wouldnt bring up weed seeds. But the capital outlay might prove prohibitive." Shallow ploughing may be an alternative.

Rotation and organic manure from suckler and chicken enterprises provide fertiliser. Harvest timing is largely the same as conventional crops with yields typically a third lower. All grain is marketed through Gleadell Banks.

The Peers remains positive about the future for organic farming and believes it will be hard to saturate such a growing market. "More than ever before the public are concerned about what theyre eating," says Charles. "We have had food scares, GMOs, BSE, salmonella, E coli and now TB. "Were living in a safety-conscious, affluent society. People can and will pay a little more."

"The UK produces just 50% of the 45,000t organic wheat market," says Brian Wilburn of Gleadell Banks. "Its a very positive market out there." It is not just for wheat, he adds. There are also markets for peas, beans, oats and barley. "We can even find a home for organic sunflowers if someone wants to grow them."

Premiums are 100-140% across most crops. Specifications are as for conventional counterparts, with 10% milling wheat protein the only exception. Buy-back contracts are also available, giving farmers access to exclusive markets for malting barley and pulses, confirms Mr Wilburn. &#42