OPINION: What we can learn from European farmers

Europe continues to be a highly emotive subject and hardly a day goes by without a media report of the growing wave of Euroscepticism in the UK, writes Farmers Weekly arable editor, Richard Allison.

Even for farmers, Brussels is often seen negatively as the source of much red tape and unwanted rules.

Whatever your view on Europe, there are valuable lessons that UK farmers can learn from their counterparts on the other side of the English Channel.

Take companion cropping. This week we report how French farmers have developed a system using mixtures of clover and vetches in rape crops to smother weeds, help control pests and capture nitrogen. Frosts then kill off the companion plants and they release nitrogen in the spring, giving the rape a welcome boost.

UK trials suggest it could increase oilseed rape yields by up to 0.5t/ha. It may even help farmers manage crops without the two key neonicotinoid seed treatments, which can no longer be used under the temporary two year ban over fears on its impact on bee populations in flowering crops.

Further north in the Netherlands, we are also reporting how Dutch farmers are successfully reducing numbers of a key pest. Their potato cyst nematode (PCN) eradication programme was failing in the early 1990s and growers faced the prospect of being unable to viably grow the crop.

This prompted the implementation of measures including more rigorous soil sampling and pest monitoring, growing more resistant varieties and even the drastic step of growing a potato trap crop. They are now seeing real progress.

While the PCN situation is not yet as severe in the UK, a similar approach could help British growers stop the spread of a major soil pest costing the industry more than £50m a season.

The UK has a reputation of being a world leader in agricultural research. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from other countries. With an extra 0.5t/ha of rapeseed and possible big savings for potato growers on offer, the benefits are too big to ignore. Even incorporating just some of the elements into UK practices could pay off.

This is why we aim to bring you more global articles in Farmers Weekly over the coming year. We all like peering over our neighbour’s hedge to see what they are up to; sometimes it can be beneficial to look that little bit further.

(More on French OSR companion crop trials.)

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