Oxford unit finds profits are sweeter
PROFITS generated by an organic wheat and beef unit far exceed those from conventional land farmed by Charles Peers in Oxfordshire.
"I have farmed organically for 15-20 years very successfully and very profitably," he says. "I have a 200-acre organic block where wheat yields average 1.5-2t/acre. Demand for organic cereals is growing fast as a lot of livestock are coming into the organic sector which will have to be fed. Demand from pig and poultry enterprises has gone through the roof."
Mr Peers, chairman of Organic Farmers and Growers, says there will always be more demand for organic cereals than organic livestock due to vegetarianism.
Essex farmer Simon Radbourne recently took over management of a 16ha (40-acre) organic block on Rhône-Poulencs 60ha (150-acre) farm at Ongar.
"I have been encouraged by wheat yields which have averaged 5-6t/ha," says Mr Radbourne who grows 200ha (500 acres) of conventional wheat on 360ha (900 acres) on two other farms in the county.
"This is my first experience with organic farming. If at this time next year all is well I may consider converting a small part of the main farm."
Charles Tabor has 800ha (2000 acres) in Essex and is considering setting up an organic unit. "I grow 1200 acres of wheat and am interested in the organic approach. I feel it may be the way to go. The prospect of a guaranteed market and premium prices appeals. If I start I would probably put in a 100 to 150-acre block, but this would have to slot into our existing system."
The Organic Conversion Scheme, introduced to cushion the economic impact of starting an organic operation, has triggered plenty of interest from arable farmers.
On top of IACS area payments the scheme offers:
Year 1: £225/ha + £300 a farm.
Year 2: £135/ha + £200 a farm.
Year 3: £50/ha + £100 a farm.
Year 4: £20/ha
Year 5: £20/ha.
Demand offers market chance for UK growers
By Edward Long
DEMAND for organic wheat outstrips supply and is sucking in imports, providing a market opportunity for UK growers.
That was the main message from an Essex conference organised by Chelmsford millers W & * Marriage & Sons. Since the firm began producing organic flour in 1987 demand has grown steadily and now accounts for 3% of its total flour output.
"We want more farmers growing organic wheat as we need the raw material for our flour and animal feeds," says George Marriage. "We would like to do that with local farmers from whom we buy conventional wheat, rather than hauling organic wheat from the four corners of the country."
Marriages first choice varieties include breadmakers Hereward, Spark, Mercia and Axona. Second choices are Caxton, Malacca, Soissons, Avalon and, where grown for organic thatching straw, Maris Widgeon.
Buying specifications for organic feed wheat are specific weight 72kg/hl, 15% moisture, and maximum 3% admixture. For milling the specific weight rises to 76kg/hl with 9% protein and minimum Hagberg 250. The breadmaking protein threshold is 10%.
"Organic bread wheat is today worth £215/t compared with £83 for conventional. Organic feed wheat, where available, is worth £200/t against £72 for conven-tional. So the price differential, 2.5-3 times, has increased from 1.5 times a few years ago," says Mr Marriage.
BIG RISE IN SALES
The past 10 years has seen a dramatic increase in sales of organic foods in the UK. According to the Organic Food Federations Julian Wade, in 1993 these totalled £100m. By 1997 they had risen to £260m, and by 2002 they are predicted to exceed £1bn and account for 7-8% of the total food market.
Its not so difficult to convert as feared
THERE are fewer problems in going organic than often feared, according to independent consultant Lister Noble, who until recently ran an organic operation on Rhône-Poulencs farm at Ongar.
"Anyone intending to switch to organic should start relatively small and select the best fields for conversion," he advises. "The prospect of two years reduced income means it is probably best to do a bit at a time. Avoid the trap of starting with set-aside as this is usually on the worst land."
Mr Noble suggests a rotation involving combinable crops as most suitable for beginners on heavy soil.
After two years conversion with a grass/clover mix, wheat is probably the best first crop to exploit the fertility. A spring variety is preferable as it avoids ploughing the fertility-building ley in the autumn and reduces nutrient leaching. It is followed by winter oats, winter beans, and another wheat or oats before returning to a ley.
Organic wheat yields about 60% of a conventional crop. In his time at Ongar he averaged 5.3-5.5t/ha (2.1-2.2t/acre).
NIAB is holding two seed quality seminars aimed at growers planning to farm-save seed this season. Topics will include seed treatments, mobile processing, seed-borne diseases, seed sampling, and testing for germination, viability and vigour. The first is in Cambridge on Apr 27, and the second at Harper Adams College on June 8. Cost £60 inc lunch. Phone NIAB on 01223-342210.
Common sense is the key to system success
ALTHOUGH a high level of management is needed to operate a successful organic system, much of it is common-sense agronomy, says independent agronomist Debbie Wedge, who believes many of the techniques are old ones which have been forgotten.
"The aim should be to prevent problems arising by adopting good husbandry and not trying to eradicate a problem but reduce its impact," she says. "Fields may look untidy at times but they cannot be expected to be as clean as in a conventional system."
Delaying autumn cereal drilling cuts the risks from blackgrass and BYDV, and stale seed-beds can decrease the weed threat. Alternating winter and spring crops provides another opportunity to hit weeds with timely cultivations.
"Ploughing reduces blackgrass populations by an average of 60% because 90% of seeds are in the top 3cm of soil. By delaying drilling wheat from early September until mid-October populations will be reduced by 40%. A 20-30% increase in seed rate will then help the crop compete with weeds."
The best way to control slugs in an organic system is to deter attacks by producing a firm fine seed-bed to reduce the pests movement. Thorough cultivations expose eggs and larvae to predators and desiccation, she adds. *
Ready-rolled, chilled pastry sheets developed with a £30,000 HGCA Enterprise Award have boosted demand for conventionally grown wheat by 5000t a year, according to Michael Bell of Northants baker Saxby.