LOWER YIELDS and pressure on prices mean profitable conversion to organic vegetable production is a complex process, according to results of a DEFRA-funded study.
Farms with little prior experience of vegetable production, expanded too quickly, or grew new, unfamiliar crops were the ones that encountered difficulties, the HDRA* organic vegetable conversion project found.
Organic yields were some 30% lower than conventional on average, but prices around double those of conventional produce tended to compensate for this, said HDRA senior business analyst, Chris Firth.
Lower soil nutrients, lower plant densities, pest and disease losses and the fact that growers are trying to grow a much wider range of crops could all be factors behind reduced yields, he said.
“Organic growers need to be a master of everything, whereas conventional producers tend to focus more on specific crops.”
Declines in net farm income during the whole conversion period (varying from two to eight years) ranged from £150-300/ha for larger arable farms, up to £1300/ha for smaller intensive farms, results found.
“Land being taken out of production for soil fertility building could be a key reason for this fall in income. Many growers also spent considerably more on management time,” Mr Firth noted.
Organic conversion subsidies covered this fall in income for some larger farms, which were able to put land into set-aside for fertility building, whereas many smaller farms could not, he said.
Detailed findings from the ‘Conversion to Organic Field Vegetable Production’ project can be found at www.organicveg.org.uk.
*Henry Doubleday Research Association